The dusk deepened as we stood in prayer in the small meadow beside the pond after hearing the haunting melody of Kol Nidre and its awkward words about vows unfulfilled. The pond is shrinking, the natural progression of succession is taking place, and all around its borders bushes and trees are filling in. We couldn’t see the pond. But as I finished my silent meditation during the Amidah prayer, and just before I turned to head back along the path toward the lighted building where we would complete our service, a great blue heron flew up out of the pond and turned toward the open meadow and the waning light. My heart skipped a beat as I stood in awe of this awkward beautiful bird.
In the short weeks since then, as the holidays continued, I saw three more great blue herons. Once, out on my bicycle, I stopped by the bridge over the river for a moment to get some respite from the traffic that was heavier than I like. There in the edge of the water, the sight of a heron greeted me.
A few days later I went with a friend to a city beach early on a quiet Sunday morning as she engaged in an immersion with spiritual dimensions. We saw the gulls and the cormorants, and then a heron. A heron with which she is familiar, as she frequents these city shores. “It’s usually over on the other side. I’ve rarely seen it here.”
The last in this series of sightings occurred on the last day of the holiday cycle, as I walked through the woods in the rain. My eyes scanned the pond as I neared the end of my walk, and there it was, standing in the shallow water, erect, noble, hard to call beautiful, but awesome nevertheless. Perhaps herons will inherit the world.
The floods are coming. So our Torah portion tells us this week – or so G!d told Noah one day back in prehistory. The floods are coming. Prepare yourself. It is too late to stop it. The world is corrupt. Prepare, for yourself and for all the animals that walk the earth. It is your responsibility to save them. The floods are coming.
Today, are the floods coming? Is it too late? Perhaps, but perhaps not, too. G!d told Noah after the flood that he would never again destroy the earth. He set the rainbow in the sky as a sign of his promise. What about our side of the covenant? Perhaps we can still make a change. Perhaps we can equate each animal with one action, and be motivated to act, to change our ways, to transform ourselves and our world. And so, in the name of the heron, I identify the aluminum can.
Annie Leonard, in her amazing book, The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health-and a Vision for Change, tells – among many other things the story of aluminum cans. Americans use about 100 billion cans year, which translates into 340 per person, or about a can a day per person. Here’s some of what Leonard has to say about aluminum cans:
A can starts its life as a reddish ore called bauxite, which gets strip-mined in Australia, Brazil, Jamaica… The mining displaces native people and animals and cuts down legions of…trees.
The bauxite is transported elsewhere to be washed, pulverized, mixed with caustic soda, heated, settled, and filtered until what’s left is about half the weight of the original ore in aluminum oxide crystals…[along with]… a waste slurry…made of the extremely alkaline caustic soda, as well as iron from the bauxite. Th[is] mud is often just held in huge open-air pools. Were a major storm to flood these reservoirs, the environmental damage…would be devastating…
Next the aluminum oxide is transported to smelters…[M]aking one aluminum can takes energy equivalent to one-quarter of the can’s volume in gasoline…[and] requires more energy than any other metal processing on earth…[T]he aluminum oxide crystals are dissolved in…cryolite…and zapped with enormous jolts of electricity….which strips the oxygen from the aluminum. This process also breaks off bits of…fluorine…which escapes…[as]the most oxious of greenhouse gases, trapping thousands of times more heat than carbon dioxide. (pp. 64-65)
You get the idea. There is more, of course, such as the relocation of smelters from rich countries to places like Mozambique and the Amazon River basin, which requires the construction of dams, roads, and other infrastructure, irreversibly impacting biodiversity and displacing native peoples.
Returning or recycling the cans is helpful, but doesn’t solve the problem, in part at least to the fact that people don’t do it. Aluminum recycling in this country is on the decline. When we are not at home, we toss cans into the garbage at the T-station or mall. In addition, subsidies for virgin aluminum make it more profitable to extract the metal from the earth than to recycle it. More than 1,000,000,000,000 – one trillion – aluminum cans have been trashed in the past 38 years (p. 66). What will the next 38 years bring?
What happens in our minds if we equate herons and aluminum cans? Envision the heron flying up from the pond at dusk and ask yourself, Do I really need to buy these cans? And if I buy them, do I need to throw them in the garbage? What if every can thrown away was actually one heron thrown away? What would I do then?
Noah was one single righteous person. Through him, the Holy One of Blessing saved the animals that they might repopulate the land after the flood. Noah had a mighty task, and so do we. Like Noah, we can make a difference in the future of the world, one aluminum can at a time, one heron at a time.
May this be a vow we fulfill.
Rabbi Katy Z. Allen