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Starting Point

Perserving earth’s heirlooms


Nearly two years after buying my farm, I finally got around to pruning the lilac bushes this spring. The only window of opportunity for this particular chore is immediately after they bloom, and I didn’t make it last year or the year before.

The elegant, gnarled bushes had not been pruned for years. Rebellious “teenager” shoots were thick around the original bases. I started on the outside, and gradually found myself wading through to the center to reach the dead wood and gangly interior branches.

Although lilacs are my favorite flower, I’ve never lived anywhere before where they grew. I feel immensely privileged now. To have not just one but four mature beauties is wealth I never imagined possessing.

Further, these beauties were planted decades ago by the loving hands of my great-great-Aunt Carrie. She died before I was born, and yet I favor her so strongly she could have been my mother. For me, her lilac bushes are priceless living heirlooms.

Even though pruning was an inescapable necessity, standing inside the lilac bush, with the ancient sun streaming down through the heart-shaped leaves onto my strong biceps and sharp clippers, felt almost sacrilegious. It bothered me enough that I found myself murmuring consolingly as I made the cuts, sort of like a good doctor talks an injured patient through a painful healing procedure.

I am not a tree doctor though. I imagine my novice attempt caused some serious shock to the plant. I hope the research I did ahead of time kept me from completely botching my trial run. However, the wide chasm between research and reality cannot be ignored. I won’t know for a year or two or three how successful the operation was. The turnaround time on good works seldom offers immediate gratification.

The whole lilac-trimming experience mimics my ambivalence about the environment, and specifically about global warming. I treasure this planet beyond measure. Earth itself is the most magnificent, priceless heirloom we humans have the privilege of collectively sharing.

The legacy future generations receive depends on today’s successful “surgery.” Have we as individuals, communities, nations, researched, reduced, reused and recycled enough to heal the wounds unknowingly inflicted by generations of well-intentioned individuals?

I was heartened to see the Bush administration finally admit there is a problem and acknowledge human activities are the primary cause. I guess that’s some small measure of progress. But without action to back up those words, it’s just more hot air.

At the very least, we need fuel efficiency and emission standards for our gas-guzzling cars. Our flagging recycling industry must be rejuvenated. Recycling a single aluminum can saves enough energy to power a television for three hours! And our energy consumption must be overhauled in all areas.

As the temperature and the sea levels rise, as the droughts and hurricanes become increasingly severe, it is obvious that we must take action now. Our window of opportunity to perform the necessary “pruning” on our own activities is rapidly closing. If we wait any longer, severe amputations will be required, and the quality of life we currently enjoy will be impossible for future generations.

That is not a legacy. It’s a tragedy.

Julie Geiger lives, farms and writes at Wild Rose Acres near Everest, Kan.

National Catholic Reporter, June 21, 2002