I work at a nature center. I feel especially anxious when I’m trying to empower young people to believe that it’s not hopeless, and I don’t always believe that.
What do you do when you start to feel like that?
I go for a walk in the woods, but I know too much to just go for a walk in the woods.
H began by setting aside an hour in her day to imagine the worst: her woods withering, emptying, growing silent, trees leafless at the height of summer, standing like gravestones with nothing left alive to eat them and break them down. The air dry, her mouth dry. When she opened her eyes she was almost surprised and fully humbled to see rain dampening the leaves outside her window, though the air was too warm and too soft for November.
At the Center a class followed her around–20 students fourteen years old or so, some of them with little moustaches or hunched shoulders, some bright-eyed, one with a leg brace, some of them clearly bored, some still caught on the last thing they looked at or the thing before that. One of them said, “Miss, does that mean it’s the end of the world?” He sounded serious.
H took a breath. She said, “Probably not the whole world. The world is pretty smart and pretty complicated. But let’s say I’m wrong. Let’s say that most of the humans are going to die pretty soon and a lot of what’s normal right now is going to go away. What do you want to do while you’re still here? What matters to you and what maybe doesn’t matter anymore?”
One kid whispered something to his friend, who snorted and snickered into his hand. Another kid rolled his eyes at them. Two girls stared at H luminously, each waiting for the other to speak. From the back of the clump, by the turtle tanks, a voice said cautiously, “I would take one a them spaceship jawns and go look for another planet.”
“Stupid!” scolded another, thinner voice. “How you gonna know how to fly it?” She poked her head around a friend’s shoulder to face H. “Miss, I wouldn’t worry about like getting into college and like getting a job. Maybe I would go to California so I could see it before the end of the world.”
“How you gonna call people stupid if it’s the end of the world. I wouldn’t be rude like that, that’s the last thing you gonna do on this earth, is be rude?” Now the kids were talking. They would tell their moms not to pay rent anymore, they said. One boy said he would wear whatever he wanted. One girl said she would punch her stepdad in the face. They would quit school and just chill with their grandma, or they would just walk around with their friends, or they would just come out here, Miss, and look at the stars all night and wait. What about you, Miss, would you let the turtles out, if you knew you were gonna die and they were gonna die?
It was getting to be night now, the early darkness at odds with the late warmth, and she walked them and their teachers out to the bus. “Hear the crickets?” she asked them. “They should be asleep by now.” They all stood and listened.