Julie Dunlap: To College in a Catastrophe

Author Julie Dunlap’s essay in Facing the Change, “Annapolis Bus Ride,” reflects upon her young son Eli’s experiences at a climate change rally in the context of wider questions of children’s psychological and spiritual development in a world in crisis. In this new essay, Julie explores these issues further as her daughter Sarah leaves for college. 

To College in a Catastrophe

Imagine Henry Thoreau’s mother, trying to pack him up for Harvard in 1833.  “Simplify, schmimplify,” Mrs. Thoreau might have exhorted her abstemious son. “At least take a change of socks and long johns.”

No such resistance to consumption afflicted my daughter, Sarah, as we shopped for college last summer. A pile of “necessities” grew in her bedroom, including but not limited to a Powerbook, extra-long sheets and comforter, assorted instant soups, mugs, posters, shoes and more shoes, and a shower caddy with a startling array of bath products.  To Sarah, the collection seemed an expression of delight in her imminent adventure.  For me, the proliferating acquisitions were a bulwark against my own insecurities; even at that late date, I feared, I had failed to prepare my child for her future.

My defenses took a shuddering blow when her college Facebook page urged a reading assignment for incoming freshmen:  Field Notes from a Catastrophe, by Elizabeth Kolbert.  My teenage perusal of Walden immersed me in images of Thoreau’s experiment in the pre-industrial New England woods, but through Kolbert, Sarah would encounter a much darker vision: a post-warming world of vanishing species, churning hurricanes, and shriveling ice sheets. According to the journalist’s muster of experts, the climate change crisis is neither potential nor impending but upon us.  Is Sarah ready for a planet that Kolbert succinctly describes as melting?

Protecting one’s offspring from traumatic information is de rigueur for most parents.  I prefer to think of it not as withholding the truth but as preserving childhood.  On September 11, 2001, many adults sheltered young ears, as I did my kindergartener’s, from tragic news of the Twin Towers and Pentagon. The appropriate ages to broach disturbing or horrific subjects is a matter for debate, as I realized when a teacher assigned Sarah’s 10-year-old sister the task of printing internet photos of skeletal Holocaust victims,  but surely some level of maturity is required to cope with Kolbert’s haunting eyewitness reports.  An Inuit hunter, who has been observing climate change accelerate since before Sarah was born, says, “Our children may not have a future. . . .  It’s not just happening in the Arctic.  It’s going to happen all over the world.  The whole world is going too fast.”

“Surely joy is the condition of life,” wrote Thoreau in an essay celebrating the wilds of Massachusetts.  Though convinced about global warming, I also believe in biophilia, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson’s theory that humans are hardwired to need an intimate connection with non-human nature. For years my family let me lure them outdoors, away from all electronic temptations, to hike in the Catoctins or to stargaze far from city lights. Evidence is mounting (though not as fast as greenhouse gas data) that such experiences bolster child development, relieve stress, thwart obesity, augment cognitive abilities, and deepen spirituality.  As I watched my children arrange stones in a streambed, I felt they were building a bastion against loss and disappointment, a font of optimism and resilience for whatever lay ahead.

But by Sarah’s sophomore year of high school, creek walking had faded into memory. Whereas Thoreau tucked a few field notes into his straw hat, Sarah crammed her backpack so heavily with texts that she walked at a slant. In their quiet desperation to earn Ivy League admission or scholarships, Sarah’s contemporaries devoted their hours and energies to seeking top grades and SAT scores.  Yet the AP Chemistry class could not find time to explore the thermodynamics of our endangered atmosphere. Abetted by equally desperate parents, even volunteers at tree plantings seemed more concerned with plumping their resumes than beautifying the neighborhood with living carbon sinks.

Henry Thoreau studied hard, too.  He knew ancient languages well enough to write home in Latin.  In classical literature, Virgil’s Georgics especially spoke to him.  A poetic tribute to farming, the Georgics express the reassurance Thoreau found in the eternal rhythms of the seasons.  Such simple faith, in the renewal of spring and the beneficence of the sun, must seem quaint to Sarah and her college cohort.  Young Henry could learn the art of beekeeping from a 2000-year-old manuscript, but today’s students confront colony collapse disorder. In Kolbert’s book and elsewhere, they read of delayed blooming patterns, shifting wildlife migrations, and other symptoms of an unstable earth that Thoreau could not have imagined. How does it feel to learn that by 2030, when Sarah’s friends dream of raising children of their own, their planet may have reached a tipping point?

Still, I am glad that Sarah’s future alma mater urged reading of Kolbert’s Catastrophe.  With so few readers in Concord, Thoreau fretted, a man who reads an important book “will find nobody to speak to, but must keep silence about it.”  Learned professors, thankfully, will guide the Class of 2017 in discussing the science and politics of global warming.  Prepared or not, Sarah and classmates must speak up for their own future. “The frontiers are not east or west, north or south,” Thoreau wrote, “but wherever a man fronts a fact.”

Before she left for school in August, I tucked a pair of hiking books into her dorm pile. And as she e-mails me reports of her journeys this fall, I scan them for insights that may help me learn how to prepare her little brother, Eli, for his own too-soon departure for college. But for now, at least, for the Class of 2022, the sun is still a morning star.


Julie Dunlap is coeditor of the anthology Companions in Wonder: Children and Adults Exploring Nature Together and an award-winning author or coauthor of numerous children’s books, including John Muir and Stickeen: An Icy Adventure with a No-Good Dog. She earned a Ph.D. in Forestry and Environmental Studies from Yale University and coordinates a schoolyard habitat grant program for the Audubon Society of Central Maryland.

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