To my son, born in the time of coronavirus and climate change
Against all odds you were conceived in a lighthouse, born during a pandemic and will taste just enough of Life as We Knew It to resent us when it’s gone.
The scent of your downy crown makes my heart explode. The curl in your Tic Tac toes fills me with enough love to power New York City.
Instead, the milk in your bottle was warmed by dirty, ancient fuels and as a result, you will learn to walk on a planet that has never been this hot for humans.
When we finally realized that the worried scientists were right, people got scared and went searching for potions and protections. They emptied store shelves even faster than the jungles and all the invisible enemy masks were gone.
Just in time for your birth.
It might have saved your Mom from the virus, so I still keep it next to my hurricane waders, malaria pills and the bulletproof vest with the patch that reads “PRESS.”
If I have to pack them and kiss you goodbye more often than you’d like, I’m sorry. But we were warned.
For generations, scientists told us that if we weren’t careful, a different kind of invisible enemy would come out of our farms, factories, homes and cars, get into the sea and the sky and end Life As We Know It … but that was a story too few wanted to believe. Including me.
But like today’s coronavirus, carbon dioxide and methane molecules don’t care what we believe. The laws of physics have no regard for how we vote or what we worship.
So this will be your first life lesson, little River: We are human and unlike all the other animals, we are made of stories.
Our big brain’s ability to imagine different realities and communicate wild new ideas to our children, neighbors and millions of strangers is what makes us the most powerful force in the known universe. Stories!
Along the way, EVERYTHING in our man-made world — flags and borders, money and markets, laws and religions — all of it came from the stories we tell ourselves. Some are older than others. They vary by time and place. And all of them are under constant revision.
Turns out that it doesn’t, and it does. I’m sorry.
She was an artist and scientist and one day as she filled glass cylinders with different gasses and put them in the garden sun, she discovered that carbon dioxide traps more heat than air.
“An atmosphere of that gas would give to our Earth a high temperature,” she wrote.
Even as plenty of men duplicated her finding, few wanted to think about the dirty secret of fossil fuel because we were too busy burning it to build a rich, glorious and comfortable world.
But we were also building an invisible greenhouse in the sky.
Since 1961, our planet has lost the equivalent of a block of ice the size of the United States, 16 feet thick.
And on Independence Day 2019, 156 years after she put her glass tubes in the garden sun, Anchorage was hotter than Key West.
But some stories take a long time to catch on, especially when they challenge everything we think is glorious about being human.
Because the American Way of Life that I grew up with is already gone. The Goldilocks climate that allowed humanity to thrive is in the past. And nobody seems to know it yet.
If we follow the warnings of science and do everything possible to spare your generation maximum pain, it will mean completely new forms of power, food, construction, transportation, economics and politics. It will mean landscapes covered in solar panels, windmills and carbon capture plantations and the kind of intimate relationship with our land and water that went the way of the hunter/gatherer.
And if we do nothing? It will mean the end of predictable growing seasons, flight schedules and supply chains, resource wars and tens of millions of climate refugees changing everything we know about borders, neighbors and strangers.
And either scenario will bring out both the absolute best and worst in human nature: Hero first responders, innovators and leaders as well as mendacious grifters, conspiracy theorists and tyrants.
But if we give up on our most primal job we have as humans, haven’t we already lost?
I hope you carry the same superpower because that post-ultrasound march gave me a rare shot of hope. It was walking, breathing, traffic-stopping proof that the story might be changing.
So, you will be raised to be engaged. To realize that the strongest societies pull together BEFORE disaster strikes. You will treat believers and deniers with equal empathy, understanding that we are all just products of the stories we are told.
You’ll need every indigenous trick in the book as citizens of the modern world are forced to realize that EVERY DAY is Earth Day.
Your Grandma Pat would call you a miracle baby sent from God.
Until you know what it’s like to fall in love, the story will make you blush and squirm, but I can think of no better omen for the kind of boy we hope to raise.
The lighthouse keeper is vigilant and dependable, with a reverence for nature’s power and a commitment to saving lives. This is your destiny, my beautiful River.
The great thing about stories is that they are always under revision. Now go write a happy ending.