Volume XVII, Issue 16 - April 16 - April 22, 2009

40 Earth Days

It’s taking longer than I expected

by Jane Elkin

In celebration of the first Earth Dayback in 1970, everyone at Little Harbor Elementary School in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, rallied to clean up the planet, and I wondered why nobody had thought of this before. Earth Day sounded like birthday, so it must be fun.

I knew all about pollution because we had studied it for a whole week in science class. There was litter, water pollution, air pollution, even noise pollution, and I saw it all right where we lived.

Ericsson 3 on the home stretch, left, and approaching the finish line at Rio de Janeiro after an epic 41 days of sailing in Leg 5.

Mama had taught us to never throw anything out the car window that couldn’t feed the worms and turn into dirt. Still, the highways were outlined with litter.

At our lakefront camp, on one day each summer the water was treated with weed killer, so we couldn’t go swimming. Mama said if it was bad for the weeds, it couldn’t be good for us or the fish.

A mosquito spraying truck toured our neighborhood every Wednesday night. It smelled awful, but there was something mystical about the grey cloud that enveloped us in its fog. We danced in the street as it settled around our feet, and some kids even followed on their bikes. Once the novelty wore off, though, Mama started calling us inside when she heard it coming. She said if it was bad for the mosquitoes, it couldn’t be good for us.

It all reminded me of the Indian on television, looking at all the trash and crying. I wanted him to ride his horse into the sunset with a smile on his face, so I was excited about Earth Day.

Since this was the first annual Earth Day, I guessed that meant there’d be another the next year, though I wondered if that would benecessary, since we were going to clean up the planet in one day. Picking up all the trash would be a cinch, but I could see how it might take more than one day to clean up the air and the water.

I took the long way to school that day with my friends. My bag was half-full by the time I reached Cathy G.’s house, just three blocks away, so her mother gave us a whole box of trash bags. We cut through the park, where we were sure to find lots of soda cans, napkins, foam cups, newspapers and cigarette butts.

We were a posse of five, competing for the most garbage. When it became apparent we couldn’t collect it all and stil get to school on time, I started hoping someone else was celebrating Earth Day at the other end of the park. We arrived at school breathless and sweaty from running, with two bags of trash apiece.

As it turned out, the whole school day wasn’t dedicated just to our cause. Still, Mr. B. consented to hold science class on the grass. I’d have preferred to stay indoors because the brittlel awn’s weeds scratched my bare legs, but I wasn’t uncomfortable for long. First, Sandy T. started picking the grass and was scolded for not respecting all living things. Then a flock of starlings chattering in a nearby tree threatened to drown out Mr. B’s voice. Finally a knot of boys started rough-housing, and within minutes we were marched back inside because we weren’t mature enough to have class outdoors.

At dismissal, we were all given trees. Some kids got just a stick that was supposed to grow roots when you poked it into the ground, but I chose the blue spruce sapling in a bag. Magic sticks sounded like hocus pocus.

When I got home, Mama asked what we did for Earth Day, and I told her, “I picked up two bags of trash and got a tree.”

Daddy helped me plant it that very evening, though he said our dirt wasn’t very good. Sure enough, the sapling was just a brown twig by summer. But I had tried, and that’s what counted. And surely someone else’s spruce had grown.

Forty years later, I’m still trying. I pick up my neighbor’s trash. I recycle and dry my clothes on the line. I don’t fertilize my lawn or idle my engine. I even raised an environmentalist. Surely that must count for something.