I fancied myself an environmental crusader when I was twelve. This interest in activism was surprising given the fact that I grew up in the sleepy community of North Berwick, Maine, a town so small that it was home to more deer than people. There the realities of extinction, smog, and hazardous waste felt as distant as fiction—that was until I read an article in Rolling Stone introducing me to Julia Butterfly Hill and urging me to join the movement for change.
From that article, I learned Julia Butterfly Hill (JBH) was a young, brave, and remarkably beautiful activist who had climbed a California redwood to protest clearcutting. She had lived among the redwood’s branches for over two years, cooking meals on a tiny gas stove and cocooning herself in a sleeping bag to make it through the long, cold nights so common in the Pacific Northwest. During the day, she endured the taunts of loggers who threatened to cut down the tree she was trying so valiantly to save. I couldn’t imagine anyone more glamorous.
I stared at her photograph, her warm eyes imploring. Her tousled hair and dirty hemp necklace made me question my own fashion choices, and suddenly the Champion sweatshirt I had lobbied so long and hard for seemed cheap, phony. I had found my new hero.
Over dinner that night, I told my parents about JBH—her endurance, her bravery, her miraculous treetop pottying.
“Stupid tree huggers,” my father retorted over the meat and potatoes that my mother had prepared for us. “I’ll tell you what I would do if I lived out there. I would take my chainsaw, walk up to that tree, and cut it right down.”
I started at my plate, which naturally did not include animal flesh—I was no hypocrite. Then I unleashed what little power I had and swallowed my fighting words along with my mashed potatoes. I made a silent promise to act in solidarity with JBH.
My maiden voyage in parental defiance began with training myself to be more like her. This involved some major lifestyle changes. No longer could I traffic in peel-off nail polish, Guess jeans, and Hypercolor t-shirts. No longer could I spend my afternoons lip synching to the latest Whitesnake album or watching Santa Barbara. No, I needed to cultivate a new self-image, one that would better fit the Earth Firster look I was going for. What I needed was to be hugging a tree—literally. Maybe I could even chain myself to one. This is my destiny, I thought.
So when one of my teachers asked us to write a list of goals for the future, I was ready for action. These were my aspirations: “Plant twenty trees. Donate money to Greenpeace. Pick up trash in my neighborhood.” I didn’t mention that artfully ripped jeans and a Baja hoodie were also a part of my plan, but surely this was obvious to my teacher. Hadn’t he seen the pictures? Peaceful protest was all about looking the part.
It soon became clear that my former identity as penniless twelve-year-old would be a problem. Buying saplings required money. Charitable donations also required money. I realized that there were no liquid assets flowing through that pipe dream of mine. Nevertheless, I was at that crossroads between childhood naivete and adolescent angst, and it was a mix that made me clear-eyed in my resolve. I knew I would find a way to do right by JBH, and so I turned to the trusty woods of my neighborhood.
Despite my rural setting, I did not feel a deep enough connection with nature—at least not deep enough to honor my hero’s legacy. The miles of trees surrounding my home were not sufficient. I needed to have a face-to-face encounter with a beast. I felt that if I could look a wild animal in the eye, I would understand something important about myself and my relationship to the natural world. So it seemed like Lady Luck had my back when I discovered, among my father’s oily tools, a tape entitled, “Distressed Rabbit Call.” It was as if I had been chosen. I popped that tape into my boom box, perched it on my shoulder, and like a valley girl channeling Rachel Carson, headed for the forest.
There, with the late afternoon sun filtering through a canopy of pine trees, I blasted the sound of a bleating bunny into the woods. I tossed my recently crimped hair over my shoulder, looked about the circle of trees, and waited. I waited for a fox. I waited for a coyote. I waited for a bobcat to slink around a tree trunk and tell me something worthy of reporting to my girlfriends at our next New Kids on the Block dance session. I waited until the batteries of my tape player started to fail and then plodded back toward my house, carefully stepping over rocks and roots, ignoring the squirrels shouting, “Up here!” from the treeline—those scraggly woodrats with their feathery tails weren’t the real Wild America.
The weight of the boom box heavy on my shoulder, I entered the grassy expanse of my parents’ backyard. The old grill stood open on the deck, as if in laughter, mocking my failure. Dejected, I switched the bunny tape with some early Madonna, hoping “Lucky Star” would lift my spirits. If I couldn’t commune with a wild animal, at least I could be soothed by the promise that the coming starlight would make everything alright. I studied the squawking jays, hoping they could provide the answers evading my prefrontal cortex.
