21 May, 2018
“Mom. We have to save the rainforests.”
These were the seven words with which my seven-year-old greeted me as she climbed into the minivan in the Pittsburgh Zoo parking lot.
I swiveled around in the driver’s seat, trying to get a good look at her face. Her piercing blue eyes stared solemnly back at me from beneath the bill of her puff-painted baseball cap, her blonde pigtail braids hanging ragged by her ears. I opened my mouth to ask what on earth this was about, but the other kids I was carpooling clamored into the car and I knew it was useless to try to talk over their raucous chatter.
By the time I’d dropped off the other kids, I’d forgotten her strange comment. As I pulled away from the Rosen’s driveway, I glanced at her in the rearview mirror. She was gazing out the window with her usual glazed look, but I noticed a single tear working its way down her cheek.
“Alison? Are you okay, baby?” I asked, casting my eyes back on the road. She didn’t answer. “Did something happen at camp today?”
“I told you already.” Her voice had an edge to it. “We have to save the rainforests.”
“They told you that at camp?”
“Millions of species are losing their homes, Mom,” she went on, and when I glanced at her in the mirror again I saw that she was still staring out the window. “The rainforests will all be gone by the year 2000. That’s only six years from now.”
I inhaled deeply through my nose and released a slow breath, thinking of my mother’s words when she’d handed Alison back to me in the delivery room. She’s got an old soul, this one.
I don’t know if I believe in reincarnation, but there was definitely something heavier, older, about Alison. As a baby, she watched her older sister Charlotte running around, her little forehead wrinkled in somber concentration. Sometimes I would watch her as she stared into space and wonder what could possibly be going on in that little head of hers. Her later acquisition of speech didn’t assist me much in answering that question.
I glanced back at her again, noting another tear dripping down her cheek.
“So… you’re… really upset about this, huh,” I said slowly.
She finally turned to look at me in the mirror, and her glare was answer enough.
The phone rang shortly after bedtime. I sighed and tossed my pen onto the desk, sitting back to give the tax forms a despairing once-over before getting up to answer.
“Hi, Mrs. Krieger?”
“Hi, how are you? This is Cindy. I’m Alison’s counselor at zoo camp.”
I clenched the receiver a little tighter and slipped into the stool by our breakfast bar.
“Good, how are you?” I responded mechanically.
“I’m great, thanks! I was just calling to check in on Alison. She seemed pretty upset today.”
“About rainforests? She said something in the car…”
“Right… so… today was Rainforest Day. Most of the day she had a great time. It was just at the end, see, we put on this little movie for the kids… just a cute informational video about rainforest conservation, and it had images and sounds from the rainforest.”
“And she found it upsetting?”
“Well—not the video itself—see, we have a Moluccan cockatoo in the classroom, named Barney, and when the video came on, with the jungle sounds, you know, he started making this sort of mournful crooning noise. And then the other counselor—Meg—threw out a comment that he was crying because he missed his home, and…”
“Yeah, so, Alison got real upset after that. I had to sit with her for a while and calm her down.”
I sighed. “She’s… a really intense kid.”
“Yeah. She seemed okay afterward, but still kinda sad, so I just wanted to make sure she’s okay.”
I glanced toward the staircase, chewing my lip. “Thanks for calling, Cindy.”
Alison had more of a bounce to her step the following morning, and I felt a wave of relief when I heard her singing to herself over her cereal. As my husband turned away from the coffee machine in the kitchen, I caught his eye and jerked my head toward the breakfast bar. He raised his eyebrows in a look of I told you so. I’d spent more time than I care to admit chewing his ear off the night before about Alison and her emotional intensity. I even raised the question of whether we should take her to therapy. Max had been dismissive, which annoyed me, but maybe he’d been right.
That afternoon, after camp, I took the girls to the library. Charlotte headed straight for the middle grade section, but Alison wandered off toward the adult reference books. I cocked an eyebrow, but said nothing. Alison was an advanced reader for a seven-year-old, but normally she would stay close behind Charlotte, collecting her sister’s rejects.
I should have guessed what she was looking for. She tottered back under the weight of three enormous volumes about rainforests, and spent the rest of the afternoon shut up in her room reading them.
