It is April 22, 1970. I am a junior at Iowa State University. Spring has come to the small town of Ames, Iowa. The enormous old maples and oaks fringing central campus are leafing out. Tulips are blooming. The iconic lilac bushes are beginning to show promise of their white and purple fragrant blossoms. Students are sprawled on the grass sitting in small clusters on the immense lawnscape of central campus. Everyone is waiting for the daily 11:50 a.m. concert from the university carolinear who will play a 20-minute concert from the campanile tower with its 50 bells.
However, it is more than an ordinary day for students with spring fever. It has nationally been designated Earth Day. Speeches will be given in many places on campus, including on the steps of Bessey Hall, the old botany building. There will be a rally at the football stadium with music and more speeches. Over 20 million Americans will participate in parades, dances, and speeches on this first ever Earth Day inspired by Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. I am already an idealistic young biologist. This event will secure my dedication to a lifetime of service to the earth.
What to do? As I always do, I pause and look to nature for guidance and teaching. Outside our homes and apartments in the northern hemisphere, fruit trees are sporting their glorious, sweet blossoms. Grass is greening again after the long winter. The southern hemisphere is moving into welcomed cooler temperatures and moisture—I think especially of our friends in Australia who are so grateful for the end of a brutal fire season. At a superficial view, nature seems to be thriving during this time of human slowdown.
Aren’t we grateful for the continuation of life on this precious planet? Don’t we feel that gratitude more deeply than ever this year? Isn’t that reason enough to celebrate? Of course! This year has been proclaimed the year that Earth Day goes digital. And, as I mention later in this essay, it is more important than ever to also go outdoors!
Online Earth Day celebrations
So, how can we celebrate and still honor social distancing mandates? There will be a lot happening online. One official site for Earth Day 2020 celebration is http://earthday.org/. Their website banner states, “We have two crises: one is the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. The other is a slowly building disaster for our climate. On April 22, Earth Day goes digital.”
Sierra Club devoted their March/April issue to celebrating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. “On April 22, 1970 nearly one in 10 Americans flooded the streets and the woods and the seashores to call for an end to the merciless pollution of the country’s air, water, and landscapes.” They have many suggestions for Earth Day 2020 online: https://www.sierraclub.org/articles/2020/04/celebrating-earth-day?utm_source=insider&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter
The April issue of National Geographic is devoted to Earth Day 2020 and contains impressive background information and a look ahead 50 years—from both an optimistic and a pessimistic perspective.
And many local communities, including our own, previously had a month of celebrations planned—all of which have gone digital.
Actual outdoor observances
Because of social distancing mandates, people have had to let go of traditional ideas for celebrating many spring festivals. Passover, Easter, and Ramadan, all occurring in April, usually celebrate by gathering family and community. They are mostly being celebrated online. Earth Day is no different, but If you can safely and legally get outside, do so. If you are inside, tend plants in your house, handle vegetables with reverence, plant seeds, feed birds, listen to your pets with calmed attention.
So, what else can be done at this time of staying indoors and doing respectful social distancing? I think almost anyone can participate in a Sit Spot. A Sit Spot is a practice of outdoor meditation or noticing. No devices, just physical senses: you with Nature. I have a Sit Spot in our local state park that is waiting for me once the shelter in place restrictions are lifted and the parks open to the public again. My closest Sit Spot is on the front porch. You can sit on a balcony overlooking quieted streets, on a front porch, or the steps into your house. Find a place within a few minutes walk out your front door into your yard or garden. A senior in a wheelchair can participate.
Sit spot is both location and intention. Sit by yourself for ten minutes. Bring a notebook and a pen, maybe colored pencils. Be completely quiet and do not move except to write down anything you see, hear, smell or sense.
My suggestion is to do this every day during Earth Week: April 20-24. It is best to go to the same spot every day so you can really practice your skills of observation and see what different things you notice each day—especially at different times of the day. At the end of your 10 minutes create something from your observations: a drawing, a short story, a collage, a poem. Then participate in the community aspect of this incredible celebration—send it off to children, grandchildren, friends, or even a local website.
Instead of participating in an outdoors youth celebration this Earth Week, as would be my custom, I am working with local elementary teachers to design some Earth Day celebration ideas for their online curriculum—which includes a Sit Spot exercise.
It is rural here and our local Land Trust has allowed its trails to remain open. People are very good about stepping aside and letting one another pass. If you have access to parks or beaches, enjoy, respect social distancing, and treat your outing as a privilege. So many of your fellow planetary citizens to not have this opportunity right now. Gratitude is a very important part of an Earth Day celebration.
The planet is getting a rest right now from many of the activities of its 7.8 billion humans. Perhaps, this is the greatest Earth Day gift we can bestow.
Fifty years ago, on Earth Day when I was that junior at Iowa State University, the speeches, the parades, and rallies were the most inspirational thing I had ever experienced in my young life. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin called this celebration forward as a way to bring environmental issues to the forefront of political action. The results were astounding. In the 1970s the U.S. implemented major legislation such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. The Environmental Protection Agency was founded.
Now more than ever earth wellness needs to come to the forefront of our thinking and action. My request for each of us in this time of pandemic is to remember and participate in the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, 2020. And even more than that—may we support political action that enables us to have the optimistic view of 2070 portrayed in this month’s National Geographic magazine.