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Back from Bali to Spend Earth Day with My Kids


I have just returned from my first visit to the Indonesian island of Bali. There are over 17,000 islands in Indonesia, but Bali is one that most of us have heard of. Four million people live there. On top of that, over 2.5 million foreign tourists visit annually.

Bali is small; just 89 across by 56 miles from top to bottom. And, there is no official method of trash collection. It is a big problem. There are mountains of trash, and valleys of trash, in obvious and less-than-obvious places. A good deal of the garbage, of course, ends up in the ocean.

There are also some ingenious small-scale programs for trying to manage the problem. For example, I visited The Green School, a school that is somewhat famous for their sustainability-focused curriculum and wall-less classrooms. The school runs a recycling program that is open to the community. People are paid cash for what they bring in. 


Some of what they collect comes from the Trash Walks, which leave every Tuesday morning from the school. Walking the alleys and streets with a bamboo spear in hand, these volunteers fill the role of trash and recycling collectors. The plastic is melted down in a Thermo-fusion machine to make shipping pallets (which are typically made of wood!) by a company based in Bali

I was inspired by the simple wisdom of this program and the idea that individual efforts are valid, even in the face of overwhelming challenges.

I came home to spring in Wisconsin. 

Friday, April 22nd was Earth Day. This "holiday" was founded by a Wisconsinite, so while I've not made too much of it in the past, I felt like "celebrating" this year

Gaylord Nelson was known as The Conservation Governor because of his reforms to clean up waterways, protect natural resources, create green jobs, and bolster the state's recreation infrastructure. His ideas were popular and he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1962. 

In 1969, Senator Gaylord Nelson proposed a national teach-in on the environment. The goal was to send a message to Washington that public opinion was solidly behind a bold political agenda on environmental problems.
That was forty-seven years ago. Last week I was putting my kids to bed. The 4-year-old asked, "Is the universe bigger than all of Madison?" The very next questing indicated that she really hadn't understood my response: "Is the universe bigger than a giraffe?"

Clearly, impossibly abstract concepts, like an ocean full of garbage and sea levels rising, are not where to start the conversation about Earth Day with my young kids. In fact, I'll admit that I find the early elementary school's science curriculum focus on distant places like The Rainforest a bit misguided. I'd rather my girls be able to identify our local flora and fauna, and understand how the Great Lakes ecosystem works....but anyway.

Point is, I wanted to acknowledge Earth Day with the kids, but I didn't really know how, or where, to spend it. The listing of events in the newspaper didn't feel right, like the kids would come away remembering a festival without internalizing any more personal impressions.

I decided to go out to Governors Island. We hang out there often enough that the girls have some sense of comfort and familiarity with the trails and shorelines. Because it was Earth Day, and I have been thinking about trash, we packed gloves and plastic bags.

Both girls popped out the car ready. They attacked that garbage-strewn patch of woods near the main parking lot like kids hunting for Easter eggs. They were having fun. And they could easily see that our efforts were making a huge difference. 

In the moment, and in reflection, I have honestly never been so proud of my kids.  And I learned through the experience that the spring-time debris found in our local parks is gross, but it's something we can handle. 

As a follow-up, we went to Reynolds Park for a neighborhood clean-up on Saturday. This is another place my kids feel at home. 

While the adults worked, the gang of kids mostly ran around and played. They were among friends and, again, had a blast. They didn't get their hands very dirty, but they were part of a community expression of care for a park with which they feel feel a connection.

I feel confident that both my daughters, ages four and six, now understand Earth Day. And should I again wonder where to spend spring days in the future, I think they'll remind me: At a beautiful spot on earth, connecting with the place, the people, and also the problems of that particular place.

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