Some time ago I made a dinner announcement to my wife and daughter that I had come up with a grand idea for my final resting place (not that I’m anticipating one just yet). I had been reading about Walt Whitman’s mausoleum in New Jersey and so I thought I might plan for my own mausoleum, and did just that. So at dinner I removed a folded up sketchbook page from my pocket and unfolded it onto the table in front of a platter of my home grown summer tomato salad with arugula. “This,” I announced with great authority, “is a work of genius.”
As the two of them looked on I explained. “My tombstone will be a six foot high granite book. It will have a keyhole on one side, as the book also doubles as a door. You two,” I explained, pointing to both my wife and daughter, “will have a key.”
I continued to outline my plan. Either of them could unlock my tombstone book and it would swing open and reveal a set of stairs they could climb down and enter a chamber lined with all my publications and then they could press a button that looked like the Newbery Award and I would appear as a hologram and read my books to them. I went on to point out all of these details in my drawing and so much more. It was truly brilliant. Just the type of high-tech-digital-meets-low-tech-stone final resting place.
“Well?” I concluded, “what do you think?”
They were not impressed.
I expected they would ask about the price of this fancy final resting place, but I was wrong. Cost was not the issue.
“Well,” my wife began, “I’ve been doing some research on what to do with you when that final day occurs.”
I was all ears. Perhaps a small Grecian style temple? Perhaps a massive, brutalist style bust of my head where you could walk into my open mouth and tickle the synapsis of my brain to create fancy surrealist word couplings.
She continued. “I’ve found the perfect resting place. It is a sock of sorts, a body sized sock that is prepared from natural fabric and is seeded with aggressive mold spores that will slowly consume your body. The idea is that you are put into the sock—it is tied at the top with a drawstring—and you are inserted into a vertical slit in the ground and covered with nutrient rich soil. What will happen is that the spores will feed off of your body and you will be entirely consumed and returned to the earth and after a time there will not be a trace of you except that the ground in which you have been buried is made more fertile.”
I listened to this with utter horror. The idea of not leaving a monument to the fertility of my ego was a crushing blow.
“What happens if I outlive you?” I said to my wife. “Then I can do as I wish.”
“Not so fast,” said my daughter.
“You’ll support me? Won’t you?” I cried.
“No,” she replied. “I’m afraid that green is the new black. You’ll go into the sock with the spores and fertilize the earth. As for your books—well, I can digitize them and we can pulp the paper editions.”
“Even the first editions and first printings?”
She shrugged. “Who cares,” she said. “The library at Alexandria burned many times and people are still alive and functioning.”
For a moment I thought I had been trapped in some sort of Orwellian-Bradbury nightmare. “Do you really feel this way?” I asked.
My daughter looked at me. “Think about what you would have wanted when you were a kid,” she said. “And be honest with yourself.”
I suppose I sat there in some sort of inanimate numbness. I thought my mausoleum was such a good idea. Finally I stood and cleared the table and began to wash the dishes with biodegradable soap.
As I washed I began to think of growing up in old Norvelt where I was from. It was a farm and garden community in Western Pennsylvania. My grandmother repurposed everything. The eggshells were crushed up and sprinkled around her tomato plants as they liked calcium. She dusted the furnace ash across the garden to enrich the soil and retard the weeds. Off to the side of the garden she composted all the organic dinner leftovers along with the chopped up garden clippings. In her kitchen everything had a nourishing purpose for either the people who ate food, or the earth that provided the food. I was always her garden helper and she had taught me well. But somehow I had gone astray. Now I wanted a granite mausoleum when I should be satisfied with becoming a little circle of happy mushrooms. Was “dust to dust, ashes to ashes” not enough?
I guess not. Sure, I want everything green. I want old time winters up north where it should snow before Thanksgiving. I want the ice caps to stay put and not slip around like my own kneecaps. I don’t want the water temperature to rise. I love animals. I loathe warfare. I despise guns and violence of all kind. I want people to have a life of dignity with good work and family and community and hopes and dreams. I am for everything GREEN. And yet, what is it about the ego? Why do we want to leave our mark on history in the most concrete way? Is it the species marking its historic territory? Is it art in the form of archives? Is it leaving a human record for those who come after us so that we are better understood? Is it the pure pleasure of being alive and wanting an ‘X-marks-the-spot’ place to be remembered?
I can’t say for certain. But I write all my books in a library—the Boston Athenaeum—which has saved so much from destruction. We have vast treasures on paper—so many wonderful books and written records, and letters, and deep newspaper collections, and lithographic prints, and early photographs, and great, great archival stuff. Yes, the library digitizes many of the collections and will continue to do even more, but those paper records need to be saved, and I’m grateful that they have been saved.
As for me, I write my books out by hand on paper in notebooks. Who knows, my fifty books may have felled a few trees just in the notebooks—not to mention the millions of printed books. (At least I don’t write them with pencil and contribute to wiping out the cedar reserves).
I do know that like many of us, I float somewhere in the middle of the muddle between being purely green and being practical. I suppose I must say that I’m unsatisfied with how I live. I don’t fully know what to do because my entire life involves some aspects of my contributing to Global Warming. At the moment I write this I’m on a flight from Tulsa where I spoke to students and teachers and parents about books and writing and creativity. How bad could that be? But now, as I leave Tulsa on a jet, I leave behind a trail of foul carbon emissions that probably spell out, Baaad Jaaaack, like toxic sky writing that pollutes the air you are presently breathing.
I do try, however, to make a difference, however miniscule. Perhaps I’m on a pace that is slow, like reading a book, my progress is always one page at a time. My family and I recycle. We try not to waste water and electricity. We use recycled paper for our cat’s litter boxes. And yet, every day I feel slightly guilty, as if being born was my original sin to polluting the earth.
It’s not easy being green. But I put my eggshells around my tomatoes. I grow lettuce. I harvest my radishes and beets. Then again, I have a car. But I walk to work. But my cell phone requires the mining of metals that pollute the earth. Only my thoughts, my absolute flights-of-fancy, my mental cloud watching is pure. Dreaming doesn’t ruin anything. In fact, it may be the first step toward a magnificent solution, for maybe some dreamer somewhere will dream up solutions to save the planet.
I wonder if ghosts pollute? Does artificial intelligence pollute? I am very eager for beings from another planet to come help us work out this issue. I’m desperate. Maybe if I was consumed by a shark I’d feel pure again.
Jack Gantos has written books for readers of all ages, from picture books and middle-grade fiction to novels for young adults and adults. His works include Dead End in Norvelt, Hole in My Life (a memoir) and Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key. His final Joey Pigza novel, The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza, released in September. Follow Jack at www.jackgantos.com.