In October of 1970, as an anthem for the very first Earth Day, American singer-songwriter Tom Paxton wrote a haunting song painting a picture of the planet as it might one day be… devoid of the wonders of the natural world.
“Whose garden was this? It must have been lovely… Did it have flowers? I’ve seen pictures of flowers, and I’d love to have smelled one… Tell me again, I need to know… The forest had trees, the meadows were green, the oceans were blue, and birds really flew… Can you swear that it’s true?”
For the past 13 years of my life, I have been privileged to spend a good part of every year in a place of magnificent natural beauty. In the year 2000, when I was 19, I was on my way out of New Zealand to see what else there was. Thankfully, a series of what seemed to be chance encounters led me to make one last stop. Just days before my departure, I took a trip to the Far North of the North Island to see Gentle World’s vegan sanctuary. I had no way of knowing then that the series of events I was in the middle of would end up proving to be a pivotal point in my life, as this haven I would come to know as Shangri-La was soon to become, miraculously, my home.
New Zealand’s natural environment is impressive, and I had been in some special places, but I had never seen anything like this… Shangri-La’s hillsides are covered with regenerating forest that meets right up with the native reserve – a park that is home to trees that have stood for hundreds of years. Hidden from the rest of the world by these verdant valley walls is a magnificent expanse of open land, carved into a stunning living sculpture by two pristine rivers flowing in from the mountainside.
I didn’t realize it at first, but at the time of my visit, the fields and rivers had only recently been liberated from shackles of barbed wire fencing. This was a reminder of the land’s former life as witness to an (albeit bucolic) animal slavery operation, and it had all been lovingly removed, one post at a time, and the barbed wire banished in a gigantic burial.
I was beginning to learn that this inspired band of dedicated and hard-working individuals was deeply committed to the vegan ideal of nonviolence. I was told that along with the (literally miles of) barbed wire, they had also made it a top priority to dismantle the structures left over from the land’s animal harming past. By the time I had the chance to lay my eyes on the sites where they once stood, ‘The Wool Shed’ and ‘The Not-OK Corral’ had been transformed into orderly piles of re-useable lumber; scraps of life-as-it-once-was that might one day be used to help build life-as-it-should-be. Some of the finest pieces had been used for a beautiful fireplace mantle in the communal house – a fitting symbol of the hope to be found in somehow exorcising the terrible history of these materials by using them at the center of something so new and promising…
In this valley where we live, there are multiple rivers and streams that we drink from. You can actually immerse your body in crystal clear water, put your mouth to the surface, and drink. This is water as it is meant to be – the way Nature provides it. When I turn on the faucet, whether to drink, shower, do laundry or water the garden, spring water comes pouring out in a limitless supply. In a world where people die every day for lack of clean drinking water, I am embarrassed to admit that I take this gift of life for granted.
A set of solar panels transforms the energy from the sun into a force that actually powers the computer I am writing on. When I stop to give it a thought, which is not nearly often enough, I am reminded that it’s nothing short of a miracle.
Outside my window, an outdoor shower is fed by a coiled black pipe that lies on a black rubber mat underneath a sheet of glass. This simple device generates water so hot that it needs to be mixed with cold in order to shower with it.
How did I ever come to be so incredibly fortunate? Every day I have the opportunity to stand under the sky and bathe myself with sun-warmed spring water, surrounded by the brilliant colors of vibrant flower gardens that I care for tenderly, with my own hands.
I can’t help but wish that everyone in the world could feel this way. What a different life it would be if every man, woman and child had the opportunity to experience the wonder of nature so intimately. If they only could, I am confident that we would be united in deep awe and tremendous gratitude for this planet that somehow continues to sustain us so generously, in spite of all the abuse we have already heaped upon it.
The natural world gives so abundantly of its delights that not only does it have water to drink, air to breathe, and clean, healthy food that grows out of the ground… It also has soft, green grass on which we can walk barefoot, glorious flowers that fill the air with intoxicating fragrances, multi-colored butterflies that dance and play above our heads, birds that speak to each other in melodies and fly in that brilliant expanse of blue that we call the sky. And all this is made possible by the life-giving warmth of a magnificent sun, brightening our days with a golden light, illuminating the beauty around us.
In 2013, 13 years into my friendship with this magical wonderland I am blessed to be living in, and 43 years after Tom Paxton wrote such poignant lyrics mourning our impending loss, the loveliness of my own garden holds more meaning to me than ever. Will we always have flowers? Will the forest always have trees? Will meadows always be green? From what I hear about the possibilities, these things are not certain. At the edges of my mind that thought preys upon whatever serenity I am somehow able to maintain, and it brings with it a sadness beyond anything I can possibly express.
“You say there were breezes… I’d love to have felt one…”
And so, I will be sure to smell the flowers now, and to notice the birds in the air now, and to feel the breeze on my skin now, this very moment. At least, that way, if anyone ever says to me, ‘Tell me again, I need to know… The oceans were blue, and birds really flew…?’ I will be able to remember that yes, once upon a time, it really was true.