As a rabbi and climate activist, I’d already been grieving a long time. For our trees, for the great Appalachian hemlock forests, as well as for the burning Amazon, the oceans choked in plastic, the hungry people. For the whole beautiful and complex system of life, brought to its knees by a species rich in intelligence and poor in wisdom, the most dangerous apex predator ever to walk the Earth.
Abraham sat under the hemlocks on soil packed hard by his play. Last fall he named this spot Frog and Toad’s corner, and he likes to go on toddler “trips” there before triumphantly rushing back into my arms when he “comes home” to the patio. His little body rocked back and forth quietly. I resisted the urge to distract him, or myself, from our own versions of the same giant and holy grief.
Like so many, my husband and I were working from home and without child care this spring and summer. Caring for Abraham every day and sneaking in work emails where I could, I found myself more consistently outdoors in spring than I had been since my own childhood. Every day, Abraham and I walked the few short blocks from our Boston home to the back of Peters Hill in the Arnold Arboretum, a 281-acre collection of plants from around the world, owned by Harvard University and designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.
Every day we saw, smelled and felt the changes in the trees. The collection nearest our house features the Rosacea family, and we spent hours underneath the flowering crab apples and hawthorns, marking the days by who was in bloom, whose petals had begun to drop, who had started to put out leaves, or fruit. Inspired by the botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, I began a practice of using personal pronouns when referring to all plants and animals, teaching us both a new grammar that I hoped would be Abraham’s native tongue.
As we walked, Abraham and I spoke about the trees as people — and indeed, for the first month of quarantine, they were the only people besides us he got to see up close. In the absence of human friends, greeting the trees with a reverent shake of a lower branch became an obvious choice. “Hi, European larch tree,” Abraham would say in his toddler dialect, grabbing the feathery needles of the drooping branches.