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Ken Beider July 28, 2008
Empty Skies & Their Other
by Ken Beider

For the record, I teach Language Arts at a high school, which is located in the Southwest area of Tucson, AZ.

Needless to say—but I’ll say it, anyway—there is an abundance of sky, without the trappings of too many buildings to puncture the view. I like to begin each school year with a field trip all the way out into the wilds of the school parking lot. (Alas, we are a poor school that cannot afford a bus let alone the gas needed to move.) My purpose is to show, rather than tell, my students why focusing on that which they are already aware rather than on acquiring bits of knowledge that resides outside of their spheres of familiarity is, in part, what’s leading to the on-coming demise of our fair planet. For it’s not only them but all of us.

When we reach the parking lot, always on cloudless days, I have the students gaze into the sky, and after a bit of reflection, describe what they see. Invariably, I receive descriptions such as beautiful, blue, large, and other bland adjectives that describe what they are seeing in the moment. I note to myself, yet again, that nothing is said by way of comparison or contrast, although, this is what I am after. I understand, however, both what they see, and more importantly, what they do not see. What they are looking at is what they have come to know through a culmination of experiences gathered during their 15 to 18 years on this planet.

I continue to press them. “What else do you see?”
 Eventually they get tired of hearing me ask over and over again, “What else?” and they try to turn the tables on me.
“What do you see, Mr. Beider. ”
“I see a vast expanse of emptiness,” I say.
“Yeah, but the sky’s always empty.”
“No, that’s not true,” I insist. “When I was a boy, I remember that you could not help but see birds when you looked up, even if you didn’t want to. Now-a-days, you have to search for them.”

I then tell them a story that I gleamed from a biography on George Washington, titled His Excellency. In the book, the author tells the story of how birds would crisscross the skies in such vast numbers that they would, oftentimes, blot out the sun, sending people diving to the ground in fear that the darkness was a harbinger of doom.

“So what, Mr. B., I mean, who needs birds anyway?”
“We do,” I say, in response to a gale of indifference.

They ask why because all they know are empty skies, and the realization never fails to sadden me. Few, if any of them have seen a condor or an eagle in flight, or a hawk swooping down on its prey, or flocks of geese flying south for the winter. They don’t know what they are missing because they never had the opportunity to indulge in anything but lifeless skies.

As for me, I can’t help but wonder if the skies are reflections of the earth’s oceans, and, likewise, if fish are not counterpoints to birds. Are the earth’s skies and oceans in sync, emptying at the same rate? Can the community of life on this planet survive under a blanket of lifeless skies and above desolate oceans? Will life still be worth it?

I try to share these concerns with my students. Many of them profess not to care. Maybe it’s just that they don’t want to be bothered with realities that they have been made to believe they are powerless to change. Not needing to address a loss that they have never known, raises yet another concern. Is it even possible for a generation of people to feel loss for that, which they have never possessed or come to know? I hope so. For if not, then what will motivate them to spend the money that’s needed, and take the time that will be demanded if the environmental problems of this planet are to be addressed.

The purpose of this field trip, mind you, is not to change my students into environmental activists. No, I just want them to ask themselves questions, and not accept the state of our current plight simply because this is what they have been given, and is all that they know.

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