On the last day of zoo camp, she dragged me to the spider monkey enclosure, insisting that she needed to show me something before we left. She skidded to a halt and pointed to the wall opposite the monkeys. There was a large digital screen with numbers that were rapidly falling. The placard next to it explained that the numbers represented the number of acres of rainforest that still existed.
“By the year 2000, they’ll be gone,” Alison whispered, her eyes wide. “I don’t want to live in a world that doesn’t have rainforests.”
I closed my eyes and swallowed. This was starting to get even more annoying than my sister’s self-righteous lectures about the meat industry. Come to think of it, I thought, maybe she and her Aunt Judy should hang out and bemoan global warming together.
Then I looked back into my daughter’s eyes, which were welling with tears.
“Can you help me save them?” she whispered.
“I…” I stuttered. “Baby, I’d really like to, but I don’t know…”
“Are any of our tables made from rainforest wood?”
“The counselors said that one thing we can do to save the rainforests is not buy things made out of rainforest wood.”
“Oh. Well, I’m pretty sure we don’t have anything like that. Rainforest woods are pretty expensive.”
Her shoulders relaxed a little at that, and she turned around to watch a spider monkey deftly swing from a tree branch and cling to the netting at the top of the enclosure.
“They’re my favorite,” she said.
A few days later, Judy and I sat on the back porch, sipping iced tea and watching our kids play Red Light, Green Light in the grass. Judy sighed, lifting her dark curls from the back of her neck and resting the ice-cold glass against her skin, which was dripping with sweat. I chewed my lip, wondering whether I should tell her about Alison’s newfound rainforest obsession. On the one hand, Judy’s vegan smugness might swell to unprecedented and dangerous levels. On the other hand, Alison had been talking and reading about nothing else for several days, and despite my own discomfort with all this environmentalism stuff, I wanted to encourage her to follow her passions. If anyone knew concrete things Alison could do to save the rainforest, it would be Judy.
Fortunately, Judy made the decision for me.
“What’s going on with Alison lately?” she asked, as if she’d read my mind. “She’s been even more taciturn than usual.”
“She’s…” I sighed. “Upset about the rainforests.”
Judy looked at me with an eyebrow raised. “Rainforests?”
I told her the story about the bird at zoo camp, and as predicted, the corners of her mouth pricked up in that distinct smug look. I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes.
“So,” she said. “You’ve got a little environmentalist on your hands.”
“Don’t be so damn pleased with yourself.” I slapped at a mosquito on my arm, but missed it. “So… what do I do with her?”
Judy looked out over the lawn, her eyes following Alison’s progress toward Danny’s turned back. “Well, you know what I’m going to say.”
“That’s why I’m asking you.”
Judy gave me a scrutinizing look. “Really?”
“Yeah. I think I should encourage her. Contrary to what you may believe, I don’t actually hate the planet.”
Judy smirked. “How the mighty have fallen.”
“Quit gloating and just tell me how my kid can save the rainforest.”
Judy sat back in her chair, rubbing the rim of her glass against her chin.
“There are campaigns and organizations you can donate to,” she said. “Forest rehabilitation, lobbying for governments to do more to stop deforestation, stuff like that.”
“Yeah, but that’s all grown-up stuff, isn’t it?”
“She could set aside some of her allowance. Or maybe could organize some kind of fundraiser.”
I snorted at that. “A fundraiser? She’s seven years old, Judy.”
“Yeah, but she’s also Alison.”
“And? Have you ever seen her say more than two words to a stranger? You think she’s going to organize a fundraiser?”
Judy gave me a thoughtful look. “If I know anything about that kid,” she said, “it’s that she’s a determined little critter and she’ll do whatever’s necessary if she wants it enough. She may have inherited Max’s introversion, but she also inherited your stubborn ass.”
“You got a problem with my stubborn ass? You can kiss it.” I picked an ice cube out of my otherwise empty glass and lobbed it at her. Before I knew it we had both poured the remainder of our ice down each other’s shirts and were gasping from cold and laughter.
Judy was right, though. The minute I suggested the idea of raising money for a rainforest conservation campaign, Alison’s eyes lit up. She ran up to her room and came back with one of the books she’d borrowed from the library, pointing to a list of organizations in the back. Charlotte, never one to be left out of a new enterprise, suggested setting up a lemonade stand on Murray Avenue.
