"A fish!" I screamed to my boys who were playing in a small creek near the ocean. "We have to save it." Yanking off my socks and shoes, I burst across the water toward a sandbar where a two foot long fish flapped, scattering water along the shore. I reached for the fish and quickly pulled back. Raised as a city girl and a vegetarian, I've never touched one in my life. Finally, I eased my hands around the suddenly still trout. It flipped up, out of my hands and back into the ankle deep water. I nudged it toward a slightly deeper portion of the stream bed and it took off swimming in the opposite direction. Damn! I chased after it and caught up when it slowed and rolled over on its side.
More bravely, this time, I reached for the fish and grabbed it, lifting it out of the water and bolting upstream, to deeper waters. It lurched forward but I held on. Wriggling and fighting, the fish finally pitched into knee deep water and then again swam downstream and up onto a sandbar. By the time I caught up to it, it had lolled over on its side and seemed to gasp for air. It stilled for the last time.
Later, I learned that, when a fish is out of water for any length of time, you are supposed to glide it through the water, to get water moving through the gills and prevent the fish from drowning. I also discovered that the creek is drying out; it no longer touches the ocean this time of year. Swimming downstream was certain loss.
That afternoon, however, as I watched the life seep out of the trout, I could do nothing but return to my boys, staring on the beach, and tell them that mommy had failed. The fish was dead.
Reading my Be a Bookworm book, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, it hit me how my inability to save the fish was much like our inability, as a people, to lower the United States' carbon emissions, to reverse the melting of the Arctic or preserve the Amazon rain forest. It's not that our fight is not just, our hearts not true, our dedication not unwavering. But we lack know how. We are swimming upstream without a map. We have not learned from our mistakes.
The second chapter of Break Through covers deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, which is tied to global warming. As a teen, I clearly remember efforts to halt that deforestation and earnestly gave gifts of "an acre of rain forest" to family members at Christmas time. While the battle has been waged for decades, it has met with little success. "Today, approximately 20 percent of the forest is gone, and the equivalent of eleven football fields of Amazon rain forest is being destroyed ever minute, the fastest rate of forest destruction anywhere." (Break Through, 54). What we have been doing for the last twenty to thirty years to "save the lungs of the world" has failed.
Mary Pickford famously wrote that "this thing we call "failure" is not the falling down, but the staying down." I cannot see how we can give up when it comes to saving a stranded fish or a burning forest.
The authors of Break Through promise that we can save the Amazon but, only if we change our approach, shift our paradigm from protection of nature to protection of people. Brazil shoulders a monstrous debt and spiraling inflation. Drug traffickers rule its streets and it boasts a murder rate found only in war zones. One in five of its citizens go to bed hungry every night. Faced with these issues, it is no wonder the Brazilian government has not made preserving the Amazon a priority. To save the rain forest, the authors argue, we must look beyond it's canopied borders to the people who inhabit that land. We must first help them before we can expect them to turn their eyes toward saving their national treasure.
As to my lost fish, only minutes after the first died, two more trout headed downstream, to the end of water. One banked itself on a beach and died before I could reach it. The other, we chased upstream and into deeper waters. We learned from our mistakes. We had fallen down but we got back up. That final fish, we saved.