Last spring, we camped in the Sonoran desert for our kids’ spring break, bathing in the sunshine after record winter snowfall in our Colorado hometown and savoring the “superbloom,” a fireworks display of wildly abundant spring flowers. Waterfalls of silky orange poppies cascaded down hillsides. Purple lupine lined the roads. By dusk, the intense heat slipped away along with the daylight. Bats swooped over our campsite as the sky becomes a starry darkness. It was my kind of vacation.
My children felt differently. One afternoon, we drove on the outskirts of Tucson through a promenade of big-box stores. My 12-year-old daughter, Rosie, funneled all her energy into spotting the Dollar Tree amid the squared hulking buildings with their distinctive logos, more recognizable to most Americans than their regional flora and fauna. This was my daughter’s kind of vacation.
If this blooming desert won’t stand up to their world, beckoning them with unlimited entertainment and the lure of perky YouTubers peddling merch, we were, as a species, in very big trouble.
As we blurred past storefronts, a familiar despair washed over me. I long for my children to find value and intrigue in the natural world rather than in unrestrained consumerism. It’s hard for me to separate their lust for the next landfill-bound fad from my failure to imprint my conservation values on their developing minds. When this mixes with my worry about the demise of the planet, it can make for troubling parent-child relations.
“Do you think everything at the Dollar Tree actually costs a dollar?” Rosie asked, concern tightening her voice. “Because if not, maybe we should look for Dollar General or Family Dollar.” Like my own captivation with desert plants — spiny and waxy and extravagantly orange — Rosie was taking note of the subtle variations on a theme “Hey — what about the 98 cent store?” she asked, a new species calling to her.
I swallowed my sermon on how clever, well-funded marketers have sold her a lie that the next new shiny thing will bring her happiness and how the longing for pleasure delivered through single-serving stuff is actually killing our planet. These are not popular messages among the backseat contingent.
We had spent the morning hiking in Romero Canyon, northwest of Tucson, gossiping about saguaros: which had the most arms, the tallest trunk, the most classic storybook look. We delighted in bright cardinals and their cartoonishly chunky red beaks. The sun cranked up the heat. Lizards darted. My 14-year-old son challenged us with logic riddles.
I announced how much fun we were all having, like a salesperson trying to sell the kids on something — the wonders of quick-moving birds and slow-moving cacti. They could smell my fear: If this blooming desert won’t stand up to their world, beckoning them with unlimited entertainment and the lure of perky YouTubers peddling merch, we were, as a species, in very big trouble.
A friend recently said to me, about adolescents: “They’re questioning everything. That’s their job.” I get it: If it is my voice railing against retail therapy, that will become the easy target against which they will necessarily rebel. As when Rosie says, “Hey, World Market looks interesting!” and her father replies, “How ‘bout the actual world; that could be interesting, too.” Now, mental space available for outrage is directed toward her father, rather than the corporations that convince us we are hopelessly deficient without their products.
I would like nature to be a salve, a refuge, a teacher for my kids, as it was for me as a young adult investigating my own cultural conditioning. At the same time, I don’t want to shame my children for wanting what they want. I believe that if they get to taste all the flavors of consumerism — the joy and heartache — they will find their own wisdom.
We located the Dollar Tree, and Rosie exploded from the car clutching $16. I found her in line, behind a man gathering 100 toiletries. “For the homeless,” he explained. He returned multiple times, arms loaded with toothbrushes, shampoo and other items that confer human dignity. The part of me that wanted to point fingers at some villain had to lower my hand and reconsider. Rosie and I were stilled by his kindness but also by his cheery resolve. I detected no inner tension, not about the copious plastic bags, nor the dubious “scents” in the scented deodorant. Life was more complex than I’d made it out to be.
Rosie paid for her 16 items; I covered the tax. “Just one bag, please,” she requested.
Back at camp, we set off in the waning light for Romero Creek. A rabbit paused in the shadows. The saguaros were, inexplicably, just as we left them; I had crossed through 10 emotions and back again.
At the creek, Dan and the kids conducted a stick race downstream. A Gila woodpecker called from the top story of a saguaro. The kids were barefoot and laughing, cheering on their stick-boats as the sun cashed out on another day. “This is so fun!” Rosie shrieked. I felt the utter relief of not having to sell them on anything, of simply letting the experience of unstructured joy in nature imprint its hopeful message on them. If the kids are in the business of questioning everything, I hope they found one small answer in this moment.
This post first appeared at High Country News and is reprinted here with permission.