The air is crisp this morning as I am shuffled forth into the sunlight. I yawn my way open, stretching widely and feeling myself settle in the morning light. The ocean sits quietly on the horizon, dropping beneath the edge of the cliff where I am perched. Just to my left, the sun breaks forth, a bright orange ball bursting from the coastline, as though it is suddenly released from the embrace of the mountains.
To my right, high in the sky, the moon sits peacefully, still residing over the ocean and the land, remaining bright in the moody dawn light, still untouched by the sun’s rays. Her evening watch is nearly done and she will soon retire; but for now, she remains with her waves and her breeze, with her meadows and her trees.
I did not know where this particular journey would take me. Yesterday I was picked up, carried off through the traffic of the city, cruising north beneath the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. Quiet anticipation traveled with me as I wondered about the destination, about the sights I might see, about the tales I might tell. Now I sit and recount those tales, beneath the light of a setting moon and a rising sun. Lovely little moments lived are captured for future moments of reflection. My tale is also captured in these pages, but just one chapter of it- there is really so much more to tell.
I was born in several different countries spread across this world. Before I was what I am today, I was a little bit of many things. My pages are compiled from trees gathered from a forest in northern Oregon. My cover is a strong leather made from the hide of a calf born in the countryside of China. My binding is linen thread made from flax fibers grown in India. And these days my pages are tattooed with ink that is made up of carbon black, drawn from the deepest depths of this planet, either coal or oil, depending upon which of various pens were used. I now exist as many different parts of this Earth, all combined as one.
As a tree I stood tall, breathing deeply every day and night. When it rained, I drank the raindrops through my leaves and my roots. Animals and bugs ran along my thick bark, birds sang from my long arms, I danced with the wind and I stretched for the sun. Eventually, I was cut down, lifted with chains into a very long truck and hauled to a factory for processing. The air in this factory was different, and I no longer used my leaves to breathe. My bark was removed and I was cut into chips. These chips of me were then mixed with chips of others, and then with water and cooked into a paste. Afterwards bleach was poured on me along with chemicals- caustic soda, sodium sulfide and melamine- to give me the desired texture and a different kind of strength than the one I had that allowed me to stand so tall as a tree. After this process I was flattened, and all of the liquid was squeezed out of me. I spent hours drying until finally I was considered finished and was cut into individual pages.
After my brief life in this factory, I was transported to another where my pages were stacked upon one another and I was sewn into my cover, the leather embracing my outer pages. I came to learn my cover had traveled an even greater distance than my pages, first being born as a calf in the fields of mainland China. I had a brown coat and a rattly voice. I spent most of my time grazing and eating corn, I had strong hooves and enjoyed sunbathing on hot sunny days. I think other cows may have thought this odd about me, as they lounged about in the shade, chewing their cud with suspicion.
Eventually I was loaded up with many other calves, and taken to a facility where my life as a calf was ended, and my life as a cover began. The air in this factory was also different, and I no longer used my lungs to breathe. Once the skin was removed, I was coated with salt and sent to a leather tannery, where I was covered with chemicals to remove the grease and hair. After my chemical treatment, I was handled by many workers as they moved me back and forth between various processes. They breathed in the chemicals, and as it soaked into my skin it also soaked into theirs. Finally I was inspected for quality and deemed appropriate to live the life as a journal cover. I was stacked with many other hides, placed in a box and began my very long journey by truck and shipping container destined for the USA, where I would meet my pages and begin this next form of existence as a little bit of many things.
From the factory line where I was bound, I was stacked with others, wrapped in a thin plastic film and placed in a box. This box was lifted onto yet another truck which drove me to this next new home. The next chapter of my life would be lived in a side alley shop in San Francisco. Upon arrival, my plastic was removed and I took my place quietly sitting on a wooden shelf, stacked tightly between others who resembled me. I had a lot of time to reflect on the places I had been, on the pieces of this Earth that had been combined to bring me into this new existence. Little did I know my travels had just begun.
Eventually, my companion lifted me from the wooden shelf, holding me lightly, flipping through my empty, crisp pages. After so many seconds and minutes and hours and days I finally felt the warmth of the sunshine again as we stepped outside of the shop together. I smiled with delight, the sunbathing joys of my youth momentarily relived. As we sat together at the cafe, my pages breathed deep the warm breeze, flapping softly as my branches once had.
As destiny would have it, I would travel all around the world with my companion- we climbed mountains in the Trinity Alps, we paddled rivers and traversed glaciers in Alaska, we visited strawberry harvesters in the fields of Morocco and Mexico, we even spent time walking the floors of factories in China, factories similar to those where parts of me had been created. I’ve flown across the oceans more times than I can count. I’ve opened my pages to capture and share memories on ferries, subways, monorails, cars and airplanes. I hold all of these details within the warm embrace of my soft outer cover, they have become another part of me.
This cover has been worn soft from such constant travel, and a few of my pages have begun to pull loose. Heavy ink is now scrawled across all of my pages, and I spend most of my time on that windowsill, sitting in the sun. My life as a traveling companion has evolved into the role of an old friend to reminisce with, to share laughter and learning.
I am no longer the tree, or the cow, or the coal or flax that I once was. I am, however, still here. I am, after all, a little bit of many things. I cannot determine how my life continues. I cannot determine how my shape and form may change if I am discarded, retired to a landfill somewhere no one will again open my binding and spread my pages. Perhaps I will be recycled, my pages pulled from my cover, and again melted to mix with others in chemicals and water, these stories washed from my folds, bleach replacing the ink, a brief chapter of my life washed away. Who knows, I cannot tell the future. I can only embrace this moment to bask in the sunshine, and each time my cover is parted, my pages breathe deep the wild air, and I will continue to hold tight the stories of this life.
Ever since I first stepped foot on a factory floor and witnessed the thousands of workers hand painting the simple packaging of a plastic toy we were manufacturing, I realized what an incredibly complex system we had created to make the things that we consume. I was taken aback by the realization that every single thing has encountered a remarkable journey to come into existence- from the fields, mines or forests where the raw materials were drawn, to the factory floors in countries all around the world. All for the sole purpose of their arrival to us, the become our possessions. Some of them are tools, some are used to bring pleasure, some we hold onto for years, others only for moments. Regardless of the purpose they ultimately serve, our things share this world with us, and their existence, our demand for their existence, has a direct impact on the state of our planet.
Personally, I’ve gone through all the phases of emotions when it comes to my “stuff”- the guilt of knowing the negative impact the production of that thing likely had on this Earth; the helplessness in my own ability to change the bigger picture, and have any measurable impact beyond my own buying decisions; the ultimate justification for buying things I want but might not need. I don’t believe that feelings of guilt and helplessness inspire change in behavior or a better understanding of practical solutions. I believe curiosity does. I believe that seeking knowledge about the lives of the things we own can inspire a whole knew vision of the world, our place in it and how we choose to interact with it.
I’ve written other pieces about conscious consumerism, about how my own perspective on buying things changed as I learned more and more about the actual cost to our planet and the communities making them. Now I am exploring another perspective, one I hope you might find interesting, a perspective that might ignite a curiosity within you as well. This story is a glimpse into the life of one of my things. It is bottled up in about 1500 words, hardly enough to do the life of this beloved journal justice, but it is meant to only be a glimpse. Just going through the act of writing this has me curious about many of my other things, and the secret lives they’ve lived before coming into my possession.
What kind of stories do the things you hold dearest to your heart carry with them? What kind of a life have you given them? What do you know about where they originally came from, what parts of this Earth were combined to create that one special thing? Who had a hand in bringing your thing into existence? Where will it go once you are finished with it?
Are you curious?