How can I not be thinking of the Earth with its full gravity tugging on me on the one day of the year chosen to be dedicated as “Earth Day?” As if EVERY day isn’t one Earth needs to be celebrated, revered, honored and cared for with all our gratitude. 

To consider the earth and all there is to her is huge. However, I have been pondering the importance of little things. There are so many little things that have importance far greater than their size. 

My “Little” Brother

Most recently, I have struggled to attend to every last tiny detail for my “little” brotherto be properly memorialized. I call him my little brother even though he grew to be almost half a foot taller than me. When he was born I was nearly nine, so in that regard he was and would forever remain my little brother. The process to qualify him for recognition as a California state firefighter honored due to his Line of Duty Death (LODD) in August of 2020 has dragged on far too long. Each time I think I am done, there is one more little thing I must attend to. 

Much as I would rather be enjoying springtime outside, this is a return favor to one of my first hiking buddies.

The little thing that took his life is one that is endangering all of us who breathe. It’s called particulate matter or PM for short. Specifically PM sized 2.5 microns and smaller. How small is that?  I knew you would wonder. You may have heard of it recently as many weather forecasts now include something called AQI or Air Quality Index. Due to increasing prevalence of wildfires, communities at great distance from the source of smoke are experiencing “hazy” air. Local jurisdictions issue alerts warning people with sensitive lungs, young children, the elderly, anyone with respiratory issues to avoid being outdoors without wearing an effective mask. 

The “Little Things” that get to us

Our experiences with COVID-19, have made most of us aware of the N-95 (or K-95) masks we need to wear, especially indoors with close proximity to others.  

A human hair is about 30 times thicker than P<2.5 and a COVID viral particle is about 30 times smaller still. So imagine one hair, a thickness near the limit of what we can see with an unaided eye. Thirty particles of pollution could fit inside that width and 90 COVID viral infectors could fit across the width of that single hair. 

You may know that COVID is more easily transmitted in polluted air. That is because several virus bits can piggy-back on individual pollution particles and get carried deep into your lungs. While the virus may infect you immediately, the PM<2.5 load in the air you breathe can build up over time to cause a multitude of problems. 

It’s no secret cigarette smoke is hazardous to our health. Smoke from wildfires also contains resins from tree sap (think “tar”). Even more dangerous are particles of smoke from the increasing number of homes obliterated in catastrophic wildfires. Imagine all the industrial chemicals smoke carries when synthetic materials contained in the average home are ignited.

Hiker viewed from behind walking toward trees, the path obscured by mist or smoke
mist obscured path
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

How “little things” can bring our end

Any one of these “little things” won’t do you harm. However, when multitudes of them thicken the air and accumulate in your lungs, the damage is serious. In my brother’s case, even though he was not a smoker, he worked in the midst of wildfire smoke for twenty-five years and more. The toll of all that smoke exposure was an unusual bulging of the wall of his aortal artery, the one that carries blood from the heart to the lungs. 

While doctors toiled to treat his symptoms of heat exhaustion and dehydration, that bulge burst. Instead of circulating through his lungs to gather oxygen, his blood gushed out and pooled uselessly in his chest. 

My brother’s death, instantaneous as it was, resulted from long term accumulation of many very little things.

Now, take a leap with me if you will. Climate change is worsening from an accumulation of similarly tiny things. PM<2.5 is one of the many microscopic items doing damage along with gases such as CO2 and methane. Microplastics are polluting our oceans and industrial chemicals are able to escape filtration and invade cells in us and every other living thing. 

And Every Little Thing We Can Do Counts

So on this Earth Day, my plea to everyone is do not let your efforts, however little they may seem, be dismissed by those who say, “but what good can ___ do? It’s too little, not enough….” (whatever diminishing descriptor they offer.) In the words quoted in a book I recently read by Thor Hanson, “Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid,” regarding what can any of us do to thwart  climate change, “Everything you can.” I would modify that to say, “Every little thing you can.”

And while I was considering the next little thing I can do, I received today a notice of an effort being made by the organization Galápagos Conservancy to enhance environmental education for the youngest residents of those islands. Click on the link to see a short video about their work. The instagram linktree will take you to their site where every donation this Earth Day will be matched. The spoken Spanish is translated on screen. Listen and you will hear the words “piqueños” repeated several times. The little ones who will inherit this earth from us need to learn all they can from nature. 

With that in mind, following my little brother’s example, I am going to take a little walk now to see what earthly delights nature has waiting for me. 

And I leave you with a more complete version of one of my favorite quotes from Amelia Earhart:

“Courage is the price that Life exacts for granting peace,
The soul that knows it not, knows no release,
From little things;
Knows not the livid loneliness of fear
Nor mountain heights where bitter joy can hear
The sound of wings.”

― Amelia Earhart


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