Articles by this Author
The Washington Post
by Janisse Ray
April 22, 2005
In spring, herring spawn along the southeastern coast of Alaska, laying their eggs in unbelievable masses. Tides sweep the eggs ashore, where they cling to seaweed and rock and pebbled beach. Kelp washes up four inches thick with the yellow roe. Murders of ravens feed on the eggs, and scores of gulls. Did I dream that I saw 15 bald eagles, like waiting angels, in one tree? No.
Two years ago, I spent April in Sitka. The tidal pools of the sound are marvelous gardens of anemones, sea stars and limpets. Seals sun on rocks. On the horizon, gray whales spout and breach. How much life. How many hearts. All together, an ocean of blood and another of sap. A continent of bones. I love this world.
From Mount Verstovia, looking down at the vastness and breadth and power of the Alaskan coast, I wondered how we humans have been able to make such a pathological mark upon nature.
To celebrate Earth Day that year, my husband dressed as a raven and I as an eagle and entered the wildlife parade. We did so in honor of the Tlingits, native people of the Alaskan coast, all of whom belong to and marry between two matrilineal clan houses, Eagle and Raven. The evening before the parade, my husband and I worked for hours, gluing white crepe-paper feathers on Eagle's cardboard head, fashioning winglike cloaks, making Raven's black beak. The next day, a few spectators watched as schoolchildren wearing butterfly wings and bunny ears wavered in a thin, faltering parade down a Sitka street. Crowing and squawking, we led them.
This year, communities around the world will celebrate Earth Day with recycling drives, alternative-fuel-vehicle fairs, plant giveaways, poster contests, street festivals, field trips, fireworks displays, canoe runs, lectures and beach cleanups. Even surfing contests and pet-blessing services. Thousands of Americans will participate. Organizers will have worked ceaselessly in the hope that the eerie cry of a gunshot hawk or the woebegone eyes of a box turtle will ignite in even one child a recognition that our survival depends on a functional environment.
I have always thought holidays a little ludicrous in this country. They become so engorged with nonsense. Even Anna Jarvis, the woman credited with the idea of Mother's Day, grew disenchanted with its commercialization. She was arrested for disrupting a Mother's Day celebration and before her death told a reporter she wished she had never started the holiday. Christmas embraces the birth of a prophet -- and becomes a day in which 25 million tons of bright paper get wrapped around a multibillion-dollar boost to the economy. Annually, 32 million trees get cut.
Yet humans crave ritual and festival. Margaret Mead understood this. "Earth Day," she said, speaking of the United Nations celebration of Earth Day on the vernal equinox, "uses one of humanity's great discoveries, the discovery of anniversaries by which, throughout time, human beings have kept their sorrows and their joys, their victories, their revelations and their obligations alive."
The first U.S. Earth Day, took place April 22, 1970. It was the brainchild of Gaylord Nelson, a senator from Wisconsin who helped ban the use of DDT and Agent Orange. Nelson had become increasingly concerned that the state of our environment was "simply a nonissue in the politics of the country." After studying the Vietnam War protests, he set about in late 1969 to organize a massive grassroots teach-in against environmental destruction. Three months before the event, he hired Denis Hayes, a Harvard graduate student, to coordinate its activities.
That first Earth Day, 20 million people, mostly university students, took to the streets. If the publication of "Silent Spring" in 1962 inaugurated the modern environmental movement, Earth Day shuttled it into the zeitgeist. Some called it a communist plot. (Even as late as 1997, Alan Caruba wrote in the Fargo Forum: "Why is Earth Day, today, also Lenin's birthday? Coincidence?")
Bill McKibben, a popular Earth Day lecturer, is the author of eight books about nature and the human community. His "The End of Nature," published in 1989, is a brilliant and seminal work on the effects of greenhouse gases on climatic disruption. He remembers April 22, 1970.
"The first Earth Day was politically threatening," McKibben told me recently. In the years following, Congress enacted a series of watershed legislation, including the Clean Air, Water Quality Improvement, Resource Recovery, Occupational Safety and Health, and Endangered Species acts. Earth Day's legendary triumph was that environmental concerns became part of the architecture of government policy.
