Growing up towards the end of the Earth: A personal essay

Photo of trees on campus
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Suspended between two Sitka spruce trees, swaying back and forth in my portable hammock, I feel my eyes well with tears. I have the book “Falter” in my hands; I pause to look up at the canopy of branches and the gray misty sky of the Olympic National Forest. It’s beautiful, and yet the words I’m reading send me into a panic — it’s all dying.

We are nearing another great extinction on Earth, and it’s approaching faster than any of its predecessors. With our superficial pleasures and man-made conveniences, the human race has peaked — and written itself a death sentence. But I’m not crying at the thought of dying or of humankind facing extinction. I’m crying at how the trees I’m tethered to sway above me and how the sprinkles of rain feel as they fall into the knitted stitches of my beanie. It’s the realization that I’m so small.

We’re not just small in comparison to the vast galaxy we float in but on the planet we inhabit. Earth lived before we ever did and will continue to live after we have gone. Trees will regrow, and oceans will surge — but we are not infinite. We die. We are buried or burned, and that’s the end. And yet, we’ve managed to try and take everything in our surroundings down with us. The trees don’t need us; we need them. Still, we cut them down, our eyes trained on frivolous human pleasures and comforts. 

The trees talk to each other. They communicate through a system of roots underground, living in symbiotic relationships with fungi, lichen, bacteria and pollinators. We once lived with them, too, honoring them as we benefited from them. But our symbiosis has been corrupted — we take and take and take from them and then try to make up for our exploitation by growing new ones to take more from, and we do this without even flinching. The trees I smiled and cried at that day in Washington are lucky enough to be protected; maybe my children and their children will one day see them too. But there are many things we take for granted that they won’t.

The trees I smiled and cried at that day in Washington are lucky enough to be protected; maybe my children and their children will one day see them too. But there are many things we take for granted that they won’t. 

Lying in my hammock, I pull out my phone. I text my family group chat, declaring I will never have children, that their lives will be exponentially worse than ours and that the trees here are beautiful. My brother asks me if I am on something. But I don’t need to be on drugs to have such thoughts, though most of the time I wish I did. These thoughts are depressing and crushingly real. I put my book down — I can’t stand to read it anymore. Instead, I join my friend at our campsite, my face red with tears, and we enjoy our surroundings. For the remainder of our trip in Olympic National Park, we are safe from the outside world; off of the grid; happy. 

My little brother is 12 now. I was 8 when he was born, and it blows my mind that time passes like it does. One of my greatest fears has always been, and probably always will be, growing up. I like to ignore how much my little brother is growing up — he’s in middle school now, getting acne and playing guitar. I make myself forget that I used to hold him as a baby, that we moved from my childhood home to have enough room for him, that as I grow so does he. The world will be different for him. He already has a smartphone but doesn’t have siblings close in age with whom to grow up. Yet, he is still innocently happy. His troubles and fears feel so familiar — I think about how many things I’ve gone through since I was his age, and I hope he doesn’t experience half of them. But I have no control over this, so I push the thought out of my mind. 

Just as I ignore the fact that he is not a baby anymore, I ignore the fact that the Earth is dying. I try not to — I try to be a good person and do as much as I can on an individual level to stop it. But we can’t stop time and aging, and we can’t solve climate change in its entirety by ordering a veggie burger, though I wish we could. 

I’ve always loved trees. I had a favorite tree as a child that I like to think has grown with me. I don’t live in that house anymore, but I often think of that tree where I sat up in the branches and spied on my neighbors. In my new house I didn’t even bother to befriend a new tree — I was already too old and sad. 

My little brother plays his guitar, and I don’t question where the wood to build it came from; I just enjoy watching him play. I imagine raising mini-mes sometimes, not thinking about what the world will look like in 15 years. I dream about my future career, knowing it will be in the environmental field. I also know it will be my job and not my whole existence, but I owe it to the trees I’ve climbed, swayed in, hugged and burned to keep them in some aspect of my life. As much as I want to be successful and selfish and ignore what’s happening in the world, I can’t. 

I owe it to the trees I’ve climbed, swayed in, hugged and burned to keep them in some aspect of my life.

My brother is eight years younger and 2 inches taller than me. Things are about the same in the world since I put down my book on climate change and cried in the deep forest of Washington two years ago. I’m about to be a junior in college; my brother is almost 13; and they say there will be no more fish in the ocean by 2048. And unless I can invent time travel sometime soon, I think life will remain this way. All we can do is try to enjoy it.

Contact Khristina Holterman at [email protected].