A Letter to My Hero, Greta Thunberg

Dear Greta: 

You don’t know me and I have known you only for a short while and from a long distance. One day, however, I hope to shake your hand and thank you for the courageous sacrifices you are making.

The day you set sail from Plymouth, I, too, was leaving England for the United States. My mode of transportation was a Boeing 767 Dreamliner. My destination was Texas, the nation’s top carbon emitter. Your much publicized trip added a new passenger to my flight — flygskam (shame of flying). As with flugangst (fear of flying), I would have done my best to ignore this stranger were it not for that other unsettling companion at my side — your newly published book, “No One is Too Small To Make a Difference”.

I found your collection of speeches completely by accident at the legendary Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris. I was admiring the first editions of dead authors when the hot pink cover of “This is Not A Test” grabbed my attention. On display beside the Extinction Rebellion handbook was your collection with its unadorned cover, its understated title, its earth-shattering/earth-saving content. I like to think that both books had found me, a writer and organic farmer who has been grieving the losses of our natural world for too many years.

How fitting then that our paths should cross once again. While you were texting progress aboard Maliza II, I was 38,000 feet directly above you, reading your “Our House Is On Fire” speech. Awed by your courage, inspired by your conviction, angered by the ignorance and hatred of the powers-that-be who cannot accept the difficult truth you speak, I vowed that I would not land back in the my country without giving my utmost to seeking solutions to the climate crisis. 

Five years ago, my oldest daughter Alex made a journey similar to yours. She sailed from Spain to the Caribbean in a 46-foot sailboat. She was the only female in a crew of eight and had never sailed before. Yet this was her boyfriend’s dream and she wanted to support him after he had supported her dream of working on organic farms across Europe. Instead of flying back, they would sail. And sail they did, through calm doldrums and violent storms. It took her 26 days. The first 13 she spent throwing up. She lost 10 pounds and at one point the captain considered an emergency airlift. She was that sea-sick, that alone, that far removed from her element that her survival depended on going deep inside herself, a strange place of fear and darkness but also strength and resolve. Alex pulled through. The moment she sighted land a gray whale breached the surface, as if to welcome her back. Never had walking on a beach felt so good and solid as the morning they dropped anchor off the Barbados coast. She has no interest in sailing again but she does have an epic story she can share with her children — if, that is, she decides to have them.

The world has changed so fast and furiously in such a short time that I never could have anticipated my children would consider not flying, much less not having a family. Nor could I imagine that the surest and loudest voice of science and action would come from the mouth of a 16-year-old, no less one who has been labeled with a disability.  I guess this is what a tipping point really looks and feels like — compass and maps and things we assumed were secure forever suddenly sliding off the deck and sinking below the foamy surface of our wake. As you sail this week, the world is reeling from the unthinkable. Greenland is melting. The Amazon is on fire. Our House is burning and flooding — at the same time!

The day I read “Too Small” and “This is Not a Test”, I wandered aimlessly through the tense and crowded streets of the Marais District. This was not the romantic Paris I had explored with my wife 23 years ago. Nor was I the idealistic journalist who believed social justice was a linear progression. Graffiti-covered streets hummed with loud Harley Davidsons, annoyed Parisians, angry refugees, and overheated tourists. Two weeks earlier, the city was boiling under an unprecedented heat wave. The day we landed in England, that country’s hottest temperature was recorded in Cambridge.

I found refuge from my malaise in the famed Pere Lachaise cemetery, where lovers strolled through those hallowed grounds as blithely as they have since Abelard and Heloise were interred there 200 years ago. The ancient trees that tower above are even more majestic than the ornate crypts set like chess pieces along cobblestone boulevards. Yet even here I could not escape the unease of our times.

Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris

A nature lover who has had to overcome a lifelong affliction of attention deficit, I am highly attuned to changes in my surroundings. It is my gift and my curse. You say your gift is seeing in black or white at a time when most are lost or hiding in the gray. Mine is less extreme, but I see mostly in green or brown these days. It started in 2011 when the worst one-year drought in Texas history scorched our farms, seared our forests, burned a hole in our hearts. This was, for me, the death of “normal” and the birth of extreme. It has made me hyper-vigilant, for how terribly fast and frequent now does greening turn to flooding and brown turn to drought. Had those lovers in Lachaise looked up at the chestnut trees, they would have noticed their scorched leaves. The browning of those ragged edges was yet one more warning sign that all is not right in the world. 

Greta, I am not yet retired but I am tired, for sure. Here in my home of Austin, the relentless pursuit of “progress” keeps accelerating — more and more farmland and forest devoured by the concrete kingdoms of over-consumption. Working with extreme nature has worn me down. This afternoon will make the 33rd day over 100 degrees this summer. Like the browning of those chestnut leaves, my spirit is losing its green to the desertification of hope. That is why your journey to our country has given me a rare sense of optimism, as does the flock of young people who come to our farm and ask questions about our work and the nature of nature that too many of us have never learned to love and respect.

Now, much sooner than expected, the tipping point is arriving. I can feel it and hear it. And I can see it, through your eyes, more clearly, too — in the black and white extreme that we unwittingly have allowed it to become.

Daughter Avery in awe of ancient beech in Hampstead Heath.

You are my inspiration, Greta. I am following your every move. I am cheering you on at every mile. I won’t be in New York next month for the Global Climate Strike but I will be marching that day, wherever I am, telling the world where I stand. Which is at your side and the brave young activists, such as my 18-year-old daughter Avery, whose sacrifices, compared to mine, will be not unlike the difference between sailing home and flying home. Your trip will be longer and harder and more dangerous, but you will have the wind of millions of supporters at your back. 

My sailing days may be over but I can promise you this: I will take the small hard steps toward creating a smarter, kinder, less self-serving way of living in these perilous times. This letter to you is that first step.