Every day should be Earth Day
It boiled down to cleanliness. That was the consensus from a class of 4th graders, to the question, “What is Earth Day all about?” Their experience reflects a common impression that it’s about picking up litter; cleaning up our towns, roads, and school grounds. One kid even suggested it’s about “cleaning up after old people.” Ouch!
While this is a meaningful concept for kids, it isn’t quite the original intent. Gaylord Nelson, former governor and senator from Wisconsin, is credited as one of the people who initiated Earth Day. He had seen a “teach in” during the Vietnam War, the purpose of which was to inform people about this ongoing conflict. His idea was simply to bring people together for a similar opportunity, but focused on Earth (and our ongoing conflicts with it). Each year on April 22nd, “teach ins” could be held, whereby people are given opportunities to learn about our planet’s complexities, and the implications of our behaviors. Earth Day is now recognized throughout the world. Key issues in 1970 included pollution, population explosion, species loss, and global warming. Sound familiar?
For Earth Day this year, my sister, Lora, asked me to help out at her school by taking kids on a discovery walk, and talking to them about Earth Day and what it means. Our main topic was Habitat. This is fundamental to life. Since the kids all live in one (it generally means “address”), I asked the class to explain what is most important in their habitats. They identified the basics: food, water, and shelter. Many ecological definitions include space, which implies places to hunt, routes for migration, and “elbow room.”
We took the kids hiking on a trail through a small wooded area adjacent to the school, to explore habitats. We hoped to discover how they might be similar to and different from our own. The kids got to look closely at flowers, leaves, buds, insects, spiders, and anything else we discovered. Along the way we did a predator prey activity, shared stories, and learned a couple unique plant names.
Kids have a built in affinity for nature, and they can be very wise. They thought every day should be an “Earth Day.” There is a lot to learn if we want to reconnect to our landscape in meaningful ways. This starts with spending time in interesting natural areas. Ultimately it could lead to awareness and appreciation of our connections to and dependency on other living things.
Unfortunately kids today spend a full hour less time outdoors (per day) than they did just 20 years ago, and that wasn’t very much when compared to 50 years ago. There are numerous distractions today that didn’t exist just a few years ago: a proliferation of programs on TV, computer games, personal cell phones, and social media, such as Facebook. Plus, as our population expands, natural areas are in retreat. There is risk in this disconnect from the land. What we don’t know, we will neither value, nor protect, nor restore.
Over the years I’ve asked many people who are into outdoor related careers and avocations (conservation, gardening, sciences, etc.), why? Without exception they remembered being fascinated by nature as a child. Chances are there was a parent or grandparent who encouraged exploration, discovery, and enjoyment of the outdoors. Plus… they had a nearby creek or forest in which to play or just watch the everyday activities of reptiles, spiders, insects, or birds.
Children simply need opportunities to disconnect from the world wide web, and then reconnect to the web of life. A good starting point is right outside the door. You can see more in a short walk than you will on a hundred mile drive. I remember as a kid, in my parents’ yard, watching a spider trap an insect in its web and then subdue the “prey.” It was a little gross, but a lot fascinating. Then I noticed a yellow crab spider sitting on a yellow flower. You don’t need a degree in ecology to understand what that spider was up to. I used to catch frogs and release them. One day I saw a frog being swallowed by a garter snake. There was no malice on the part of the snake any more than the spider… it was simply having dinner. Connecting with nature doesn’t necessarily include lessons on food chains, trophic levels, or energy cycles. It’s likely that our ancestors learned how to fish with nets simply by observing spiders.
Aldo Leopold said, “Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.” It just requires curiosity and a little effort. We soon learn that we have a lot in common with other critters.
This can lead well beyond esthetic appreciation. Gaylord Nelson understood the imperative behind environmental education. It isn’t just about scenery… it’s truly about life and death. He pointed out: “Nuclear war is not inevitable, but major degradation of our environment with grave consequences is inevitable unless we reverse the trend.” The need to reduce our environmental impacts has gotten greater since Nelson issued that warning.
Gaylord Nelson also pointed out a critical short coming… “The most important environmental issue is one that is rarely mentioned, and that is the lack of a conservation ethic in our culture.” Not only do we lack this ethical perspective, too many of us think of conservation as trivial, inconvenient, or merely cosmetic.
“Civilization has so cluttered this elemental man-earth relationship with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim. We fancy that industry supports us, forgetting what supports industry.”…”We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” Aldo Leopold
Cleaning up our act … and connecting with life is a worthy goal for Earth Day every day.