★ ★ ★ ★


By Annie Mark-Westfall

My four-year-old has been having bad dreams lately. He wakes up in the middle of the night screaming.

“The planet is dying! I don’t want the planet to die!”

I climb into his bed and hold him. It has become a recurring dream. Very calmly and sleepily, I say of course the planet isn’t dying, everything is fine, go back to sleep. He curls against me, shoves his finger into his mouth, and sleeps heartbreakingly deep.

Meanwhile, I lay wide awake next to him, trying to utilize lessons from my yoga practice. Inhale, exhale. Breathe in his innocence, breathe out my worries.  My own silent tears now spill into his impossibly blond hair, as I lay frozen in panic. I don’t want the planet to die either, little dude.

I think about how, when I was four (or in my memories of being four), there was a giant hole in the ozone layer and a terrifying disease called AIDS was spreading, but we did not know how or why. It felt like the sky was falling.

Every generation forever has felt this way, I know. But it is in my generation that koalas might go extinct; and apparently the greatness of koalas and Dolly Parton are two of the only things left that people can agree on.  

My children don’t watch TV (Netflix doesn’t count) so I am not sure how he knows the planet is dying. When I ask him one morning, he tells me about looking down from a rocket ship and watching it all burn.

This is a true story. But only my side of the tale, in which the media terrifies me with stories of the fires in the Amazon, Australia, and Siberia, and I assume my child has somehow intuited my guilt and fears about his future. (Actually, I do not worry that the planet will die. The Earth will be fine. It is its inhabitants that I am concerned about.)

From this four-year old’s perspective, these dreams are perhaps just one more manifestation of his newfound fascination with fire. The same morning that he told me about watching the planet burn, he grabbed a box of matches, asked, “What’s that?” already knowing the answer. Matches, don’t touch!

His interest in fire began at Thanksgiving, at the house of a friend with a wood stove, and was further stoked by the Hanukkah candles last month. As a cautionary tale, I share how my own childhood fascination with matches led to a close call in the bathroom with a roll of toilet paper. He stares at me wide-eyed.

On our way out the door, as I hustle him along to daycare, he tries to form another question, “Can one fire… can a small… can fire… can it really burn 100 forests? Or just one?” He is quoting, I assume, from The Paper Bag Princess, a book about a witty girl who outsmarts a dragon in order to save her prince. my perspective, it is a feminist story, which I love. From his, the dragon (whose fiery breath burns 100 forests), or maybe the fire is the real hero.

“Yes baby,” I pause, wondering how much to share. “One tiny spark can create huge fires.” I remember childhood words from Smokey the Bear, Only YOU can prevent forest fires!

As I load the kids into our cargo bike, checking their helmets and seatbelts, I marvel again at the incredible differences in our childhoods. My son is fascinated by my stories of riding a yellow school bus driven by a man called Shrimpboat, bumping along backcountry dirt roads in southeast Ohio. My children ride to their Kita in Berlin, in a bike that looks like a wheelbarrow, along dedicated bike lanes. I pedal onwards, thinking of childhood and home.

The big news from my Ohio hometown is that a local kid won the Heisman Trophy—the award given to the best college football player in the country. His name is Joe Burrow, and we graduated from the same high school. This is the part that I don’t care too much about, although certainly many thousands of people do; and I am happy for Joe and for them.

More importantly, however, is that Joe seems to be a good human being. The kind that I hope my own son grows up to be one day.  In his Heisman acceptance speech, Joe said, “I’m up here for all those kids in Athens and in Athens County that go home to not a lot of food on the table, hungry after school… and you guys can be up here, too.”

With these words, Joe lit a whole region on fire – but in the best way possible. Not only did he make everyone cry, he practically exploded our heads with pride.

Joe Burrow’s speech inspired a Go Fund Me campaign for the local food bank. Within two weeks, more than half a million dollars was raised—for a volunteer organization used to spending $80,000 per year. Myriad newspaper and television stories poured through the airwaves, and every Appalachian and Ohioan in the media covered the story.

And yes, I am one of the people, even sitting in Berlin, Germany, half a world away, who is enormously proud of this kid. But on closer reflection, perhaps it is not really pride that makes me cry every damn time I read or watch this speech. Perhaps it is because in the year 2020, there are children, families, human beings in the freaking United States of America who do not have enough food to eat. And we continue to use Go Fund Me to provide life’s basic necessities for people, while our government spends our taxes on wars, on golf trips, on the fossil fuel industry. While our planet burns.

When we arrive at his school, I kiss my son. “Be good!” I tell him. Only YOU can prevent forest fires! Smokey’s voice calls out in my head.

I wish I could prevent forest fires. At least I no longer have to worry about the ozone layer. I breathe in his innocence, breathe out my worries, wave goodbye, and get on with the day.

Annie Mark-Westfall graduated from Kenyon College in Ohio. As a former Fulbright grantee and Robert Bosch Foundation fellow, she views herself as a cultural ambassador. Her day job is with an international conservation organization.


  1. Pat

    Well said!!!!

  2. JeaNne

    I love your touching stories and wish we didn’t have to worry about destroying pity planet . Our generation has left you a mess. I’m so sorry

  3. Eva H

    Well said! After living in the US, I now live in the UK and often have these same thoughts myself. I gave birth to my son last year and now even more than ever I feel (and experience daily) how one of, if not the richest, nations on the planet is a world away from other developed nations in so many aspects of life. I feel sad and angry at the same time about many things in the States and count my blessings every day that I’m raising my son in London.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.