“Our heedless and destructive acts enter into the vast cycles of the earth and in time return to bring hazard to ourselves.” –Rachel Carson, testifying before a congressional subcommittee 70 years ago
Earth Day is likely one of the more underrated holidays in the country. Americans might recycle a little bit more on April 22; maybe pick up trash in their neighborhood; the more ambitious might plant a tree — like President Richard Nixon did at the White House in 1970 during the first federally recognized Earth Day.
Those are all great, and to be encouraged, but considering we only have one Earth — and considering the shape it’s in — it’s surprising more isn’t made of the day.
That is why we were encouraged to see the Island community come out this past Saturday at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum for the big day.
The Island has long held an annual beach cleanup — for more than three decades, we understand. But new this year, the museum held what they hope will be an annual educational afterparty.
Nearly 20 conservation and environmental groups from the Vineyard were on hand on Saturday, providing information about their advocacy and efforts: There was a touch tank demonstrating the importance of shellfish on water quality; there was a moment to recognize that the land the museum sits on is land of the Wampanoag tribe; there was singing and drumming.
There was enthusiasm.
The celebration was good to see, especially these days. The state of the environment can seem overwhelming. Our very means of life — driving cars, heating our homes, keeping the lights on — are largely powered by the very thing that is leading to larger storms, rising seas, fires, floods, and general doom and gloom. That can feel awful — and foreboding.
But as Joan Baez famously said, “Action is the antidote to despair.”
The origins of Earth Day itself are centered around beating back those ominous feelings.
The environmental movement started as a teach-in on college campuses in 1969. At the time, horrendous smog clouded major cities from automobile and industrial pollution, rivers were on fire, there was acid rain, and then the country’s largest oil spill in Santa Barbara killed some 3,500 seabirds.
The college sit-in eventually landed the name Earth Day, which garnered widespread media attention. And on April 22, millions of Americans took to the streets to demonstrate against decades of largely unchecked industrial development. The movement would help Nixon create the Environmental Protection Agency.
But while the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970, the movement has its roots in the decade before, when Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring.” It was not her first book, nor was it the first to dive into environmental issues.
But “Silent Spring” caught on. It was credited with connecting the masses to the dangers of spraying pesticides and other chemicals, and showing how mankind was directly impacting the environment, and itself.
In particular, Carson highlighted the dangers of DDT, and how the mosquito spray endangered animals across the food chain. It was known to weaken the eggshells of osprey, which decimated their populations.
We can imagine that Carson was overwhelmed, too, with the state of the environment at the time.
But today, with the clampdown on spraying DDT, the osprey population has made a miraculous recovery. The species has been arriving on the Island in recent weeks, with its distinct and warming calls.
The movement to protect ospreys can serve as a symbol of hope for our current environmental crisis. We don’t need another Rachel Carson to help us understand the impacts of climate change. We see it every day.
What we do need are events like the one hosted by the museum — people coming together to understand the benefits of nature, its importance, and its connection to who we are.
And while the single event might not save the world, we are encouraged that Islanders are coming together. It can only help.