When I was a kid, Christmas was the best time of year. My brother and I would go to school one morning early in December and by the time we’d get home the inside of our house had transformed. My mother had lined the stair railings with tinsel, red ribbons, and chiming bells playing Christmas tunes. The shelves and tables were topped with snow-like cotton fluff, little nativity scenes, and red, white, and green candles. The nine-foot tree would be adorned in colored lights, ornaments made in Sunday School the years prior, glass icicles, and an angel sitting on top. For the whole month my brother and I were bathed in Christmas spirit. Christmas music and a dozen different Christmas cartoons played on repeat for us. Cinnamon-dusted sand tarts from Grandma were available from decorated tins. Maybe it was my imagination, but the house even felt colder too. Sometimes our dad would turn on the gas fireplace and we would lay down on a rug by the fire.
I felt an indescribable emotion that was created by a magical blend of joy, excitement, anticipation, and imagination.
Unfortunately, with each year that magic faded a little. I was growing up. The Santa myth collapsed, I started to notice the holiday stress in the adults around me, and the news fueled conspiracies of a “politically correct” war on Christmas.
The eventual discarding of my Christian faith during my late teens didn’t really have an effect on my feelings towards Christmas. The Jesus story was always more of a background to the rest of Christmas. Still, the best thing about holidays eventually became the days off from work.
Around my mid-twenties, however, I started homing in on a new passion. I was back home from college, jobless, and looking for something to occupy my time while my resumes floated in cyberspace. My mother informed me that the abandoned golf course that wound through her neighborhood was going to be turned into a retention pond and park complex, and the community was looking for volunteers to help. One project involved tending to a small tree nursery that would eventually provide trees to the new greenspace. At this point my knowledge of trees was limited to sorting them into three categories: pine tree, oak tree, or “tree that was neither of those other two.” I had studied earth science after all, not ecology.
Four years later and I’m still volunteering there. I can probably identify every tree native to our area, and I’m a certified Texas Master Naturalist. I’m not sure how I got sucked in, but I’m glad I did. I met other passionate people who also volunteered their time, and realized just how big our impact could be. It was during this experience that I became familiar with the many organizations and local leaders who had a unique role in preservation, education, or activism.
In March of 2017, I started to see advertisements for Earth Day events in different corners of the city. I decided to participate in a local event in my neighborhood. It had actually rained the day prior which left the ground a little muddy and the air a little humid, and part of me was concerned that these conditions combined with the bright sun might keep people indoors. I arrived early to help with set up, bumping into friends, neighbors, and volunteers who I recognized from our work together. I was fortunate enough to run into a Master Naturalist classmate and assisted him at his display booth. I would soon find out that my fears of low turnout were unfounded.
The small corner of the park bustled with activity as walkers with sunglasses and hats, joggers with bright colored shoes, and cyclists sporting fancy jerseys started making their way towards the booths. Throughout that day, I spoke to other organizations, helped explain the role of native species in our community, and even got to take friends and family on a tour of the wetland. For the first time in a long time, I felt a bit of that childhood magic surface in me. There was something exciting about seeing so many of my neighbors come out with their families to learn about nature. I heard kids asking about snakes and lizards, while a group of adults discussed birds that had come to their feeders that spring. A family on bicycles stopped to admire a Tesla Model S that had been brought out for display. Maybe that excitement came from a place of hope, or from the sharing of this moment with so many people who felt that our natural areas and native species were worth celebrating.
These park-goers, my neighbors from all walks of life, weren’t out there for presents; they came to celebrate nature, to thank volunteers, and to introduce their kids to ecology. My neighbors weren’t conjuring images of a mythical man for their children to admire; they were admiring new technologies and innovative solutions to human problems. They weren’t committing to practicing religious rituals; they were committing to practicing green living and conservation. I realized by the end of that event that Earth Day is the perfect secular holiday, not because it’s absent of supernatural myth, but because anyone, religious or not, can see that our Human Hands Solve Human Problems, and join together in celebration of that secular value.
Happy Earth Day 2018!
Editors Note: Brian is the Executive Director of Galveston Bay Oasis. Find out more about the Galveston community at GalvestonBayOasis.org