My memories of the first years of Earth Day celebrations mostly center on a beloved school art teacher, who would take us into the woods next to the school to collect natural objects. We’d bring rocks, branches, and fungi back to the classroom to draw—still life Earth. I so loved our woodland forays, that I asked the teacher whether we could spend more days collecting earthly things rather than just one day a year. She agreed, until one year was told to stop for liability reasons, probably because some killjoy’s kid got scratched by a twig.
Big Industry’s rampant disregard for our rotating spherical home in outer space was the catalyst for Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisc.) in founding Earth Day, after being disturbed by an unforgivable oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara in 1969 and the unforgettable images of oil-soaked wildlife dying in the sludge. On its heels came the creation of the EPA and significantly expanded versions of the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, both of which had precursor laws dating back to the 1940s and 1950s, respectively.
In our household, Mom first whipped up enthusiasm for Earth Day. She would wish me a happy Earth Day every year upon waking me for school in the morning. But Mom’s motto was Earth Day Every Day. We recycled and composted decades before these activities would become cool. My friends couldn’t fathom why anyone would want to dump their food scraps in a stinking heap in the back yard and cover them with grass. And why drag your bottles and cans back to the store or recycling depot when you could more easily toss them in your trash where they belonged? For Dad’s part, he took us on summer camping adventures across the country, where we kids absorbed his intense love for the outdoors—Earth appreciation road trips!
Children of the ‘70s will remember the TV commercial portraying an American Indian (actually an American-born Italian) paddling through a polluted river then standing on the roadside, where someone tosses a bag of trash at his feet. The advert ended with a closeup of a tear rolling down his brown, wrinkled cheek. The Keep America Beautiful campaign met its intended goal with me. I became baptized in the anti-litter brigade at an early age, thanks also in part to my parents’ strong objection to littering and great respect for the planet.
In the mid-1970s, I started my own campaign to de-litter my surroundings, although my efforts had roots in a less honorable modis operandi, namely to get some kids off my back. My neighborhood crawled with the little angels, and a handful of 4- to 7-year-olds thought I was the cat’s pajamas. They routinely rang the doorbell and begged me to come out and play. At fourteen, I wasn’t really in to hanging out with ankle-biters, but sometimes I’d reluctantly oblige. One day I devised a plan to stop them ringing the bell for good.
The game was called “Let’s Pick Up All the Litter in the Neighborhood.” Like the Pied Piper, I led my trash-seeking buddies in what was going to be a contest to see who could pick up the most. I carried the garbage bag while my highly impressionable charges ran from gum wrapper to cigarette butt to Coke can, like a frenzied swarm of bumblebees buzzing among a spray of flowers. Sometimes the bumblebees fought over who spotted the Milky Way wrapper first, and thus, who would get credit for it. The prize was leftover stale Halloween candy, which I couldn’t bear to throw away but didn’t want to eat. Eventually, every bumblebee got some, regardless of how much litter they had found.
I say “eventually” because my scheme backfired. I thought that upon suggesting the idea of hunting down litter, they’d run a mile from this crazy teenager. Instead: They. Loved. It. The mother of my next-door neighbor, little Aimee, even praised me for the concept. Like it or not, precedent had been set—a whole summer of Earth Days! When the hardened and disgusting Halloween candy ran out, I started paying them a nickel each, thinking that would take the thrill out of the chase. Nope. Even in 1977, money motivated the single-digit agers. I don’t know where most of those kids are today save for one: Aimee is now in the landscaping business.
Little did I know at the time that my earliest efforts at organizing volunteers would lead to managing—along with my future husband—100+ adult and children volunteers in planting several thousand trees in the Scottish Borders more than 20 years later (but that’s another story). Today, I’m managing two neighborhood grants from the state and county to remove dead trees and plant new ones. (Thankfully, our homeowners association pays someone to pick up litter.)
Nearly four years ago, we became a one-car family in part to do our bit for the planet. We walk, ride our bikes, and take public transit as much as possible. Our weekly recycling is easily four times our weekly trash amount. Courtesy of my sister, we donate compost to her garden regularly. So on this Earth Day 2015, I want to thank Mom for teaching me about recycling and composting, remember Dad for instilling a love of nature, and apologize to the neighborhood kids of Northbrook, IL, for having underestimated their willingness to practice Earth Day every day.