Remembering the first Earth Day
By Pat Hynes
MY TURN editorial, Greenfield Recorder, April 23, 2020
On Earth Day 1970, 20 million people took to the streets in what was the largest political demonstration in U.S. history. They walked into heavily polluted rivers wearing scuba gear, demonstrated at stockholders’ meetings of corporate polluters, and conducted peaceful actions in front of the Department of the Interior. Ten thousand schools, 2,000 colleges and universities, and almost every community across the country took part. The U.S. Congress formally adjourned so the senators and representative could attend teach-ins in their districts. That afternoon, I took my 25 fifth-grade students to walk along the Brandywine Creek that bifurcates Wilmington, Del. Maybe we picked up trash, maybe we just walked along the cobbly streambank — I don’t remember.
The kids were mainly from the older, struggling African-American east side of Wilmington and the younger, angrier public housing projects off Northeast Boulevard. They were second-class citizens in a state that purported to have the highest per-capita income and the highest number of Ph.D.s per capita in the United States. Downtown Wilmington, a stone’s throw from where we walked, was embellished with the Hotel DuPont and the DuPont Co. headquarters. Otherwise, it was a city of de facto segregated housing and segregated schools. A few years earlier, the National Guard had patrolled the streets after the assassination of Martin Luther King, so raw and threatening was the justified anger of ghettoized urban African-Americans.
I remember asking myself, as I watched kids jumping from stream boulder to stream boulder: What does this have to do with them? What do clean streams have to do with literacy, jobs, housing and human dignity?
Soon after, we held a school-wide talent show. A lot of my students formed groups to do Motown songs with their improvised steps. One boy asked to be in the show but didn’t want to disclose his act. I inserted him between Motown skits, deeply curious (and a little anxious) about what this reticent, bookish child would do. When his turn came, James stood with his hands in his pockets and whistled bird songs. I have heard lovelier songs since, from the birds themselves, but never before.
Now I wait for the wood thrush to return each May and infuse the summer woods with its liquid flute songs, long after the red-winged blackbird, the robin and eastern bluebird, the catbird, phoebe, song sparrow and purple finch have returned, because I have learned to listen for them. I can close my eyes and remember — not the songs, but the soft, startled feeling the boy’s songs gave me. Rachel Carson called that rapid, light lifting above ordinariness to a place of the spirit, a sense of wonder. Everyone must have felt the same wondrous uplifting, because James won the talent show.
The child answered in part my wondering, what does Earth Day have to do with them? Time, events and a more complex understanding of environmental justice have helped to finish finding the answer.
* Earth Day is about the urban and rural poor, because environmentalism is not fundamentally the privileged cause of the upper class. It is necessarily the issue of the poor and communities of color. Since the late 1980s, studies have found that Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to live near a toxic waste dump and in more severely polluted communities than Whites.
* Earth Day is about rich nations sitting down with poor nations to forgive debt, because the rich nations have stolen from the Earth’s commonly held ecological systems and left in its place the junk of acid rain and climate-heating emissions.
* Earth Day is about not splitting off social justice and destruction of nature from the gross national product. It is about applying the same understanding and relationship to air, soil and water that the Chipko women of India’s forests have for trees. “Trees are not wood,” they are a living world of plants and animals that offer medicine, food, fuel and shelter to those who live in and nearby them. They temper climate and refresh air, prevent soil erosion and assist shallow aquifers in storing water.
Promote environmental justice in our own backyard.
Oppose the biomass plant being sited in Springfield, a city of high poverty, high rates of asthma, and with a majority people of color.
Support the political campaign being waged by Wendell citizens and others to stop commercial logging in our state forests.
Advocate with our local legislators that renewable electricity and healthful, locally grown food be assured for our low-income neighbors.
Pat Hynes, a retired environmental engineer, directs the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice.