A few days before Thanksgiving, a young man died miserably in a bleak and crowded apartment on the north side of St. Louis. He was the victim of a card game gone wrong, a game that somehow had turned violent, and he was shot to death.
The young man was my cousin, but he was not so much a man, really; he was just a boy. He was only 16 years old. But he lived and died in a part of town where boys are forced to grow up fast and to play like men, where they live a life that is sometimes hard to comprehend. This life is often dangerous and must seem, the way it gets lived out, without a lot of purpose even to those–or especially to those–who are forced to live it. It must in many ways seem endless to them too, until, of course, the end comes.
He was my cousin, but I did not know him well. He lived his life far removed from my own. And although I was saddened by the circumstances of his life and death, his situation was so distant from me and so foreign to me that it seemed almost irrelevant. Perhaps if I had known him better or if I could have seen myself in his shoes, I might have felt more–more sorrow and outrage, more fear, more connection to his plight. If my own life had been more closely related to the life my cousin and those around him lived, then perhaps I would have been less bewildered and would have cared more.
I should have cared more anyway.
In another part of St. Louis there is a group of children who never knew my cousin at all and yet who want somehow to mark his death and to honor his life as if they did know him–as if his life and their lives were connected in some way. In a few months from now they will plant for my young cousin a tree in what they call the Forest of Life.
It isn't, of course, my cousin's life alone that they will gather to commemorate and, in a way, to celebrate, but also their own lives and life itself. For they have come to realize how dear and how fragile life is and how closely their own lives resemble those of other young people who lose their way and die long before their time. So this year at planting time, these young people, who call themselves the Earth Angels, will meet in a park as they have done every year since 1993, and they will plant trees in the Forest of Life. One tree for every child 16 years old and younger who has died a violent, unnatural, and premature death.
The Earth Angels number about 200 and range in age from six to 13 or 14. But even at their young ages they understand the life my cousin lived and are not bewildered by his death. His world of bitter bleakness is not so far from the world they live in, and yet these Earth Angels have managed, with the aid of their adult helpers, to at least attempt to bridge the gap between despair and hope, between death and life, between what is and what is possible.
Six years ago one of their friends was killed, and they wanted to do something to remember him. The idea was theirs. Someone suggested that the group plant a tree for him and a tree for every kid who had died that year. They took money they had earned and money they raised, and that first year they planted 33 trees. Since then they have planted 68 more. One hundred one trees planted. One hundred one children dead.
"Trees," one of the Earth Angels told me, "represent life to us and they represent the kids who died because, like kids, trees are supposed to grow and grow until they really get big. Now those kids are dead and the trees will have to grow up for them."
Christine Palmer, who said that to me, is 12 years old. She joined the group when a friend told her what the Earth Angels were all about, what they learn, and what they do for the community–which is, she said, "trying to make the neighborhood look like something and to help the people understand what's good and what's bad." So they pick up trash and they scan for cans, which they sell to a recycling center, and they plant trees and butterfly gardens, and they try to make people aware that all life is sacred and that the earth is sacred too–and that, like children, it deserves protection.
They call themselves an environmental group because they are being taught about the interconnected workings of the planet and because they have gathered up more than 800,000 cans and recycled more than 60,000 pounds of glass, five tons of newspapers, and more than a thousand rubber tires thrown away and left on the street, not to mention scrap iron and batteries and plastic containers. They have raised enough money to buy 60 acres of South American rain forest and 60 solar cookers to send to African refugees. They have given $1,500 of their money to the Tapir Preservation Fund and over $1,000 to the Wilderness Society's Ancient Forest Campaign in the Pacific Northwest. And they've donated money and distributed flyers calling for a halt to the expansion of the St. Louis Art Museum, which would have destroyed 22 acres of Forest Park. They won, and the expansion project was stopped.
The Earth Angels are learning to care about the environment in which they live–and learning to act to create a world they want to live in. They are children doing the work of adults.
"When we tell people about the Forest of Life," Christine told me, "we want them to know that it could have been their child that died."
What they are discovering is a connection between having something to care about and having something to live for: purpose and commitment.
What comes from the mouths of these kids is nothing profound, nothing we don't know and haven't heard many times before (Chris Calloway, 14 years old: "Nobody likes to live in filth. So we clean now to make it easier for later generations.") But the fact that they are so conscious and committed is contagious. There are stories of adults in their housing-project neighborhood coming out to the street to watch the kids pick up trash and recyclables and then joining in the cleanup. By living what they have learned and what they believe–which is more than most of us do–they are setting an example, teaching the adults around them and other children, too, that the earth matters, that a connection and commitment to the land enhances their self-esteem and gives their lives a daily purpose.
"It started out as just something to do, something to keep me off the streets. And it still is," Sada Moore explained to me. She's 14 and has been with the group for seven years now. She joined at first because, like most of the kids, she heard it was fun. "And it is fun," she said. "We play lots of games, but the games teach us that even when you're living in the projects, there's nature all around you. And we have to protect it or we won't have it anymore."
So they've adopted lakes, which they keep clean, and they adopted Sandy Island, an eagle sanctuary in the Mississippi River. They donate money to support it and do cleanup expeditions to try to keep trash off the island. "These are the things we learn," Jetnessa Ford said. "It's fun but it's our future. If the land is unlivable, we'll be gone. Every time an animal or a plant goes extinct, people get closer to extinction too."
The work they do is something they can be proud of–and they are. Their connection to the land has brought them closer to each other, closer to the homeless to whom they give food, closer to the animals they know are all around them, and closer to other kids whose lives may not seem to have as much meaning. All from caring about the land, cleaning up trash, and recycling. All from the not-so-simple act of planting a small butterfly garden. When the city mowed it down, they fought back and got it replanted and tended it until the butterflies returned.
Maybe that's why they plant the Forest of Life.
They are children, but they are doing the work of angels.
Land & People, Spring, 2000
Eddy L. Harris is a native of St. Louis. He is a graduate of Stanford University and the author of four critically acclaimed books, among them Mississippi Solo and Still Life in Harlem. He lives in Paris. The website for Earth Angels is members.aol.com/Halo4Earth