Our experience at the Aspen Environment Forum July 25-28 is almost too overwhelming to process. We still don’t know how we got invited, or who paid our expenses. Suffice it to say, the 300-plus people gathered there included some of the foremost thinkers in the world, at the top of their field in researching and communicating the changes affecting our Earth. (http://www.aspenenvironment.org/speakers) Projecting forward, they posited that the human race has about another decade during which to make the radical lifestyle changes that are needed in order to stave off catastrophic effects.
“Why not use the resources that the sun is giving us right now, instead of digging up the energy from the past, buried in the form of coal or oil? Let’s use the resources from heaven instead of from hell,” challenged Sally Bingham. The Episcopal minister, founder of Interfaith Power and Light, said when she began linking the faith and the environment 25 years ago, she was called a’ communist’ by some.
“Why should we worry about climate change?” demanded Sylvia Earle, veteran marine scientist and National Geographic Explorer, dubbed “her deepness” by colleagues. “Well, we know the planet has been working for us until now – you know, that little exchange of oxygen and CO2. Thing is, as we’ve been changing that balance, we can’t be sure the planet will continue to work in our favor.”
“The question is, ‘What are you willing to give up?’ ” stated Mohan Munasinghe. The Vice Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (IPCC) the highest authority in the world on the subject of climate, said the science continues to show impacts, and that human beings and our fate are at stake. “The Earth will go on, and the poor who have contributed the least to the problem will suffer the most. What is required is ethics and equity, a principled approach in which the societies that consume the most, such as the U.S. make massive changes.”
The entire four days was miracle after miracle. Among them was the fact that the panel that Frank and I presented with Sally Bingham, “Environmental Deficit Disorder: The Biology of (Not) Being Outdoors” was the subject of a report in the Aspen Times next day. Given the breadth and scope of the presenters and sessions, it was an incredibly welcome surprise, since it helps get our message out to an even larger audience.
But the piece de resistance, the Big Kahuna, the most overwhelming experience of all, was the closing event in which Kenji Williams, classically trained violinist and documentarian, stood on stage in the darkened theatre, playing his rapturous music in accompaniment to the multi-media journey through the universe that he has created. WOWWWWW!!! From the macrocosm to the microcosm, hurtling through space and then focusing on individual places on Earth where the evidence of environmental destruction is greatest, he took us on an intellectual and emotional journey that defies description.
What will stay with me forever is the statement made by the astronauts in simulation:
“The first couple of days, each of us focused on our country rushing by. By the third day, we were focusing on our continent, and by the fifth day, the lines had been erased and we saw only our Earth, our only home.”
I was sobbing like a baby before it was over, in awe and wonderment at the skill and intellect that had brought such a compelling event to us. Later, I had the chance to meet Kenji and his exquisite wife, and as I poured out my heart in thanks to him, he wanted to know what I do. When I told him we’ve been working for 15 years to expand the constituency of Americans that are stewards of our environment, he said, “Well, I want to thank you and your husband, because that is vitally important work.” Say what?! Wow!
Besides the intellectual stimulation and the new friendships made, we had the incredible opportunity to go for a brief hike with Paul Andersen, naturalist with the Aspen Institute. From the moment we met him on Monday morning, Paul made the offer, and though the agenda was crammed, we couldn’t resist the chance to experience the area up close. We took a trail immediately behind the building, and within moments I was skipping down the hill, and we walked alongside the rushing river, stopping to feel the water. We watched cedar waxwings feeding on the berries, and saw a hummingbird doing an incredible flight pattern in the middle of the river as it feasted on gnats. Berry bushes were thick along the trail, and when Paul told me they were serviceberries and edible, I lost all restraint – I ate so many that I had no appetite for lunch. Then it turned out that our kind host is an author of NINE books set in Aspen, and he gave us his latest, “Moonlight over Pearl” which I devoured on the flight back to Atlanta.
Of course, who could be in Aspen for the first time and not check out the city? Wednesday afternoon we took the gondola to the top of the mountain…what an amazing experience….mountains piled behind mountains, 14,000-feet and more, 360-degrees as far as our eyes could see. One presenter at the Forum opined that “man needs height from which to gain perspective, and Aspen certainly proved that to be true. The thought that resounded in my mind as I looked over at those spectacular Rocky Mountains was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. thundering “I have been to the mountain top. . . I have seen the promised land. . .”
I understand his acceptance now. Having seen the mountains of Yosemite and Aspen in a two-week period; having the vision of Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, in my mind; remembering Glacier, Yellowstone and the majestic Grand Tetons, I know that I am part of a timeless, ageless, undying creation. I am flooded with awe for the “guidance system” behind it all, orchestrating everything from the molecule to the cosmos. I recognize myself as part of that, and feel infinitely connected and at peace. I want to hold this feeling forever. I hope you give yourself the gift of that experience. There’s a mountain or a quiet place in the woods near you.