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To be awake is to be alive. I have never met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?
from Walden, Henry David Thoreau

I taught Chapter 2 of Walden in a freshman college seminar for years — then stopped teaching it for the last few. The students’ reaction to it depressed me. Eyes would roll, or wince, or slowly close in sleep. Though some were always reached and moved, most spent their time hating his admittedly ornate prose, ferreting out this or that hypocrisy, or answering his insights with a resounding “duh.”

I’d try to point out that worrying about the environment or about the restless expansion of unquiet civilization was far from duh-level obviousness in 1840s America. That these are now a bit more “obvious” is due in large part to cranky visionaries like Thoreau.

(Pfft. Why is it so easy to picture me, whitehaired, palsied, hands folded on a plaid lapblanket in my wheelchair, pathetically refighting old seminars with dim ghosts of eighteen-year-olds now on Medicare?)

I could go on about Thoreau — fired from teaching for refusing to use corporal punishment on his students, later jailed for refusing to support slavery and a particularly stupid war — but all of those flowed from the one thing that most grabbed me about him: he was trying as hard as he could to wake the hell up and to bring us along.

Which brings me to this alarm-clock photo:


It’s two million plastic beverage bottles, the number used in the US every five minutes.



Closer detail:

IMAGES © CHRIS JORDAN. Used by permission.

The unreduced photo, by the way, is 5 feet high and 10 feet across. The impact in the gallery must be incredible.

The photographer is Chris Jordan, whose astonishing work draws attention to the consequences of runaway consumer culture. Take a minute to check out his website, and by all means, share it with the kids. Connor (12) was riveted, appalled, and motivated.

(Many thanks to Leslie’s Blog for introducing me to Chris’s work.)

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.