Giving our thanks to the Earth

Christmas 1999

My mother died when she was young, about the time I had begun asking the big questions.

It distressed me no end that there were no clear answers about the nature of right and wrong, or about the purpose of existence. But shortly before she died, my mother tried to give me a touchstone.

Look for simplicity, she said. That’s always where the answers are.

It was compelling advice, and for me it also held a romantic allure. But, more often than not, I didn’t follow it. There were the toys of life — houses, and cars, and clothes, and, of course, the career path and all that it demanded — and I thought of them as necessities. For the greater part of my adult life, simplicity gave way too often.

I suppose I was no different than young couples today, who know about the extreme threats to the environment, and the far-reaching impacts they can have on life on this planet. Those who embrace environmental values but, at the same time, drive a gas-guzzling sports utility vehicle, or want air conditioning all summer long, or simply buy too much stuff.

We are all bundles of contradictions. But there are some who are less so than most of us, and one of those is Skid Crease.

He and Shawna Gates, his wife, will not be unwrapping a Christmas present for their 3 1/2-month-old baby. « The best toy for a human baby is a human face,’’ Crease says. What they’ll give will be themselves, « Singing, cuddling, telling stories.’’

He and Gates are haunted by the environmental impact of our level of consumption. The ecological footprint of a baby in the developed world is 30 to 50 times times larger than that of a baby in the developing world, Crease says. They want to do what they can, in their own household, to offset the imbalance.

This is nothing new for Crease. His marriage with Gates is his second. He is father to three children from his first marriage. The eldest is 20 years old, the youngest is 14.

Each child would get one present. They would put their gift bags under the tree on Christmas Eve, and find a present in them in the morning. With only one present each, « There was lots of time to play together, and there was no trash. There was zero discharge,’’ Crease says. They stepped outside the spiral of consumerism.

Crease is 52 years old, on secondment from the Toronto District School Board to York University, where he is a course director and environmental science advisor in the Faculty of Education. At the board, he was manager of outdoor education for North York at the Mono Cliffs and Bolton outdoor education centres.

Ten years ago, he went down to Costa Rica as part of a delegation of 25 teachers who were funded by the federal International Development Research Centre to study teacher exchanges.

While there, he visited the Carara Biological Reserve on the Pacific Coast « and felt that I had walked into the Garden of Eden.’’ Officials told him that if it hadn’t been for help from Guardians of the Rain Forest, to which the World Wildlife Fund encourages donations, the Carara reserve would not have had enough money to effectively operate.

Once home, he described the trip to the children, « and they decided to give something back at Christmas, instead of getting something.’’ They asked that the money that would have gone into toys be contributed it to the Guardians of the Rain Forest. For every donation they symbolically protected an acre of rain forest.

Now, years later, they’ve incorporated their childhood idealism into their daily lives. « They’re deeply aware of the issues,’’ Crease says, « very deeply aware,’’ and his pride swells. His eyes mist over. We fall silent, and in the quiet, I return to something he said earlier: « Christmas is a time to honour families, and give thanks to the earth.’’

What better way, I think, than the paths his families have chosen?

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