Handing Down the Future: What Will We Leave Them?

Floyd County Countryside View
Floyd County Countryside View

The knees of my old worn khakis are dark-wet from kneeling to pick while the long green pods still hold crystal drops from the morning’s brief shower. I lift two heavy buckets of green beans fresh from the garden onto the kitchen sink. Soon I will hear the hiss and rattle of the canner, the seal of completion on our gardening commitment, completed while the low sun still spreads cool shadows west across the pasture.

There is a deep satisfaction in this harvest. A gardener at such times claims the right and feels bound by the pleasant obligation to simply sit and savor the wholeness of the cycle now complete: seed to sprout, vine to fruit, and finally at last, from gathering bowl to pressure canner to Mason Jar to upstairs storage shelf.

And so with my part done, I sit on the front porch swing, the rural liturgy begun in April now complete. I look out across the brief, low-hanging valley fog of an August morning, aware suddenly of that it is humid–a summer feature we were pleased to do without for most of July. We’ll have it yet to bear before the high blue skies of September come. We’ll cope with less this year than our usual share of heat-suffering in this oddly moist, cool summer.

Goose Creek glints in the sun, its percussive babble timed to the frenzied chase of swallowtails black and yellow, silver and orange at the butterfly bush just beyond the banister–the noisome creek that, six years ago this month was silent as death. Feast and famine, drought and flood, and life goes on.

At satisfied moments like this when all seems well with the world, I think how fine it would be if I could only hand this day whole, this season, this time and place in my life like a runner’s baton to the next generation, our children and theirs, who will inherit this same soil from which they might gather beans, occasional moments of peace and their daily living; that they might know freedom from want and the pleasures of toil and of harvest from a landscape to which they truly and with gratitude belong: that is my hope.

I think a good bit more about what comes when I’m gone than I once did. I feel a bit like the soon-to-depart house guest who wants to blunt the disruption his short visit has had on his hosts: before he leaves, can he help clean up the clutter he’s caused, restock the groceries eaten from the pantry reserves, and set the house aright before the next guests arrive? It just seems like good manners to consider these things.

But by our sheer numbers and especially by the affluence and effluence of our living, I and my fellow guests here will leave the accommodations in a significantly less durable state of order when we move on than when we moved in just after the second World War.

Those future generations I wistfully imagined knowing the world of their day from my front porch won’t simply by default expect to maintain the status quo, nor can they be satisfied to pattern their lives after the appetites or error of our generation.

Our children’s children will have the new challenges of much, much more expensive energy costs in a very crowded world where disrupted weather patterns and climate shifts will prevail.

But they can still have honorable and meaningful lives. They can experience a good standard of living. But the standards, the scales by which we have measured the goodness of our lives, are going to have to be much different from the Baby Boomer expectations and entitlements that have been the norm for fifty years.

And strangely enough, as I consider what it might take to set things right, many of those new standards of how we must treat the earth and each other may be the old measures of right behavior that guided our grandparents’ lives: consider how you treat the least of your fellow men; bigger barns aren’t always better; it is more blessed to give; think of others more highly than yourselves; love your neighbor; be the servant of all; invest your talents, and be good stewards.

In the end, if we set our hearts and minds on the matter now, we can leave a legacy of improving health for earth’s people and creatures, the air and soil, forests and oceans–a transformation that can only come from a marriage of humility and wisdom with knowledge and ingenuity. I hope my great grandchildren on Goose Creek will look back and acknowledge this as their inheritance from my generation.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Fred – I think this is one of my favorite posts. It’s a keeper that I hope finds its way into a book or one of your radio essays. It captures the thoughts and feelings of so many of us who are your contemporaries – especially in August when the light begins to change and a new season lies ahead. My 40th college reunion is next month and has prompted a search for some of the folks with whom I really want to connect. I called one of them one night last week and we talked for hours even though we hadn’t seen each other since the early ’70s. We’re going to get together in person soon and I suspect that much of what you spoke of today will find its way into our conversation. Thanks, Fred, for the opportunity to take a brief moment to sit in our own swings or on a sun-dappled patio and do some worthwhile thinking and musing about the past and the future. Georgia

  2. What a nice piece of your craft, Fred. While I know it takes a lot of work, when I read your short essay it seems to flow so effortlessly. I guess that’s one of the nicest gifts any artist has to offer. Thanks.

  3. Well said, Fred. I would echo Georgia’s suggestion that it needs to find its way into a book.
    My father-in-law is looking forward to celebrating his 99th birthday in less than a month. Though his eyes are nearly sightless and his gait is more shuffle than not, his mind is clear and he often comments on how society, culture, life in general are so different now. As I listen and watch him, I see glimpses of my future self –should I live so long. At this point in my life, I feel helpless to effect much change. Perhaps that desire needs to start earlier in life? Or perhaps the standards you mentioned are really what matters, what will make the difference after all. The standards so evident in his life, the standards that he passed on to his fine son who passed them on to our children.
    Thank you for a fine post.

  4. “The old standards of right behavior that guided our grandparents’ lives.” The list you made is so good, and I am so unfamiliar with guiding my life that way. What a selfis, self-centered society we have evolved into, and in such a short time, if your description of our grandparents is accurate. I sure wish we could see things as our grandparents did when we contemplate the health care changes that are in the wind.

  5. Nicely written post.

    Simple acts of kindness and intent will be what carries us forward. On a daily basis if we all can manage to strive to make this world a better place all will not be lost.

    Eliminating unnecessary automobile trips, growing our own food as much as possible, harvesting from nature where possible, sharing our bounty with others, are all good ways to start.

    I loved the photo at the beginning.



  6. I’m telling my friends to read this piece. One of my personal mantras is to leave it better than I found it. I think of that when I pick up a piece of trash or try to make someone smile.