After the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, the holiday began to lose its outrage and its muscle.
The holiday was the brainchild of Gaylord Nelson, senator from Wisconsin who helped ban the use of DDT and Agent Orange. Nelson had become increasingly concerned that the state of the environment was "simply a non-issue in the politics of the country." Emulating Vietnam protests, he set about to organize a massive grassroots teach-in against environmental destruction. Twenty million people, mostly university students, took up the banner.
I didn't hear about Earth Day until I was in college at Florida State in 1982, and by then the holiday was becoming a pop-culture event, a Keep-America-Beautiful love-fest with polluters as corporate sponsors. Throwaway coffee cups in hand, driving their SUVs from starter castles built on the vestiges of wild land, people would show up for pet blessings, surfing competitions, fireworks displays, canoe runs, poster contests, recycling drives, alternative-fuel-vehicle fairs, plant giveaways, street festivals, field trips, lectures, and beach cleanups.
I always thought we should really celebrate Earth Day.
We'd have a paid national holiday. Nobody would go to work. We wouldn't climb into our cars, not at all. We wouldn't buy anything – no planet-shaped chocolates, no strands of green lights, no big blow-up replicas of Earth to tether in our front yards. We wouldn't buy so much as a newspaper. We'd start our gardens.
We would force ourselves to be still long enough to think about what our actions and our inactions were doing to the earth. All day we’d listen to disappearing songbirds among disappearing spring wildflowers.
This year, 2020, the 50th anniversary of Gaylord's splendid idea, we got a chance to do that, celebrate my way -- to do nothing, to be quiet, to listen, to notice a blue sky, to hear birds again, to watch goats and bears move into towns, to quit driving, to stay home, to take a hike, to garden.
Nothing good has come out of the coronavirus pandemic except maybe this – we have gotten a chance to hear the earth itself breathe.
That is truly a celebration.