Exploring 50 Years of Earth Day

Exploring 50 Years of Earth Day

“The care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope.” From “The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays” by Wendell Berry

Wednesday marks the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day. For many of us who live within The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor every day is Earth Day. We enjoy an environment free of visible pollution. We have thousands of acres of intact forest and diverse natural habitat helping to clean our waters and air. Our green oasis in the middle of the urban sprawl of the east coast is a filter not just for us but for a much larger region. However, our environment is not pristine. It is just much cleaner than those around us. Those who remember the first Earth Day, however, know that even here the environment was not always in good shape, and we must always be vigilant regarding environmental protection.

To learn about the history of Earth Day and the global movement focusing on issues related to the environmental health of our planet check out the Earth Day Network at earthday.org. Here are some key points about Earth Day from the Earth Day Network website.

  • Earth Day was a unified response to an environment in crisis — oil spills, smog, rivers so polluted they literally caught fire.
  • On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans — 10 percent of the country’s population at the time — took to the streets, college campuses and hundreds of cities to protest environmental ignorance and demand a new way forward for our planet.
  • The first Earth Day is credited with launching the modern environmental movement and is now recognized as the planet’s largest civic event.

This week I talked with three people who were actively involved in the early years of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor to get their perspective on Earth Day and their remembrances of April 22, 1970.

Marge Hoskin is one of the founding members of the National Heritage Corridor and served in many capacities on the TLGV Board of Directors, including its first chairman. In 1970 she was in the U.S. Navy and along with her husband (also in the Navy) was stationed in Washington, D.C. I asked her about her recollection of Earth Day, and she said that though they lived in the Washington area their “free time was usually spent hiking and enjoying the unspoiled areas west of the city.” They preferred the natural world to city life and thought the concept of Earth Day was a great idea. Returning to her hometown of Plainfield in 1975, Marge became a tireless advocate for the natural and cultural resources of our region. The region was very much in the midst of grappling with the impact its textile industry, the major economic driver of the region, had on its waterways.

I spoke with two people involved with TLGV for many years, Charlene Perkins Cutler, the first paid staff person and former executive director, and Steve Broderick, retired extension service forester and director of the Green Valley Institute. In 1970 both Charlene and Steve were freshmen in college, with Charlene at UConn and Steve at UMass. Though on separate campuses, their recollections of the first Earth Day are similar.

The spring of 1970 was a time of great unrest and protests against the Vietnam War – especially on college campuses. The protests came to a fevered pitch in part due to the bombing of Cambodia that began in secret a year earlier. Both UConn and UMass were greatly impacted with takeovers of buildings and classes interrupted.

Charlene’s and Steve’s memories of April 22, 1970 are intertwined with the eruptions of protest at both state universities. Both mentioned the protests against the war also brought greater focus to the concerns of environmental degradation and a call for youth activism.

Charlene recalled the “great dissatisfaction with the way the country was going, and youth were mobilizing in a political way that coalesced around Earth Day.” She also sensed a new optimism that “we are on our way to a more sustainable world” and reminded me that it was after that first Earth Day when “recycling took off, solar power became a reality and today more and more electric cars are on the roads.”

Steve considers 1970 to be “the most tumultuous and formative year of my life.” He recalled when he started studying natural resources and forestry, there were perhaps 25 students in each class and by 1975 the numbers had grown to more than twice the size. “A huge group of people were now going into the environmental field due in part to the motivation to activism and awareness about the environment.”

On Earth Day 2020, how can we celebrate a 50th Anniversary with no public gatherings while we’re focused on social distancing and staying safe? Here are some suggestions for how we can stay involved on Earth Day, remember the environment and the call to activism of five decades ago.

Many of us staying home and limiting our travel have found we have more time to read. I have a copy of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” which issued a clarion call to action when it was published in 1962. I plan to look through it to remember again the gentle woman who inspired generations to care for the environment.

Typically, Earth Day in The Last Green Valley is when many towns and organizations sponsor roadside and town-wide cleanups. Our focus on social distancing will likely postpone the group cleanups, but that doesn’t mean you can’t grab a trash bag and walk your own street and neighborhood picking up litter. I remember the anti-litter campaigns of the ’60s and ’70s and know what I’ll be doing Wednesday morning.

Earth Day, however, is not simply about picking up roadside trash. The pollution our National Heritage Corridor once experienced, when rivers ran the colors of the dyes being used in the textile mills, is now more difficult to detect. Through TLGV’s work and that of our partners, we know it still exists even here in our island of green.

Two organizations in particular are working to mitigate and reverse the effects of the harder-to-detect environmental hazards still at work in the National Heritage Corridor. TLGV works closely with the Eastern Connecticut Conservation District (ECCD) on many programs, including volunteer water quality monitoring. TLGV is also the primary funding sponsor of the Thames River Basin Partnership, a group of organizations championing the entire watershed. To celebrate Earth Day, I hope you’ll take time to learn more about both of these organizations.

ECCD is the regional organization helping towns and residents of eastern Connecticut with conservation issues. They are available to answer your conservation questions and provide helpful programs within 36 communities covering Windham and New London counties and part of Tolland County. To learn more check about ECCD visit: conservect.org/eastern

The call to action for Earth Day in 1970 was greatly impacted by water pollution with rivers literally catching on fire. In our region the water resources we need and enjoy are abundant and precious. The Last Green Valley is the heart of the Thames River watershed and I hope you’ll take time to learn about The Thames River Basin Partnership (TRBP). To learn more visit: thamesriverbasinpartnership.org/

For those of you hoping to inspire youth to care for the environment, Goodwin Conservation Center and Connecticut Forest & Park Association are hosting a webinar Wednesday called “How to Talk With Your Children About Climate Change.” The program is being offered by Beth Barnard, Education Director and Goodwin Program Director. The program presents the how, when and why of having this important discussion with children. For more information and to register, visit: ctwoodlands.org/CFPA-events/talking-your-children-about-climate-change-online-discussion

This week is the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day. Our current stay-at-home orders have produced abundant evidence of the massive amounts of pollution we create. Perhaps while we hunker down and stay safe, we can honor the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day by pledging to do better for our environment and renewing the urgency of 50 years ago to protect and preserve natural resources. Every day, each of us can do something to help the planet.

We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley where every day is Earth Day. As Wendell Berry suggests, let us cherish it and continue to foster its renewal. I hope you’ll join me and many others as we care for, enjoy, and pass on this place we call home.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for 35 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org.




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