But holy days never attain much import until business figures out how to go commercial with them.
The holiday, plagued by the contradictions inherent in the movement -- specifically, a mixture of sorrow and possibility -- degenerated into a Keep America Beautiful lovefest. A who's who of polluters attempted to "greenwash" their images by signing on as corporate sponsors. The day lost its restlessness and its outrage. Hundreds of fans of the planet flocked to whimsical street festivals in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco. They came, throwaway coffee cups in hand, driving their SUVs from starter castles built on the vestiges of wild land.
Sixteen years after the first Earth Day, it had become so insignificant that no one considered the irony of scheduling a nuclear test on that date at the Nevada Test Site.
In 1990, thousands of demonstrators, opposing corporate sponsorship of 20th anniversary Earth Day by companies such as Dow Chemical, attempted to shut down Wall Street. Police cordoned off the protesters to allow the bird-flipping traders to get to work. "Get a job," the traders jeered. But one of the traders, in a symbolic move, decided to jump the rope and join the protesters. The crowd erupted in cheers. But the demonstrations didn't herald lasting change.
Now, 35 years later, Earth Day dawns on an America that is either uncaring or oblivious or in despair. When I polled my friends, most admitted that they plan to celebrate alone with a walk in the woods this year. And yet, one said, this is the one holiday that really honors what it means to be alive.
Earth Day has become an exercise in optimism. It's an easy way to do a little public relating: Set up a booth at the festival, hand out fliers and pretend that the people who really need your messages are not at home watching big-screen televisions and fertilizing lawns and manning leaf-blowers. How many loggers who clear-cut first-growth trees stumble upon Earth Day celebrations and go away converted? How many people inspect the hybrid car on display and make plans to buy one? How many quit shopping at chain stores?
Last month the United Nations released its Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a four-year study involving more than 1,300 researchers in 95 nations. Humans have altered ecosystems more in the past 50 years than in any other period in history, the study found. More than 60 percent of "ecosystem services," the natural processes required for life on Earth, have been degraded. Ten to 30 percent of animal species are threatened with extinction.
"It seems sort of absurd to have one day a year devoted to something of this magnitude," McKibben told me.
Reducing the severity of the crisis is possible. It will require correcting our course -- urgent and substantial changes in our government policies and personal practices in the coming years. Even as you read this, visionaries are laying foundations for the transformations that will be demanded of us before Earth Day achieves another 35 years. By then the era of inexpensive and easily accessible fossil fuels will have ended, and we will face a transition to alternative energy. We are a nation of entrepreneurs, scholars, cooperators and inventors. We believe in progress, we know how to change. We are people of courage and open-mindedness. We have a long history of educating ourselves and banding together to fight injustices -- taxation without representation, slavery, the oppression of women. We have always risen to the challenge of serving humanity, rather than our own desires.
I, for one, am calling for a real Earth Day. We'll have a paid national holiday. Nobody goes to work. Here's how we'll celebrate: We won't get into our cars, not at all. We won't buy anything -- no planet-shaped chocolates, no strands of green lights, no big blow-up replicas of Earth to tether in our front yards. We won't buy so much as a cup of coffee. We'll start our latter-day victory gardens and call them independence gardens. We won't turn on the television all day. We will force ourselves to be still long enough to think about what our actions and our inactions are doing to the Earth. We'll watch the songbirds leading spring northward.
A native of the coastal plains of southern Georgia, Janisse Ray is a naturalist and radio commentator. "Ecology of a Cracker Childhood" (Milkweed, 1999; paperback, 2000) won the Southern Book Critics Circle Award, the Southeastern Booksellers Award for Nonfiction and the Southern Environmental Law Center Award. Her essays and poems have appeared in newspapers and magazines, including Audubon, Hope, Natural History, Oprah, Orion and Sierra. Her third book, "Pinhook: Finding Wholeness in a Fragmented Land," has just been released (Chelsea Green, 2005). Ray is writer-in-residence at Keene State College and lives in Vermont.