The Good Earthkeeper

Matt Freeman

When I was about 12-years-old, we had a curriculum in school called “Earthkeepers.”

It was a program ostensibly to inspire interest in environmental science. Or maybe it was a cult indoctrination. Perhaps it was both.

road nature trees branches
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We went as a class the local “nature center”, which was sort of a scandal of its own. There was no particular natural lure to that location, but a threat emerged to build a highway. Voila! It became the “Nature Center.” Highways be damned.

The classes for 12-year-olds involved projects akin to, “Go listen to the stream” or “pick out a leaf and look at it.” There were often discussions of going alone to one’s “magic spot.” I will let your mind run with that as far as it can tolerate. It was not terribly intellectual as far as biology was concerned, but it could have been worse.

close up photography of leaves with droplets
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Stare at the leaves some more, why don’t you?

The Earthkeeper guides were clearly scouting for those kids who would be gullible for their bigger plans.

My parents either wanted a break from me or did not do much investigating. They dropped me off at Slippery Rock University for the next level of Earthkeeper indoctrination.

The leader was a man named Chickadee. I am not confident if that was his given name. There was a proportionate relationship between beard length and more curious names among the staff.

It was a four- or five-day “camp,” and it seemed to have no camp or educational content at all. “Camps” would have canoes, guitars, relay races. No way. The Earthkeeping stuck to its favorites: “Go listen to the stream” was popular, as was “pick out a leaf and look at it.” “Go find your ‘magic spot’ and sit there whilst the adult Keepers go shrooming.” (Again, I cannot corroborate the last one, but I think we can all connect the Earthkeeping dots.)

cascade creek environment fern
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As the camp went on, counsellors shared their environmental tidbits of earthkeeping wisdom. I will never forget how this woman told us how we should never switch on the stereo and listen to music. The stereo uses energy. Although I was only 12, I thought to myself, “Can you explain why you have stereo at all?” Could she not sell the stereo to buy solar panels, or perhaps more weed?

I thought she was weird, but she smelled like calendula. Also, she mispronounced “calendula.”

There were endless references to “EM.” We would get individual notes from “EM” about our progress and discoveries.  It felt good that the cult leader was kind enough leave me messages, stating how proud he was of my efforts.

nature forest trees park
Photo by veeterzy on

We would ask about who EM was (assuming it was a man.) I repeatedly asked if “EM” lived in Warrenville, Illinois because Earthkeeper materials had a return address there. These enquiries were me with an emphatic “no.” Had I been a bit older, I might have asked about EM” and his how would his attorney feel about leaving letters for children. Why was he so secretive in the first place.

At some point, we were given beads to mark our progress. I think I only had two or three beads, and EM” reportedly have five. I began to resent EM. I think I was told that I could one day earn more beads and even meet EM. No time frame nor pathway was offered. I was too young to have been told about Kool-Aid in Guyana, but I smelled a few rats.

On the last evening, we were taken to amphitheater, where Chickadee had shut off the lights. Using drums, he boomed a voice from above, possibly the voice of EM.

It sounded a lot like Chickadee using a microphone. (Don’t microphones use energy?) Hypocrite.

The amphitheater presentation was about how we were all going to suffer premature and ghastly deaths due to our disrespect for the earth. But this handful of sixth graders could change that. Details were once again blurry. I assumed that keeping the stereo switched off was the primary step we could take.

Our devotion and loyalty were also pretty damn important. Specifics were not included. I really did feel scared, but mostly because Chickadee was creepy and loud, not because the earth was boiling and disintegrating.

In my research as an adult, I learned that “EM” stood for “Energy and Materials.”

Ooh! No wonder it was so secret!

I did not see any explanation about how “Energy and Materials” could write personalized cult greetings or make fear-mongering presentations to preteenagers.

I wonder if the amphitheater is still there.

I think I might switch on the stereo. Don’t tell anyone.