Earth day observations from someone that was there on day one.
I keep reading stupid commentary from people who are too young to have any clue what the first earth day was about. Born and raised in Philadelphia I was a Senior in High School in 1970. It was a beautiful spring, and April 23 was a beautiful day. Philadelphia was trotting out ideas and celebrations for the up coming bicentennial celebration so “Olde City” was experiencing a revival that included a series of celebrations that drew tens of thousands to the area. Earth day was just one in a series of excuses to go down and play. Listen to the bands, see the sites. But mostly it was about being part of a big party. Not a Woodstock scene but a great time especially for the young but as well for all ages. It was a time to reconnect with the outdoors. Earth Day was a time to celebrate some of the successes over pollution that had previously driven people inside. It was about fun outdoors.
What people found downtown was just short of amazing. The transition that gave us back out city had begun early in the 1960’s when Philadelphia, like many other cities banned burning coal within the city limits. The bicentennial was an excuse to go out and scrub off two hundred years of accumulated grime, and polish up the city. My friends and I as teenagers started traveling all over Philadelphia by public transportation as early as 1965. At that time the city was a dingy place, with grime that never really went away. You knew what neighborhood you were in by the taste of the air. But slowly that changed and by 1970 when we were old enough to drive we extended our visits beyond the range of the public transit.
We witnessed first hand the changes as they happened, from the air to the water. From the grime on the streets to the gleam on the walls. The whole point of April 1970 was to be outside. To walk along the river, play in the park, enjoy a sunny day and a fife and drum corps parade in our own concrete jungle. We looked at the river banks that had been buried in trash, we visited the factories being restored as commercial and residential oasis surrounded by newly created landscaped space, and we dreamed of a day when the water in the Schuylkill was not only clean looking but would once again be home to wildlife. Maybe even someday be able to eat something you caught from the river if fish ever were able to live there again, we joked.
We traveled all over the region that spring and summer too. It was before the OPEC oil embargo, gas was cheap and plentiful and the green movement hadn’t distorted the purpose of the experience yet. That year we enjoyed sailing “snarks” on the Delaware river and bay, swam in the ocean, glided rafts down the upper Delaware River visited the state and national parks. A nice pair of jeans replaced the mini skirt as the uniform girls in high school and college and it had an impact on what constituted a good weekend date. They wanted enjoy fun outdoor things. Hiking and biking, baseball, visiting the Olde City, the parks and the zoo. Groups of young people, college and high school students filled the streets, the paths and the parks in groups small and large just generally enjoying the outdoors and good company. More then anything else the first earth day was a chance for young people to get out and hang out, play with and meet people of the opposite sex. Period. Earth day was just one more “happening” in a spring overflowing with opportunities to get out and mingle. A time to make memories that included something that wasn’t air conditioned, made out of plastic, or smell like air freshener. It wasn’t about what was wrong with progress, but a celebration of what was being done right. It wasn’t about a static nature but a celebration of an evolving appreciation of nature and the potential for man to do be a better caretaker, whether outside was cultivated, manicured, landscaped, or wild. Cleaner streets and cleaner air, cleaner water and better landscaping, more concern for wildlife and a less destructive cultured life. It was about enjoying the benefits of cleaner world whether you found that on a paved part of the city at the edge of the Delaware river that was once industrial dock wasteland covered in grime, trash and soot or along hiking paths in the Appalachian mountains once at risk from clear cut logging and mining waste. It was about enjoying the outdoors again right in your own backyard or nearby environs.
So, when I read Earth Day: What they won’t sell you by Linsey Howshaw it struck me how far in the wrong direction we have come. And how much of that might actually be due to environmental movements distortions.
Howshaw closes her commentary with these lines, and nothing could be farther from the truth”
If we’re to truly appreciate the earth on Earth Day, we must recall those precious moments that have given us a window into true beauty and proffered us a real connection with nature.
As Alan Weisman, author of The World Without Us, has said:
“Everybody remembers the world when it was just nicer. It doesn’t matter what age you are, because you probably remember a place that if you returned to you’d think god, look what they’ve done to this place.”
