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Feature Story
Babe in the Woods
Page 3

At graduation on the last Thursday of the semester, we all gathered in the Social Room for our final meeting. Willard invited everyone to speak one last time, and almost every person -- teacher, student, and staff -- seized the chance. I nestled in between two friends to listen to Willard. He told us that one of Chewonki's main goals was to make us prudent consumers, and that in order to do so, we would have to forge deep ties with our friends and family -- to form, well, a community. Society tears at those bonds, and this makes many of us very lonely. We wind up buying more and wasting more and throwing away lots of useless items in an attempt to fill the emptiness with things.

For Willard, and now myself, being an environmentalist is not just about finding a pet cause; it's a way of life. Before Chewonki, I wasn't ready to make the sacrifices necessary to embrace this ideal. I went about my merry way, fueling capitalism, buying crap I never looked at twice, being generally ignorant of my negative impact on the land. The many things I bought created a strain on the environment -- the energy and resources required to make them and the space they occupied after they were thrown out. But I thought they were just so important.

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I first noticed a huge shift in my thinking when I came home from Maine for spring break filled with an insatiable urge to clean this useless stuff out of my room. I didn't know why then, but listening to Willard on graduation evening helped me understand this impulse and put it in a larger context. Chewonki and the people there, beyond my wildest dreams, gave me a solid foundation that encouraged me to change. My base was a community of students, teachers, ospreys, house sparrows, a beautiful calf named Ely, newborn lambs, farmers, and a stubborn pony named Braego. So, as it turned out, Willard was right.

THE MOM Wendy returned home from Maine a changed person. Chewonki had inspired her; she had also had a lot of fun. But she was a darker person: Some of what she had learned about the state of the earth scared her. Global warming, for example, was no longer an abstraction but an imminent danger. She had heard the message that her teachers were trying to get across -- that it was her responsibility to be a caretaker of her environment, even on the least glamorous levels. She was not only carrying home her Frappuccino cups but also brooding about whether she was thoughtless for drinking out of plastic cups at all.

Housework no longer appalled her. Maine Coast had helped her to see that taking care of the environment included cleaning up the place she lived. When I asked for a volunteer to clean the bathroom, she asked which cleansers and sponges to use and where we stored them. That may sound like a small thing, but I expect there are mothers of teenagers not reading this sentence; they've dashed to their computers to search for the Maine Coast Web site in hope that their own children might come to this same awareness. (Wendy did not, however, become an environmental saint. She didn't actually scrub that bathroom for three days.)

She has stuck to her commitment to vegetarianism. When I pointed out how aggravating it would be to cook two different meals each night, she countered, "I could never look Ely in the face again if I ate another hamburger." That slowed me down. At parents' weekend, I had seen Ely the calf -- an animal so well cared for that his chocolate-brown fur gleamed even in the low light of the barn. I wasn't sure I could enjoy a hamburger anymore either. The simple acts of spending time in a barn, tending an ornery pony, watching a calf grow, created ripples that were spreading out and touching other lives.

The grownups at Maine Coast had asked my daughter not just to protect the environment but to lead the considered life. Seeing her struggle with this new awareness, I was struck by how frightening it is to be young and an environmentalist now. By contrast, I don't think my biology and chemistry teachers ever mentioned an environmental issue, and they were thoughtful men. Forty years later, Willard has to talk about the decimation of forests, the diminishing supply of oil, the scarcity of water, global warming; the list certainly does not stop there. In the face of this greater anxiety, I think my job as a parent is to encourage Wendy to believe that she can make a difference.

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OnEarth. Fall 2007
Copyright 2007 by the Natural Resources Defense Council