And so, in the worst of the muggy August heat, we schlepped a card table, a cooler full of ice, our juicer, and several bags of lemons and sugar down the few blocks to the corner of Beacon and Murray. Passersby and the patrons of the nearby storefronts glanced at us in polite curiosity as we set ourselves up by the curb. Alison quickly got frustrated when the sugar didn’t dissolve well and I was gearing up to face a full-blown crisis, but then Charlotte somehow rigged up an ingenious little solar oven from aluminum foil and managed to make sugar syrup right there on the sidewalk.
Within ten minutes, people were lining up by the stand. As I might have predicted, Charlotte took charge, chatting up customers and taking their money while barking orders to Alison about appropriate proportions of ice and lemonade. I almost stepped in and asked Charlotte to tone down the big-sister tyranny when a woman with cropped gray hair and a silk floral blouse finally asked why the sign we had hung read “Lemonade for the Rainforest”—and it was Alison who spoke up.
“The rainforests are the lungs of the world.”
All eyes turned on her in astonishment.
She looked the woman straight in the eye and went on: “The Amazon rainforest produces more than 20% of the world’s oxygen,” she rattled off, “and absorbs about 25% of the world’s carbon dioxide. Rainforests are also home to half of all the 10 billion species in the world and about one-fifth of the world’s fresh water lies in the Amazon basin. But they are being destroyed very quickly and by the year 2000 they will all disappear and all those animals will lose their homes, and lots of people, too, if we don’t do something.”
There were a few moments of shocked silence. It didn’t surprise me one bit that she’d memorized those figures, but I don’t think I’d ever heard so many words come out of Alison’s mouth all at once, much less to a perfect stranger.
“Well, young lady,” the woman finally said, “that sounds very important.”
“It is. And a $5 donation to the Rainforest Foundation saves a whole acre of forest.”
“And you’re donating all your proceeds to the Rainforest Foundation?”
“What are proceeds?”
“The money we make,” Charlotte cut in with her most patronizing drawl, “duh.”
“Charlotte,” I warned.
“Yes,” Alison said to the woman. “That’s what we’re doing.”
“I’ll take one,” said the woman, drawing a $50 bill from her purse. “And you go on and donate the change to the Rainforest Foundation.” She handed the bill to a wide-eyed Charlotte. Alison looked completely unfazed as she poured the cup of lemonade and offered it to the woman.
“The Rainforest Foundation thanks you for your contribution,” she said evenly. I covered my mouth to stifle a giggle.
The woman looked at me and smiled. “What a charming little girl you have.”
Charlotte pouted at her receding back.
I helped them count their earnings at the end of the day. Even deducting the cost of the sugar and lemons, we were all delighted to discover that they had $214 to send the Rainforest Foundation. I took the cash and wrote a check, and Alison helped me address the envelope and drop it in the mailbox in front of the O’Conners’ house.
“Can we go to the zoo tomorrow?” Alison asked, skipping back up the path to our front porch, her blond braids bouncing.
“You haven’t had enough of the zoo for this summer?” I said weakly, letting my eyes close in exhaustion at the mere thought.
“I need to check the numbers near the spider monkeys.”
It took me until we were inside the house before I registered what she meant.
“Alison,” I said. She stopped skipping across the living room and whirled around to face me. “I… you mean you want to check that screen? The one with the number of acres…?”
“I want to see how much we helped.”
My stomach plummeted and I swallowed, studying her face.
“Sweetheart…” I said, measuring my words carefully, “the check is in the mailbox right now. It will take a while before it gets there.”
“Maybe a week or two…”
“So can we go in a few weeks?”
“Alison…” I said slowly, still struggling to figure out how to explain this to her. “I don’t think you’ll be able to see any difference.”
Alison’s eyes narrowed and she searched my face, her lips pressing together in a frown.
“Your two hundred dollars will help a lot, I’m sure,” I said quickly, “but it will take a great deal more than that to… really… change those numbers.”
“But… the Rainforest Foundation says that $5 saves a whole acre.”
“So how many acres will $214 save?”
“That’s… more than 40 acres,” I calculated quickly. “That’s a lot!”
“Then why won’t it change the numbers?”
“Well… because… there are millions of acres of rainforests. And thousands being destroyed every day, maybe even tens of thousands. But besides,” I said quickly, before the enormity of what I was saying could sink in, “I don’t think that board really shows how many actual acres are left. I think it’s… just an estimation. A guess.”