If we are to “appreciate the earth on earth day we must recall precious moments” What kind of crazy thinking is this? You don’t recall precious moments when the scare police have made you afraid to leave the air conditioned safety of your car, your home and your work for fear you it might make you sneeze or wheeze. You make precious moments by smelling flowers (pollen, itchy burning eyes, bug bite, skin reactions and all) getting a little dirty and sweaty walking the trails up to Bosun’s tower (bug bites blisters and scratches included), splashing in the river, swimming in a fire hole pond, maybe riding a horse, or bike or even a ATV through a park, down a trail or through a meadow and oh yes, hanging out for a day in Olde City with the street vendors, the garbage can bands, the Ben Franklin tour guides and the fife and drum corps and a bunch of your best friends. You don’t recall memories. you make memories. Otherwise we are confining our “natural environment” to the dark recesses of a virtual museum where only a few experts and the privledged elite can enjoy them.
As for the idea that everyone remembers a world that was nicer that is just plain BS unless you are wet behind the ears. I remember a world that was far uglier. I remember when the Rivers burned, when the green river slime covering the garbage and stuff in the Schuylkill was chemical sludge. I remember when the riparian barrier between the river and city was intended to protect people from the danger of contact with the river, and not the other way around. I remember when coal was burned in every other home, every school and most business long before they had scrubbers or filters. When fires from embers where not uncommon. When burning leaves was legal because the air was so foul that you wouldn’t notice anyway. When rural homes had garbage pits in the back yard where periodically they would reduce everything to ash. I remember when there was little or no air conditioning for the average person, when it was a luxury in the home and car so the air complete with the natural and man made luggage it carried was with you every day every where.
No offense I but I remember a world fifty years ago that was headed towards a common description, reserved today only for the small section of the nearest waste dump that is waiting for a cap of clay to contain it. A putrid, smelly, vile contaminated place that could never come clean. A smelly dirty place over run with refuse.
People who talk about a better time don’t get it. I bet they never spent any time in farming country with the smell of freshly plowed fields, or the air full of the sounds and smells of the harvesters collecting their crops. None of them bought eggs from a chicken farm where they knew the farmer by first name, or hung out with a friend that raised cattle for sale or for milk. And certainly none of them sat in school and watched a load of coal being delivered. They have no idea. If they want to see a better future, and they want people to embrace the sacrifices they ask in the name of a better environment, talking about a time in the past when things were natural and better is flat out stupid. Every generation rejects the idols myths of it’s predecessors and this will be true of these environmental distortions as well some time soon.
Earth day must be about celebrating the progress we made, in spite of any setbacks. It must be about enjoying the beauty that we retain, not wallowing in self pity about the damage we have done. Only a fool believes that turning back the clock will restore a better place. That is not to deny that some patches have been lost, some beauty gone. But to think that somehow restoring what was 50 or 100 or 200 years ago would somehow make the world a better place without first reducing the population the 4 billion that it has grown in that period is to threaten the very progress we have made.
I will take my highly efficient car (that gets 2.5 times the miles per gallon of my 57 Buick LTD) and travel past the zoo that has no displays anymore because it is stressful to the animals, past the river where people fish for food and sport in what was once chemical waste disposal system long since cleaned up, past the restored brown fields that replaced the industrial tracts of my youth that now boast shopping centers and housing and parks, yes, parks where before there was grungy industrial plants, past the river where the industrial wharfs have long been renewed and revived as well, and travel on to a little place by a stream behind a friends house where we can sit and listen to the water bubble across an old rock fall free from the soapy scum that was there in our youth. We will barbecue some hot dogs before that activity is banned, drink some beer and watch the robins and jays play, the squirels skitter around, and the turtles stir from their water domain. We will make happy memories that even at this age, celebrate the joy of being outside. I will be acknowledge the advancement in antihistamine medicines, and be thankful I am not trapped in the sterile environment of this air conditioned world bemoaning the loss of a utopia that never existed.
Happy Earth day to you.