We forget what it was like

One afternoon in Tasmania, I remember stopping and thinking to myself,

“This is what it used to be like, back home. The trees are cacophonous with birdsong. The ground is electric with bugs. The rivers are jostling with life. You can’t take three straight steps without blundering into the path of some new animal. Back home, the ground has been paved silent, the rivers have been fished empty, the trees echo, and you could walk all day without seeing a creature that isn’t wearing clothes or blundering around in a domesticated fog.”

I sat by the side of the road, drinking water and listening to that almost overwhelming wave of insect sounds, and thought back.

When I was a kid, I used to catch crayfish down in the forest near my house, pulling them out of the little stream, inspecting them as they waved their claws around energetically, and then dropping them back in with a “plop”. I returned to that stream a few years ago and looked at it, and found no crayfish, and the rainbow sheen of industrial pollution instead. I felt sad at the time, for the loss of something that I’d assumed would always be there.

But by the side of the road in Tasmania, I felt even worse about that memory. I was suddenly, overwhelmingly clear to me that the departed signs of life that I enjoyed as a child and mourned as an adult were themselves a meager shadow of a diversity and fertility that I never even knew about, driven out and poisoned by people I never met, who either didn’t care – or more likely didn’t even suspect – that their environment could become so quiet, and empty, and would eventually be haunted by near-invisible chemical ghosts that would drive even their own children away.

I had made the same mistake they did.

That trip, that day on the trip, was a rude awakening. One can’t be immersed in an environment like that and not be overwhelmed by the contrast between there and home. You think you know what to expect, because you read “The Lorax” when you were a kid, or maybe “Walden”, and you can relate to what he was saying in an abstract way, but then it hits you in the face – and the ears, and the nose, and the lungs, all at once – and you realize that it’s not just a philosophy or a political stance or an ideology, it’s a physical process, and you are directly involved in it, regardless of what you think. It is happening to you.

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