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A bedtime parable

Hills through smogOnce there was a boy, just about the same age as you, who lived with people unlike us.

–Yes, they were different. Not much, but different enough.

He was a very smart young man, just like you, who saw that not all things were right with the way that his people lived. He tried to tell them, but they would not listen. One day it got colder and everyone made fires to make their houses warm.

“The air does not smell right,” the boy said.

“That’s just because you’re not used to it,” the adults said.

“Couldn’t we burn fewer trees, so the air smells better?” the boy asked.

“No, that would make us uncomfortable,” the adults told him. “Besides, if we didn’t burn this wood the wood-choppers wouldn’t have enough money to buy things at the market, and the profits at the market would go down. And then everyone would be affected.”

Some time passed, and then on another day, the boy noticed that his food tasted strange, and he said that something was wrong with it.

“There isn’t anything wrong with it,” the adults told him. “There aren’t any more things to eat in the forest, so we are making our own food now. But it’s good. Most of the wood-choppers and food gatherers are now farmers, and they are even better paid so they can buy more things at the market.”

The boy tried to explain that there was something wrong with this new food, but it didn’t matter.

A day later, he went down to the river, and drank. “The water does not taste good,” he told them. “There are funny things in it.”

“That’s because we need to put our waste somewhere,” the adults all told the boy. “You will get used to it, and besides, it all flows away from our town.”

When he was a bit older, the boy became very sick, and he said, “I don’t feel well. I think the animals and plants we are eating and the water we drink have made me sick.”

“It’s true,” said the adults, “but now there are special people called doctors. And they dispense medicines. And those medicines are made by people. Think of all the things the doctors and the medicine-makers will be able to buy because of this new endeavor. And soon you’ll be well. Everyone wins!”

The boy did recover, but he never felt quite right again.

He started to get a very bad feeling about what was happening to his people. The forest was almost completely gone — there was no place to get wood locally anymore, so people had to travel long distances for fuel. Because there was no forest, there were no animals left, except for the ones raised by the farmers.
Each year everyone got sick. Sometimes it was very bad and the doctors and medicine-makers could not save all the people. They discovered that this actually made everyone who survived slightly more wealthy. So, apart from eating food that didn’t taste right, and drinking water that made them sick, everyone was more comfortable. People owned bigger homes, and kept many beautifully wrought things in those homes.

The boy complained about the smell in the city — the town had grown quite a bit as he grew up — caused by all the artisans smelting gold and silver for their pretty things. The adults told him not to worry about it. They had decided that all the smelting would take place on the east side of the city, so that they did not have to smell it all the time.

Days stretched into years, and he got older; the adults all expected him to work. He didn’t like the smell of the smelting, nor the animals, and he didn’t like the idea of going underground to mine the ore his people needed to make more beautiful things.

So the boy became a wood-cutter; this meant he had to travel great distances with other like-minded wood-cutters to find forests to chop down. He didn’t like cutting down the trees, but he needed money to eat, so he did.

Everywhere the boy went, he could see more cities springing up along rivers and lakes. They specialized in different crafts and arts, and traded with other cities. Sometimes these people would fight with one another over trivial things such as who owned which mines, or which land. The boy tried to stay out of these wars, as he grew to be a man.

–A war? Oh, my dear, these people used to have really big fights. No, not like the wrestling matches. These were real fights. Some of them would be killed. Many of them would be wounded. Eventually they stopped fighting because it made them less comfortable, and they got poorer when they fought.

By the time he was as old as your father, he had to travel a long, long way to find trees to cut down. The entire landscape was bereft of them. Eventually, he decided that it was time to return home, and find something else to do to earn his food. But when he got home, the grasslands that surrounded his city had turned to desert. Instead of fields of crops and animals, there was only sand. Much of the landscape was like that.

People were suddenly much poorer, and the man knew that it was wrong. They had done things wrong and they had paid a price for it. His family had gone. Nobody knew where.

There were some people left in the city, but there was no food there. He went on, looking for other places that might have food, but there were none. Because the land was now completely destroyed, there was no way to even make food. What little food was left was fought over in a last terrible war. By the end of that war, these people were very poor indeed. They had lots of comfortable houses, with many beautifully wrought things, but they didn’t have good water to drink, nor air to breath, and most importantly, they couldn’t make any more food.

The man was still young, and strong, so he was one of the last to die. In that time, he met a young woman who had also survived. Even though they knew their fate, they fell in love. Such were his people. They were foolish, but they were capable of creating exquisite things, and having deep, beautiful feelings.

They decided that they did not want to die looking at what his people had done, so they walked as far away as they could. There was a great barrier that nobody had ever crossed before, and they used all the knowledge of his people to find a way to cross it.

And you know what he found when he did? Another whole land — it wasn’t as beautiful as the one that his people destroyed had once been, but it could support life. And they found us. Well, not us, but our ancestors. They taught our ancestors everything that happened to their people, and warned us not to make the same mistakes. But we wouldn’t have, because we were different to begin with.

And so, we have lived in harmony with this world for more generations than there are stars.

–What were these people called? We call them humans.

The End


  1. nicely done. recently i noticed an inherent contradiction where i live (in the mountains) – when people move into the woods, the first thing they do is cut down trees, so they can have enough room to build a house.

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