The Way of the Eco-Warrior

ESSAY

By D. CAMERON LAWRENCE

Growing up in southern New England in the 1960s and ’70s—pre-sprawl—I had what many children today do not have: a birthright of outdoor adventure. We opened our doors to a huge, undivided landscape of green fields, tumbling brooks, hummocked marshes and quiet woods. My little brother and I roamed the outdoors like young Balboas, discovery around every bend in a stream. It seemed to us then that our landscape was without boundary and unowned, a freedom that gave us the chance to explore nature and develop a lifelong affinity for the outdoors.

That is, until the day we learned what “progress” could take away. I was 11 years old. At the edge of the marsh where on summer afternoons we cut cattails and listened for red-winged blackbirds, a hundred trees were marked with orange tape, like a herd of branded cattle. I’m not sure how, but we knew what it meant: chain saws were set to attack. It was as though someone had sucker-punched us right in our guts. My brother and I loved those trees, the birds they sheltered, how their falling leaves made a crunchy floor every fall, the way the grove got squishy underfoot in spring, its sweet, foresty summer smell.

There was nothing to do but mount a counterattack. The next day, clad in heavy clothing and boots, we ripped as much tape off the trees as we could reach.

The trees went down anyway. Soon rural Connecticut became suburban Connecticut, a mix of houses, stores and traffic, and the spiritual refuge of two little kids disappeared.

As an adult, I moved to Louisville, Kentucky, and the same thing I’d witnessed in Connecticut started happening here. More and more development cut into the land like cookies into buttery dough. So I made a vow. Every time someone destroyed a farm, a field or a tract of woods for a cluster of fast-food joints or a big-box store, I would boycott the business. Not for a day, or a week, but forever. It was like closing the barn door after the horse got out, I understand, but at least I’d keep a few nickels out of those corporate pockets.

I stuck to my guns until, one day, as my husband and I were driving to visit his mother on the family farm in central Kentucky, my sunglasses broke. It was one of those days where the sunlight is so bright you can hardly open your eyes. The only store we would pass was a mega-chain built just a few months before on top of what had been a farm field. I resented the store because I had loved that field’s beauty—its swaying grasses in the summer and the big round bales it held after the hay was harvested in the early fall. I loved the bird songs I heard as we passed.

My husband knew of my vow to boycott. “Do you want me to stop?” he asked.

I breathed in, then let out a big sigh. “Oh, hell,” I said.

He pulled into the parking lot. I walked into a very, very big box of a building. I found the customer service desk and stopped to ask where the sunglasses were. The clerk pointed. “All the way on the other side of the store.”

Stuff was everywhere—racks and racks and shelves of it. Pop music was blaring. I felt disoriented in the fluorescent light. All the shoppers looked like they were in some kind of a trance. I began to sweat, and I felt like I was going to hyperventilate.

I started speed-walking; I might be about to compromise my principles, but I was going to do it quickly and get out, doggone it.

There! I spied the sunglasses a hundred feet away. But before I got to the display, I stopped short. It hit me as though I’d walked right into the store’s concrete wall. Here I was, striding over the very ghost of the field I used to admire. But for this store and its massive parking lot, I’d be smelling freshly cut hay and hearing bluebirds. I might be peaceful and happy, the way I used to feel when John and I drove past the farm that used to be here. Instead, I was trapped in the bowels of a warehouse with a headache from bad music and weird lighting.

I turned on my heel and almost ran my escape. When I got outside, I stopped to catch my breath. And there I stood, sans sunglasses, squinting in the blinding sun, one little eco-warrior awash in a sea of asphalt and barely visible among the cars, wondering just where the bluebirds had flown.

A native of Connecticut, D. Cameron Lawrence is a writer and producer whose essays and features have appeared in The Washington Post, Health, Ladies’ Home Journal, The Hartford Courant, Notre Dame Magazine and NPR’s Kitchen Window. She is a recipient of the George Foster Peabody Award and a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.


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