She stared at me long and hard.
“If we need more money,” she said, “then we’ll do more lemonade stands. I can do one every day until the end of the summer.”
I closed my eyes and pressed my lips together, drawing a deep breath through my nose.
“Alison, sweetheart,” I said gently, “even if you do a lemonade stand every day for a year…” my voice trailed off, and I struggled to explain. “People donate millions of dollars to these organizations… they’re doing what they can… it’s not just the money, these are government policies, and people’s livelihoods, and… baby, it’s just… it’s very complicated adult stuff.”
She looked away, her jaw set and her eyes brimming with tears. For a long moment, she didn’t speak at all. It felt as though I were watching her childhood crumble into dust around her.
Finally she met my eyes again.
“If it’s adult stuff, then why aren’t the adults doing anything?” she demanded, her voice strained. “I’m the one who’s going to have to grow up in a world without rainforests. Don’t you care?”
I stared at her feet, wanting desperately to disappear into the carpet. When Judy would ask me, Don’t you care? I would just roll my eyes and whine to Max about how obnoxious and emotionally manipulative these hippies were. Judy and I grew up playfully scoffing at everything the other did; it was how we established our autonomy and our place in the family. But Alison’s question cut through me, cut through the irritation and the exasperation and the denial, and opened up a chasm of shame and guilt.
Maybe they’re right. Maybe I don’t care. Maybe I’m going to be leaving a trashed, barren, and broken planet for my kids and I’m too afraid of that to even think about it, too afraid of the abject powerlessness and hopelessness I would feel if I were to face it, and here is my little girl standing here asking me why I am doing nothing.
“You told me I could do something,” Alison choked, tears splashing down her face. “You said you’d help me save the rainforests.”
“Baby,” I said in a small voice, “I didn’t say—”
“Why did you tell me you’d help me if I can’t? I can’t save the rainforests. Even you can’t save them. Why didn’t you just tell me that?”
“Honey, listen to me,” I pleaded, crouching to her eye level and placing a hand on her shoulder. I took a deep breath and looked into her eyes. “You’re right, no one person can save the rainforests. It’s something a lot of people all have to do together. We can’t make everybody else do what we want, but we can do our part and encourage others to do theirs, and hope that our efforts will all come together to make a difference. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
She just gave me that deep, piercing look, and it made me wither inside.
“You lied to me,” she whispered, and then bolted past me and up the stairs.
I sank into a nearby armchair, held my head in my hands, and wept.
Six summers later, Alison sat at the breakfast bar, munching on Cheerios and holding a book open with her elbow.
“Honey, please don’t read at the table,” I said, stirring some milk into my coffee. She looked up and glared at me through her heavy black eyeliner, but she closed the book and slid it away from her bowl.
“Mom?” she asked, swallowing a bite of cereal.
“Are the rainforests still around?”
I turned to her, startled. She hadn’t said a word about the rainforests since that day in ‘94. She was watching me, her expression unreadable, and though she was now a thirteen-year-old sporting a tight baby doll T-shirt, a messy high ponytail, and way too much eye makeup, the image of that little girl with the pigtail braids staring up at me in despair and anger flashed vividly before my eyes.
“I… I think they are,” I stammered. “Yes, there are certainly still rainforests.”
“It’s the year 2000.”
I blinked, trying to figure out what that had to do anything.
“The video. At zoo camp. They said that the rainforests would all disappear by the year 2000.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well… maybe all that campaigning worked. Maybe they managed to stop people from cutting down so many trees. Maybe your $214 did something after all!”
“Or maybe,” Alison cut in, her voice sharp, “they were lying.”
She dove back into her cereal before I could get a look at her face.
“I don’t think they were lying,” I said slowly. “Maybe they miscalculated, or maybe something changed—”
She met my eyes again, and the look she gave me stopped me cold.
“The Moluccan cockatoo,” she said, “isn’t even from the Amazon, it’s from Indonesia. The video was filmed in the Amazon. I bet Barney wouldn’t have recognized those sounds, because the species of birds and monkeys in those places are different.”
I just watched her, clutching my coffee cup.
“Why,” she said quietly, “do adults lie about everything?”
She slid off the bar stool, grabbed her book, and huffed off.
I didn’t even try to call her back to clear her bowl.