Save or Savor?

I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world.
This makes it hard to plan the day.

— E.B. White, in a New York Times interview
with Israel Shenker, July 11, 1969

It was so clear, early on, what needed to be done for the world. I had to teach young people how fragile and complex and delicate the earth is, to think with them about solutions to its problems. I joined important teams working on critical issues (all of which seemed to converge inexorably toward sustainability). I founded discussion groups to help us think our way through contemporary environmental problems. At least two, sometimes three, weeknights were occupied with team meetings or group sessions; remaining weeknights and weekends filled up with grading.

Hummingbird sculpture, Colombia

Hummingbird sculpture, Colombia

One year, shopping at holiday time, I found a little ceramic sculpture of a hummingbird nectaring at a piece of fruit. I started weeping. When was the last time I’d sat and watched a hummingbird? I was exhausted.

Another year during that time, in one terrible week I was reeling from the loss of a beloved friend, then a few days later was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Cancer cells (DCIS)

Cancer cells (DCIS). Photo credit: UC-Davis. (Click on photo for website.)

In all my efforts to save the world, I’d neglected to savor it, and my heart and body were suffering the consequences. It took the glaring spotlight of cancer — by definition, uncontrolled growth — to help me see that my life had grown uncontrolled, too full of saving. Not enough savoring, I finally understood, meant risking a death sentence. After recovering from the disease (thankfully, the early stage of the cancer meant lumpectomy and radiation only), I left groups, dropped teams. I’m still teaching, but looking to an early retirement.

My savoring account has grown. I spend lots of time admiring the Anna’s and Rufous Hummingbirds who sip and chase around the feeder on my balcony. I make time for long walks through the forest, for greeting owls and eagles, for just looking across the Salish Sea to see what weather’s up next.

Rufous Hummingbird

Rufous Hummingbird

Dramatic dark clouds over Salish Sea (Puget Sound)

Dramatic weather over Salish Sea (Puget Sound)

My rebalanced life is satisfying, and I’m happy these days. I’ve gotten back my health and my hummingbirds. Still, I head for bed at night wondering whether I’ve done enough for the earth today. My younger self’s certainty about what’s needed has turned into doubt and ambivalence. Is it really necessary, I ask myself, to make E.B. White’s choice? Surely there’s some way we can both save and savor.

Yes, the needed changes are huge. Yes, it’s getting almost too late to make them. But in our rush and scurrying frantically about, driven by our fear and our desperate grief over what’s already lost, we can’t forget to love what we’re trying to protect.

Giving ourselves the space to be stilled by awe, quieted by a chill morning mist, drawn into transcendence by the flash of a hummingbird’s iridescent gorget: we owe these to the natural world that formed us as much as we owe it our active work to preserve it. We owe it to ourselves.

Fog on Lincoln Park beach

Fog on Lincoln Park beach

Anna's Hummingbird flashing gorget

Anna’s Hummingbird flashing gorget

A great blessing of community is that Marthas and Marys, actives and contemplatives, can take our turns and contribute what we best can when the time is right. So perhaps the solution to White’s dilemma is scale. My life may have shifted toward savoring, bypassing real opportunities for saving, but there’s someone else out there who’s just awakened to passionate engagement and is convening meetings and writing policies. It’s ego talking when we think we can do it all at once, not the humble, unique voice of one creature of one species fulfilling its calling in the ecosystem with all its heart and mind and body. Savoring replenishes the energy needed for saving; saving preserves what we savor in our rest. To each, a place and a person; a time and a season.

Tree limb over wet path - Trileigh Tucker


11 responses to “Save or Savor?

  1. Gorgeous photos and thoughts, Trileigh. In the environmental field, we are so often focused on what’s wrong with the world, but spending time just helping others see nature’s beauty is it’s own way of saving.

  2. We need to read this, or something like this, more often to stay humble and focused on life…and just breathing.

  3. Perhaps you don’t have to choose between saving and savoring. There is a metaphysical principle that says that what we focus on expands. Our attention gives energy to the object of our attention. When you write a post like this, illustrated with your stunning photographs, you focus your attention on the beauty and mystery of the natural world. When we read what you have written, our focus joins yours – in this way, more of us are focused on what is right with the world. The more we appreciate, the more we find to appreciate. In this way, your savoring becomes saving. Thank you.

  4. Marie, thank you for sharing your thoughtful perspectives. I love the idea that savoring *becomes* saving.

  5. Trileigh,
    I have been thinking about, haunted by this piece since you first posted it. I was sad at the time that I was too overwhelmed with the end of the semester and the tasks for the approaching holiday that I didn’t get to respond. But perhaps it is better, since I have had additional time to think about your message, although I don’t have any particular answer to the save or savor question.

    As you know, I too try to enhance awareness amongst students about environmental issues, to spark a passion, or at least a concern. (All while trying to prevent them from feeling hopeless, given the apparent fragile mental health state of so many students these days. Hey, maybe they need to do a bit more nature-savoring; see Even more frustrating is my work in the area of climate change, constantly trying to get people to consider the scientific data instead of politics, the economy, or their personal thoughts on the issue. Even on Christmas day, a family friend tried to start a conversation on “did I really believe that humans are causing the problem?” I wasn’t in the mood, especially since nothing I could say would change her perspectives.

    But your post reminded me (as my kids often do) that I don’t take enough time for myself to enjoy the things in life that matter most of me, including the natural world which I work so hard at saving. Perhaps even more jarring was your discussion of your diagnosis of breast cancer. I didn’t know this and am glad to hear that your health is now good. But coincidentally, this fall, I went to the doctor for one thing and was sent for a mammogram because of a lump under my armpit. Both the doctor and I thought it was a swollen lymph node due the illness I went in for, but this was to “be safe”. One test led to an ultrasound which led to questions about an unusual mass. I was scheduled for a biopsy. For the time leading up to that and then waiting for the results (just before I was supposed to head to the Middle East for the U.N. climate conference), I was totally self-absorbed, full of fear. I had trouble focusing on anything except worse-case scenarios. Very strange.

    It turned out to be a cyst, but the scare was enough to make me start wondering about what are really the most important things to focus on in life. Work with students is still on the list, but my life as “professor” can no longer consume me in the way it has for the past several decades.
    Thanks for your post – which helped me realize this. Here’s to a 2013 full of savoring with a bit of saving on the side.

    • Diane, thank you so very much for your profoundly thoughtful comment. I’d like to respond at length, but am just about to get on a plane for Chile! I’ll be holding you in my thoughts as I travel in Antarctica, and will be in touch when I get back.

      Much warmth,

  6. I’m convinced there is no saving without savouring (forgive my Canadian spelling) Action without contemplation is probably empty and can be inhuman, and contemplation without action may be an ‘act’ of faithlessness.
    But your post Trileigh, says so much more than this, and wonders us through in such an honest and becoming way. Thank you.
    And thank you Diane for your moving story.

    • Thank you so much, Stephen. It’s wonderful to read your kind comment just before I get ready to go offline for a month.


  7. Beautiful post, beautiful pictures. I don’t know if you have ever seen this site before…but I think you and your readers might enjoy it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s