Educators on Expedition: We Borrow this Earth from our Children

The following post was written by 2014 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Emily Starr Bean during her expedition to Iceland. The Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program is a professional development opportunity made possible by a partnership between Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Education. 

Expedition Location: Iceland 

We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.

Iceland is a country of 325,000, smaller than the population in Oakland, California, where I teach kindergarten. It occupies 103,000 square kilometers, about the size of Kentucky. And yet, despite the island’s small population and geographic area, it is one of the most pristine and geologically diverse places on earth.

Throughout my 8 days circumnavigating Iceland, I was struck again and again by the country’s incredible beauty. Each day brought some new, unpredictable wonder. As I witnessed the array of landscapes, geological formations, and bird species, I repeatedly returned to the sentiment expressed in the proverb above. This land is not something we have inherited, something to which we have a right. The earth is, to the contrary, a temporary gift, something to which we are accountable not for our own gain but for posterity. Our privilege is to enjoy its beauty and complexity. Our responsibility is to preserve it for those to come.

Thinking ahead toward the children who await me back in Oakland, I am trying to decide how to convey this powerful message that resonated so strongly as I traveled. Three experiences in particular clarified the need for this responsibility to our children: the mud pools at Namaskard, the Arctic terns of Grimsey Island, and the icebergs of Jökulsárlón.

The earth is . . . a temporary gift, something to which we are accountable not for our own gain but for posterity.

Namaskard: Mud and Steam Springs—Geologic Timelessness

Bubbling, sulfurous mud springs burst open as they reached the surface of the Earth at Namaskard. Photograph by Emily Starr Bean.

As we pulled up to Namaskard, in the Myvatn area of Iceland, we were warned of the strong sulfurous smell that would overwhelm us upon opening the doors of the bus. Feeling brave, I disembarked the vehicle into what seemed like could not possibly be Earth. The moon, perhaps, or maybe Mars, but certainly not this planet. The ground in front of me was colored in brown, orange, and gray tones. Billowing steam (and yes, the sulfur warning was merited!) escaped from multiple springs that dotted the landscape. Mud springs were interspersed between the steam, momentarily forming bubbles that burst upon arriving at the Earth’s surface.

Iceland is one of the most geologically active places on earth. For millions of years its complex terrain has been formed through a series of complex forces—volcanic eruptions, rifting continental plates, and unique geothermal phenomena like those found at Namaskard. Standing amidst the steam springs and mud pits, staring off into the distance at a land marked by so much creation and destruction over time, I was humbly reminded of the enormity of the history of this planet and the minute role I play in it.

Arctic Terns on Grimsey Island: 
We are Just Visitors Here

Arctic Terns at the Arctic Circle dominate the aerial space, reminding us that we are simply visitors on their land. Photograph by Emily Starr Bean.

Later in the day, we visited Grimsey Island, which rests on the Arctic Circle. This island was arguably the most magical part of the expedition—the part during which I felt most connected to the Earth and most accountable to its preservation. We arrived by Zodiac in the late evening to a gorgeous “sunset” (although, at such a northern latitude in the summer, the sun never actually sets). After disembarking, we walked a little over a kilometer to arrive at the place where Iceland crosses into the Arctic.

While everyone took photographs of themselves entering the northernmost part of the Earth, I found myself drawn toward a field adjacent to the Arctic Circle. I took a moment to rest in the thick green grass and peer into the celestial space above. As surreal as a dream, thousands of Arctic terns, with their articulated wings, split tail feathers, and cacophony of noise, swooped near my body, asserting their dominance and clarifying my status as a visitor. I lay there, blissfully surrounded by this beauty, this amazing habitat in which each organism plays its carefully specified part, developed over millions of years of evolution, and I thought of my students. How lucky I am to be here, and how much I wish that opportunities to visit and live among such environmental bliss will still exist for them in their lifetimes.

(Glacier Lake): A Glacier in Retreat

While beautiful, the scenery serves as an ominous reminder of the retreating glacier. Photography by Emily Starr Bean.

The following day we arrived at the third of the wonders—a glacier. We were given the opportunity to visit the Skalafell Glacier itself as well as the large lake that now rests about 8 kilometers from where the glacier used to be (The lake has only come into existence during the last 100 years as Skalafell has been in retreat, arguably due to global warming.). When we arrived at the water, we were witness to incredible icebergs punctuating every part of the lake, producing a feeling of stillness and something that straddled the space between the majestic and the ominous.

A Call to Action
While these icebergs are visually stunning and also a natural occurrence alongside a glacier, there was an eeriness to the beauty, a warning that if we don’t act, this glacier will continue to recede. If we don’t act, those Arctic terns, flying above a land that was formed over millions of years of geological activity, will discontinue their aerial dance. And if we don’t act, we will strip our children of their privilege to the gift which we have borrowed from them.

What are you doing to preserve this Earth for our children?

This post is one of our selected stories from teachers who have seen incredible environments — to bring the experience back to their students. Learn more about how you could become one of the next Grosvenor Teacher Fellows. Applications will be available in December for the 2015 program. 

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