There are two ways to get into Albuquerque from the Sandia Mountains in New Mexico where I grew up. There is the big four-lane interstate known as “I-40” and the meandering two-lane road that is “Old 66.” My mom always chooses the old road.
“I have to look at things,” she says.
On numerous drives throughout my life, she would suddenly pull over to examine a weed flowering by the side of the road or rescue a beetle from certain tragedy on the blacktop while I, in my late teens and early twenties, sat impatiently in the car. I just wanted to get to where I was going.
Though this year Mother’s Day came up swiftly behind Earth Day, for me, they have always been related. My Mom has been “green” since before concern about the environment was given a trendy color-code. Part of this impulse was born of thrift. Like her mother and her grandmother before that, she saves glass jars, empty cottage cheese containers and re-washes her plastic bags. She buys many of her clothes second-hand and when a button falls off, or a seam comes apart, she mends her clothes instead of replacing them. Her hall closet is crammed with paper bags and boxes awaiting a new purpose.
One such box, known as “the girdle box” bore a pink and grey line drawing of a woman in her foundation garments and was exchanged by our extended family at the holidays for over fifteen years. The box traveled from Mom’s home town of Rapid City, South Dakota north to relatives in Burney, California one year before being sent on to Albuquerque the next. After a time, the box was so celebrated that receiving it almost trumped the value of what was inside.
Mom never set out to save the planet, but the way she cultivates her own environment is a lesson to those recent converts to the “green” life. Mom’s daily summer ritual of breakfast (yogurt, granola and fruit) taken at the little metal table outside her back door affords her the chance to check up on her yard. Because she is mindful, she identifies the little green seedling poking through the stones in her patio as a “volunteer” from last summer’s Cosmos. She attends the opening of a flower or the arrival of the hummingbirds with the same awe others might reserve for an opera or the first baseball game of the season.
“I put a little dish of water out for the butterflies,” she said to me one day, her voice vibrating with delight, “and yesterday there were three swallowtails.”
She goes on to regale me with tales of the snake who swallowed three of her fish and the coyote that stood outside her bedroom window and just stared in at her.
“They’re tricksters,” she says, “I think he wanted me to laugh.”
Mom creates a kind of give and take relationship with wildlife in her yard. She knows to pick the apples on her trees a little early to fend off the bears and that if she leaves the bird feeders out at night, it’s likely they’ll be knocked down by a family of raccoons. Spiders that make their way into the house are captured in a juice glass and set loose in the garden.
“My juncos are back,” she says. “They’re fighting the squirrels for the seed in the feeder. Those little buggers seem to give everyone a run for their money.”
After living in Los Angeles for nearly fifteen years, I like hearing these stories of Mom’s own personal wilderness. Now that I am older, and my two small children have set time to running like a flooded arroyo, I am grateful for Mom’s measured pace. When I visit her and we drive together, I share her wonder as the setting sun tips the clouds towards tangerine. In the mountains of New Mexico, we search together for the delicate Mariposa Lily. On her California visits, we head to a local garden or sit quietly in the vast urban wilderness of Griffith Park. Her gentle presence reminds me to keep my ears and eyes open. In this way, I might hear water dropping from a leaf or see a brown lizard creep a little further into the sun.
I try to teach my children that looking out for the environment starts with being aware of the environment. On busy streets, we look for spent dandelions to parachute, we say hello to neighborhood cats and pick up the plastic cups and paper bags cluttering the gutters. This teaching comes easily, I realize, because I was taught so well by example. Mom didn’t need to lecture, she didn’t need to beat a drum to change the world. She simply slowed down enough to enjoy living in it and with that joy came compassion and an instinct for preservation.
“I got eight-tenths of an inch of rain last night,” Mom tells me. “And this morning it was only 30 degrees. Tonight, I bet we’ll get snow.”
At sixty-three, her voice holds the same amount of glee as my five year old son’s when he contemplates a winter wonderland. “Snow,” she says. “I love the smell of snow.”
I am slowing down and it isn’t the weight of my nearly forty years on the planet, it is the planet itself. I’ve begun to save glass jars and re-use packing envelopes. I pause in my daily tasks to watch the squirrels race each other through the palm leaves above my porch. Last summer, in the company of my son and daughter, I planted tomatoes in my yard. With the heat of August around me like a mantle, I ate the first while sitting on my low wall with dirt on my hands. Warm from the sun, it burst on my tongue with a sweetness I immediately wanted to share with my Mom.