E S S A Y S ,   A R T I C L E S   A N D   R E V I E W S

We Can All Do Something
by Dan Turner

EarthLight Magazine #42, Summer 2001
( click here for )


When I was nine or ten, I saw several older boys in a friend's backyard surrounding something on the ground. It was a snake, about a foot and a half long, smooth and green. And they were about to kill him. I didn't know what was coming. One of the boys poured something on the snake, and I froze: it was lighter fluid. I did not know what to do, whether to shout or run or rush in to rescue the snake. What I did was stand there and watch as a match hit the fluid and flame engulfed the snake, setting it to writhing in agony for long seconds until it was dead. Its mouth stretched into a rictus of an unheard scream which I made audible as I ran into the alley and was sick.

The death of that snake represented a cruelty so wanton that it stole, for a time, the closeness that once was there between those boys and me. Yet they were normally good kids, but something happened that moment when one of them had captured a grass snake in a nearby prairie and brought it to his backyard. Some group aberration infected those boys, and they went beyond what none of them would ever do individually.

After it happened, the shock set in. Each of them left alone, I'm sure, with the image of the small charred corpse troubling their minds. I was no better, because I had done nothing. All my concern for the snake, my shock, and eventual horror were contained and not acted upon. And I could have done something!

The image of what happened that day has remained with me nearly sixty years. Every so often I see the burnt snake, its jaw frozen in a silent scream. As I have matured, that image has become for me the symbol of wild Nature and all her species which cannot protest their destruction. I can hear the bellow of ancient redwoods as they thunder to the ground after their bodies are sliced through. I sense the moan of the Earth as she is drilled and gouged for the greed of oil and coal to congest the air with poisons.

In the light of all this, I still see myself standing near the snake asking: What can I do? Only this time the answer is there, clear and strong-"Something! We can all do something!" This was the urging of Archbishop Romero of El Salvador to all those seeking a just peace in that country's brutal war. This is the answer for each of us, if we want to stop the destruction and pollution of our Earth from the ill-conceived and short-lived plans that feed an oil addiction that is killing us.

"Something" is not a helpless response. It is a first step. It is a phone call to a Congressperson; a letter, fax, or e-mail to a newspaper or politician; a donation to a group working to preserve the environment. That "something" can be our own decision "to live simply that others [all species] may simply live." A hesitant step is all that's required to become empowered.

John Muir once said: "When we tug at a single thing in Nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world." We are never alone in our efforts, however humble, there are many others who love and fear as we do, they are doing something too. And then there's the Spirit who lives and moves and breathes through all of her children. She can guide our desire to do something into an empowered path that nurtures the Earth and Nature who have so long nurtured us.

I recall that the boys in that scene from childhood were my friends. They weren't evil, though what they did was terribly wrong. I think if I had spoken out that day the snake would have been spared. Maybe not. But I believe that other creatures would never suffer from any of those boys again. The aftermath of what they did was burned into their imaginations.

We've got "boys" in Washington from all parties who need to hear from us about their plans and policies for the Earth, for the environment, and for us, the citizens. We simply cannot look back again and see the Earth suffering as if the decisions of men [sic] did not cause it. What happens to the Earth derives from the decisions of the leaders of the countries to which we all belong. But we are citizens and not just consumers. We weren't put here to bask in indolent contentment but to struggle for the rights, justice, and beauty of all the rest of the world-including ourselves. We can do better than those we elect; we can change the world. There are movements afoot that can use a hand. We are not powerless. We can all do something!


Dan Turner is a writer living in Oakland and a member of EarthLight's Editorial Committee.


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