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Sharon had the day off from school. It was a day when teachers met and planned and did paperwork. Children got to stay home. Sharon was so happy she danced about to the music from her portable radio - her boombox. Sometimes she hoisted it to her shoulder so she heard the music really loud.
Her mother wouldn't let her play it loud indoors.
So, naturally, when Sharon got outside, she turned the radio's volume up.
Sharon wanted to find her friend Herman the Squirrel, who had helped her discover "the environment" all around her. It was just about everything, everywhere. Before long, Sharon spotted Herman high in his own home tree, looking over the edge of his nest to see where the noise was coming from. His fur was still ruffled from sleeping. He looked a little upset. "You woke me up," he complained.
Sharon ignored the complaint. "Sleepy-head!" she shouted up the tree. "You said you would help me clean the environment. And we'd better get busy. My teacher, Miss Clark, says if we don't clean it up soon, it may make us sick."
Herman peered over the top of his nest and yawned. "Oh, all right. But we'll need some help. Go get Rufus the Rabbit. He's fast and lively, and he probably has nothing better to do than eat carrots over in the Smiths' garden. I'll be down in a few minutes."
Sharon soon found Rufus the Rabbit pulling on a huge carrot. It popped out of the ground, and Rufus chomped off the tender tip, threw the rest aside, and went on to the next. Rufus was enjoying himself so much he didn't even look up. Sharon had to put her shoe between him and the next carrot to get his attention.
Once she did, and he heard her out, he was more than willing to help.
"We have to keep the earth clean and watered so carrots and lettuce will grow," Rufus said in his rapid-fire voice, as he bounded around Sharon's shoe to pull up two more tall carrots and nip off their tips. "Yep. Naturally. Let's do it!"
Wiggling his nose, he added quickly, "It might be a big job! We'd better get Bertrand the Bear. He's big and strong. He can get a lot done."
Where is he?" Sharon asked.
"There, in that cloud," Rufus said, angling his two tall ears in that direction.
"Bertrand!" Sharon shouted. "Are you on fire?"
Bertrand the Bear stuck his big nose out of the cloud and showed the great, dopey grin that he often wore on his friendly face. He spoke in a deep rumble:
"I am smoking a cigar. It's the 'in' thing, I've heard. All the Big Guys in Hollywood puff them, you know. That's what my cigar magazine says. And I'm a Big Guy myself. Here, Sharon, you can wear the cigar band for a ring!"
His big paw came out of the cloud of smoke and he placed the little foil band on Sharon's finger. "Lovely!" he roared, admiring her new ring and coughing.
Sharon coughed too, but she loved the ring. When Sharon told Bertrand the Bear about cleaning up the environment, he was ready to join the effort.
"We'd better get Mabel the Moose in on this," Bertrand said. "She's almost as strong as I am. She can carry you on her back, and she knows her way around the woods."
Dancing along, Sharon found Mabel the Moose browsing at the edge of the forest. Mabel was big and awkward. When she heard about the project to clean up the environment, she got so excited she jumped up, pawed the ground and backed up, accidentally snapping three young maple saplings and crushing some Indian pipe plants.
"Well, this is just wonderful, my dear," she said in her high pitched warble. She sounded like a flute being played. "When can we start?"
By then, Herman had finished cleaning up his nest and tossing the trash out. He scrambled down the tree. When Sharon saw him arrived, she called out, "Let's make a plan."
Sharon, Herman the Squirrel, Rufus the Rabbit, Bertrand the Bear, and Mabel the Moose gathered around. First Mabel coughed, then Rufus started sneezed. Herman coughed, too, and Sharon's eyes filled with tears. "What's wrong?" Bertrand roared.
"It's your cigar," Rufus the Rabbit said. "We can't breathe!"
"It makes my eyes water," Sharon cried.
"And it's bad for you, too, Bertrand," Mabel the Moose said. "Put it out. Put it out. Put it out." She stomped her four feet.
The cloud of smoke slowly cleared, and soon everyone could see Bertrand the Bear crushing out his cigar on the ground, looking a little ashamed.
"I didn't like it that much, but I thought I looked like a big shot," he said. "I thought it was 'in.'"
"Maybe, but the environment you are 'in' just got a little bit cleaner," Herman said, swishing his tail the way squirrels do, to fan away what was left of the smoke.
"While we're onto bad habits," Bertrand the Bear said in his deep basso, "one of them is waste. Rufus, how many carrots did you pull out of the Smiths' garden without finishing one? Couldn't you leave the rest in the ground for tomorrow, or even for Mr. and Mrs. Smith? If you eat all the carrots, they may decide it isn't worth growing a garden - or they might fence it in."
"No!" Rufus cried. "Disaster. Couldn't have that. Tips are nicest, but I could eat the whole carrot, I guess, if it meant there'd be more for me in the future."
He started to bounce around Mabel the Moose. "Now, Mabel, it's your turn," Rufus said. "Plants deserve to live and grow, too. You could watch where you walk. You break half the little trees before they get a foot tall. You step on so many little plants. They never have a chance."
"Oh, dear," Mabel said. "It's true. I'm so awkward. And I've heard that some plants are becoming rare. And they are not only pretty and interesting, but doctors are finding that some can be made into medicines to cure animals and people, too. I'll try to do better."
Mabel's big eyes teared up, this time with embarrassment rather than cigar smoke.
"Don't feel too bad," Sharon said, reaching up to pat Mabel's tall shoulder. "Herman taught me the environment is everything around us, but I've seen him toss shells and stuff from his nest without caring where they fall. And he keeps digging up tulip bulbs - even when he already has enough acorns and other food for winter."
"And what about you, Sharon?" Herman shouted over her blaring boombox music. All the animals joined in: "Haven't you heard of noise pollution? You'll make us all deaf with that loud radio! You make our ears ring! We can't hear the wind sigh or the birds sing. Or even thunder from a storm."
Sharon was startled by their complaints, but she turned down the boombox.
"Oh, my, we're all at fault," she said, looking at the ground.
Herman's tail drooped, but then it rose again and shook. He said to them all, "Yes, yes, yes, we're part of the environment too! It's not just the things around us, it's also us!"
"No!" Bertrand said. "Now that we're really thinking about it and helping each other do the right things, we can be part of the solution! No more cigars. Fewer wasted carrots. No more stepping on trees and plants, if we can help it. Less trash! And less noise! Starting today."
With the quieter music now coming from Sharon's radio, and cleaner air around them, all the group joined paws, hoofs, or hands, and danced around. Mabel was still awkward, but she made sure the area they danced on was free of plants.
Rufus collected the left over parts of the Smiths' carrots to eat later. And Herman looked sheepish, for a squirrel, as he kicked his shells under a bush where they wouldn't be seen and could slowly become part of the earth again.
Sharon smiled at her four good friends. "It seems to me, we make the environment what it is," she said. "We're happier and healthier when we clean it up. Just think ... it all begins with ... us!"
By Tom Hawkins, NIEHS Office of Communications
Learn more about the dangers of smoking from Mama Didn't Know .