In 1971, two oil tankers collided in the San Francisco Bay and caused the second largest oil spill in San Francisco waters. More than 800,000 gallons of black sludge entered the bay. The largest spill was in 1937 when close to 2,800,000 gallons were spilled. At age four I didn’t understand much about the ecological disaster. I knew there was a mess and that animals were dying, but most of all I knew my hippy mother was leaving me every day and I didn’t like it. For weeks she’d go away to help coordinate clean ups all along the Marin County coastline with her group called the “Eco Moms.” She’d come home with stories of birds marinated in toxic goo. On one occasion my sister and I went to a clean up area and the carnage of birds with their eyes rotted away still lingers in my memory. This event was the first to make me realize that people could be dangerous to nature.
About this time, I had the luck of meeting someone whose teachings and passion for nature would forever affect my life. I had the privilege of getting to know the world acclaimed naturalist-teacher and conservationist, Elizabeth Terwilliger. Not only was she a generous neighbor who once gave my friend Sandro and me her old catamaran, but her nature tours are cherished childhood memories. The award-winning "Tripping with Terwilliger" habitat films that were produced by Joan Bekins have been seen by 60 million youngsters in the U.S. Over her life, “Mrs. T” would go on to receive many national awards including being honored in 1984 at the White House for her 40 years of volunteer work teaching children about nature.
The more I learned about nature from people like Mrs. T, my parents, and other naturalists, the more I learned that the health of our environment was at the mercy of human beings. I assumed that the world leaders who ran the world’s countries were too wise to let environmental deterioration get out of control. But as years went by, I came to realize and fear that protecting the environment wasn’t a big concern for too many people. To express my fears, I wrote a statement for my high school yearbook. It read, “If mankind destroys himself and life on Earth, I will pity his past existence and cry for all the unheard voices of nature.”
In retrospect, I see how this statement lacks literary merit, but I at least thought back then that such a statement would ignite some kind of response from students and faculty. But nobody said anything to me. I asked some peers and teachers if my words meant anything to them. They answered, “That’s just reality.” I didn’t understand why my words weren’t taken more seriously because they seemed so crucial to everybody’s life.
In college, I started compiling some facts because people responded to facts. I asked people, “Did you know that the nations with atomic bombs have the ability to destroy the Earth ten times over?” or “Did you know that at any given time there are dozens and dozens of wars going on around the world?” or “Did you know that every year people’s activities cause the destruction and extinction of numerous plants and animals?” The responses this time were things like, “You can’t worry about that stuff because you’ll get an ulcer,” or “Focus on what you’re going to become in life,” or “You’re depressing,” or “You’re so intense.”
I repeatedly experienced the same feelings of defeat as the narrator of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince” when his artwork was dismissed by grown ups. Like the narrator who gave up on what might have been a magnificent career as a painter, I gave up on the idea that I was capable of making a difference around these seemingly awful things. I was discouraged by my failure to motivate people to face what seemed so important. I became quiet. I decided I wanted to choose a profession where I’d be taken more seriously with things I had to say. I thought I should become a doctor. Aiming for this profession did make people take me more seriously. But I never became a doctor because my passion wasn’t medicine; it was the environment and ultimately the health of the planet.
As more years passed, I continued to keep my thoughts to myself regarding the protection of the earth. I believed I was too insignificant to make a difference. I dismissed my real concerns by keeping busy in the business world. This is the way my life was until I had the good fortune of working for the renowned neurologist and entrepreneur Dr. Harley E. Schear. He taught me that I could make a difference and he showed me that the recipe for making a difference was rather simple. Basically you just had to be committed and repeatedly act on that commitment.
I slowly began expressing the issues that were important to me by writing about them. About the time I realized that I wanted kids, I was getting clear on what was truly important to me - my family, my friends and my health. Knowing that a polluted environment put what was important to me at risk. The health of the environment became my focus. Before long, I found myself trying to figure out how I could change the way people look at environmental problems. Inspiring love and respect for nature at a young age through a children’s story seemed like a good place to start. But what kind of story could instill in a child a deep love for our planet? I asked myself, what was it that made people say, “We must protect earth!” Searching for the answer to this question lead me to read more and more about the dramatic things the Apollo astronauts said about earth. I read that viewing our planet from a distance was an experience that genuinely transformed a persons thinking about earth. Then I had a longing to hear this directly from someone who had actually been out in space.
Luckily through a close friend, I had the privilege of getting connected with the first person to ride on top of a rocket into space three times - Captain Walter M. Schirra, Jr., veteran of the space missions Apollo 7, Gemini 6 and Mercury-Sigma 7. He said to me during an interview on 2/21/00, “From space, you can see pollution in earth’s oceans and sky. You realize that humans had better learn to be more careful with this one and only place we need to live.” I interviewed a total of three Apollo astronauts including Captain Eugene Cernan (pilot of Gemini 9, lunar module pilot aboard Apollo 10 and commander of Apollo17) and Colonel Frank Borman (crew member of Gemini 7 and commander of Apollo 8). All three of these early veterans of space exploration expressed in their words that the view of earth from space transforms the human understanding of, “who we are on this world” and “what we are doing to it.”
As a result of these interviews, I challenged myself to create a story that could somehow convey some of these revelations to children. This began my endeavors at writing what would one day become Sofia’s Dream.