The Green Boat

Living on a boat-shaped piece of land in Nebraska, we take care of what we love, says Mary Pipher, and we grow to love what we take care of.

Mary Pipher
4 October 2011
Living on a boat-shaped piece of land in Nebraska
Photo by Rose Erkul

As a young girl, I ran my own animal rescue program. After storms in the summer, I would search for baby animals that needed my protection. I would carry home mice, squirrels, or birds and nurse them with a rag dipped in milk. Then I’d construct little homes for them from shoeboxes, and, every now and then, I would be able to save an animal and release it into the wild. I talked to animals and watched them closely. They taught me a great deal.

Most children are gradually educated away from this deep connection to animals, but I resisted that with every fiber of my skinny, feral being. I named each little starling or field mouse and also all the calves, pigs, and rabbits that my father raised for food. I still give names to the wild animals that come around on a regular basis. Our resident mallards are Cinnamon and Mint. The possums under our juniper bush are Blinky and Sparkle, and our skunk is Fragrant.

My great-grandparents homesteaded in the Nebraska Sandhills and I grew up in Beaver City in southwest Nebraska. My husband’s great-grandparents were sodbusters and early settlers of our state. My children and grandchildren grew up in Nebraska and live here today. The landscape of this state is etched across my heart.

In my childhood, the water and air were clean and the land was healthy for plants, animals, and people. When my brothers and I went fishing, the rivers and lakes were full of fish. Over the decades, I have seen the quality of life diminish for all of us, but especially for children. My grandchildren do not have the natural riches that I once could find outside my front door.

Now my state is threatened by the proposed TransCanada XL Pipeline, which is routed across our great underground lake, the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies water for drinking, farming, and ranching to the entire Great Plains. It traverses the Sandhills, which encompass 20,000 square miles of dunes formed from tiny pieces of the Rockies sheared off by the Pleistocene glaciers. Because the soil is porous and unstable, 85 percent of the land has never been plowed. Our country has very few places left as wild and remote as the Sandhills, where astronomers hold annual stargazing conventions because the stars are more visible from this area than from any other place on earth.

The XL Pipeline will propel heated carcinogenic tar sludge from the Canadian border to Texas. In its journey, the pipeline is slated to cross almost every major river system in the central United States.

In Nebraska, we have been unable to persuade our government to enact any regulations to protect our safety or that of the land and water. We have more laws on the books for changing our motor oil in our driveways then we do for the XL Pipeline. While our legislature and governor are stalling and equivocating, we know that the land will brook no excuses. The rhetoric of lawmakers will not protect one single calf, muskrat, or prairie orchid.

All of us are here today, because, since the beginning of human time, adults have taken care of their children and taught them how to love the world. Now we are the adults. Who will advocate for the animals, plants, land, and water if we don’t?

Morality is action, not empty words about peace and goodness. My activism is the adult version of rescuing baby field mice and squirrels. I do it for fun, but it takes energy. My replenishment comes from being present for the land and the animals—from dissolving into a big sky, or from lying on a prairie and being nourished by the sight of the clouds skittering overhead and the calls of the geese and the cranes.

I am writing a book about the psychological and social issues that keep us from dealing adaptively with global climate change. The book’s title will be The Green Boat, after the name my husband, Jim, and I gave our boat-shaped piece of land. Our house sits atop a dam that overlooks a city park, and from our deck we can watch the sun and moon rise over the lake. Great storms roll in from the south and west and explode over us as they move toward the Missouri River. The ducks, geese, and pelicans come through in the fall and spring. In the summer a great blue heron couple nests in the reeds at the south end of the lake. When I work in the garden, I hear the songs of the meadowlarks and the kingbirds. Bikers and hikers use the trails and fishermen catch perch and bluegill. On weekends, parades of kayaks, sailboats, and canoes crisscross the lake.

On snowy nights, a red fox comes to hunt on our dam. He looks as if he is dancing. In the winter, we watch as children sled on the dam and skate and play hockey on the lake. In their bright coats, they resemble confetti swirling in a soft white blanket. At night, from the warmth of our living room, we ponder the ice-fishermen with their insulated clothing, tiny-lighted huts, and bottles of whiskey.

The Green Boat is a small but rich ecosystem that gives us great joy. When I return from trips, I bow down and kiss the earth. We know how lucky we are to live here. Jim and I are co-captains of this boat and it is our job and our joy to create a community of people who love and take good care of each other, no matter what.

We try to share this good place with others so that it is not just our Green Boat, but the communal property of everyone who is “on the boat.” That includes friends and family, but also it encompasses every tree, aster bush, spider, and nuthatch, and even the bull snake that lives near my garden. Squirrels, chipmunks, birds, opossums, raccoons, and skunks are all on the boat.

We share what Martin Luther King called wthe inescapable network of mutuality.” If a bird dies on our land, we bury it. If people need a place to rest and heal, we invite them here. If it is time for a celebration, what better place than under the Nebraska sky surrounded by trees and water?

Most of us take care of what we love and we grow to love what we take care of. Every place has the potential to be beautiful and filled with love, to be, in other words, sacred. Our resplendent blue and green planet is indeed a Noah’s Ark of sorts, only with almost seven billion people and untold more plants and animals. If we don’t sail carefully and tend to those on board, we will perish. If we do manage to keep our boat afloat and sailing forward, our world can continue, not as it is today, but rather in a more joyous, peaceful, and beautiful way.

Here is a blessing I wrote for a demonstration against the pipeline. May it be so.

Blessed be the Great Plains Blessed be Nebraska
Blessed be the Sandhills and the Ogallala Aquifer
Blessed be our Native American ancestors who lived on this land
Blessed be our ancestors who came here from great distances
Blessed be the burr oaks and the cottonwoods
Blessed be the big blue stem and the goldenrod
Blessed be the bull snake and the trout
Blessed be the monarch and the whooping crane
Blessed be the deer and the coyote
Blessed be our children and our grandchildren and the children and grandchildren of all living beings—the snake, the trout, the deer, and the meadowlark
Blessed be those who are working to stop the pipeline and all who work to protect our glorious green and blue planet