I returned to my original list and contemplated my choices. Planting trees was out. Donating money was out. Perhaps I should have included encouraging my family to recycle on that list, but practical goals weren’t for revolutionary girls like me. Practical goals were for squares who didn’t know how to think outside of their square little boxes. I apparently couldn’t attract a wolf; nor could I inhabit a giant sequoia like the captivating Julia Butterfly Hill. This was the Pine Tree State, after all. But at least one of my goals remained: I could pick up trash in my neighborhood.
To that end, I recruited my neighborhood friend, Marianne. Marianne was short and doe-eyed with lashes so heavy that it was a miracle she was able to keep her lids open. She also sported sparkling headgear in broad daylight. I, on the other hand, had enough sense to wear my headgear only at night, although by day, my braces and lip bumper collected enough food to draw flies. Together, we were the new face of change.
Though Marianne and I typically spent our afternoons enjoying bottomless bowls of Corn Pops or directing the crude fornication rites of Barbie and Ken, today was different. Today we were ready to leave our childlike activities behind and blossom into freethinking activists. JBH had called us to a higher purpose. With determination, Marianne and I purloined trash bags from our parents’ utility cabinets and bravely journeyed to the streets of rural Maine.
We pedaled our trusty Huffys to the edge of the neighborhood, our eyes on the road as trees overtook the roadside. No longer did the cars creep by as we pedaled—instead they zoomed, heartlessly spraying our exposed skin with sand. The shoulder that had given us protection disappeared and was replaced with sand that shifted dangerously under our tires. The time had come to dismount our steads and begin our charitable work.
Mother Nature—or maybe it was JBH?—whispered her encouragement from the surrounding pines. The planet needed us, that much was clear, as we quickly found that the ditches were a treasure trove of broken Bud Light bottles, yellowed cigarette butts, and strangely elongated balloons. It was the perfect booty for two budding bleeding hearts.
As the default manager, I considered it my duty to direct Marianne to any nearby litter. I pointed out a sun-bleached Skittles bag that peeked out from a bed of oak leaves, and she scuttled into the ditch to retrieve it. I found an empty bottle of Mountain Dew loitering alongside the road and stuffed it into my bag. My eyes scoured the roadside, eagle-eyed—mindful that an eagle that might actually be watching and evaluating our endeavor—when I saw a strange blotch of gray on the other side of the road.
“Marianne,” I called, “check this out.”
Marianne scuttled across the street, her trash bag groaning as she dragged it across the asphalt. She sidled alongside me; then we took a breath and reckoned with our discovery. Lain low in the ditch was a wild dog, perhaps a coyote. It was frozen as if running, jaws open, lips pulled back, seemingly ready to attack. A plastic streamer that had caught in the creature’s fang danced in the wind. The gray-brown fur had started to rot, exposing ghastly ribs with an empty Marlboro box nestled inside. The body rested in a bed of leaflitter and actual litter. We stared. We had not been prepared for this.
“What should we do?” I asked her.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“I don’t think we should touch it. Don’t dead animals have germs?”
“Yeah,” said Marianne, mesmerized.
“I know what I’ll do. I’ll call animal control when we get home. They’ll come pick this up.” I felt certain this was the JBH-approved decision.
We went on to dispose of Burger King wrappers, styrofoam Dunkin Donuts cups, and finally, what remained of our attention span. I wish I could say that our legs grew tired from toiling for hours; I wish I could report that the sight of the dead coyote drove us back to the comfort of our Strawberry Shortcake-themed bedrooms, but the truth is that we grew bored. Our twenty-three minutes of altruism were up. Apparently activism called for an endurance that eclipsed our desire to do good.
Vowing that we would return soon to finish our good deed for JBH, we left our trash bags in the ditch, where they haunted the country roads like sightless plastic ghosts. We bid farewell to Rural Route 130 and mounted our bicycles, eager to pedal back to civilization, otherwise known as our television sets, where we planned to catch the end of Oprah. We might have even had enough time to gorge on Cheez-its before heading up to my room, hoping to find the right statement belts to complement our new peace-sign t-shirts.
Shana Genre is an educator, poet, and humorist who lives in Portland, ME with her husband and two children. She studied writing at the University of Maine at Farmington. Her works have appeared widely including in McSweeney’s, The Belladonna Comedy, and in Balancing Act 2: An Anthology of Poems by Fifty Maine Women, for which her poems were selected for the Editor’s Choice prize.