The 50th Earth Day occurs this week on Wednesday. But it will be without gatherings. How will you celebrate Earth Day?
Back in 1969, if you’d gone around the United States asking people what they thought about the environment, people would have looked at you as if you had three eyes. By the middle of the 1970s, however, an estimated 75 percent of Americans called themselves environmentalists.
In 1970, if you looked at the 562-foot Tacoma Smelter smoke stack on the shores of Commencement Bay, you’d see an ugly cloud coming out. The smelter extracted lead and arsenic from copper and other ores, with some being used as pesticides in the fruit orchards of eastern Washington.
My parents, who were avid gardeners while they were raising us five kids, often talked about how difficult it was to grow anything in Tacoma. No grass or rhododendrons survived the pollution that rained from the sky.
We are a fortunate cluster of communities on Kodiak Island. The air is fresh, the skies blue. And, thankfully, the trails and beaches are open. In these lengthening weeks of self-isolation, many of us are seeking and finding comfort in many forms of nature.
“I don’t know what I’d do without my garden,” posted a veg grower on a worldwide gardening Facebook group.
Today, as the Earth’s health continues to shudder from pollution, we’ve added climate change and plastics to the mix. Is the coronavirus showing us how fragile the Earth really is?
“In the last month, the planet as we know it has shifted under our feet and will probably shift again,” said Jessica Stolzberg in a recent letter to the New York Times.
Many environmental regulations are being rolled back, and what was once deemed recyclable is now tossed out as garbage. The outlook can seem bleak, triggering questions like “What’s a person to do?” and “Where to begin?”
One way is to reduce the amount of waste we generate. Composting is a simple way to do that.
We keep a lidded stainless steel vessel on the kitchen counter. It fills up within a day or two with colorful bits of peppers, orange peels and cooked pancakes that were forgotten at the back of the fridge. I follow a basic home composting rule: If it comes from the Earth, it goes in the compost pile. If it walks, flies or swims about the Earth, no. (see www.epa.gov/recycle/composting-home).
When it fills, Marty carries our countertop loot outside to the compost bins (we have three bins for composting year-round). If the pile isn’t actively composting (and hot), he tosses scraps into a holding bin, along with a couple handfuls of leaves from bags we filled last fall. He rinses out the metal container and returns to the kitchen, often with a report that goes something like this: “The compost’s up to 140 degrees!”
Within a few weeks, we have finished compost. Brown gold. The best homemade fertilizer that money can’t buy. Our garden soil is rejuvenated continuously, replacing the nutrients taken up by plants. Nutrients we then take in when we eat the plants.
“Compost is the all-purpose solution to any gardening problem,” says Leslie Land, former garden writer for the New York Times.
Maybe that seems like a miniscule dent in the world’s problems. But our curbside trash has reduced drastically. We use a small roll cart, which is rarely full. And the life of our sanitary landfill is extended, thanks to what I create with a paring knife.
I estimate that our household generates 15 to 20 pounds of kitchen scraps each week. If you do the math for a month, then a year, and then 35 years (for how long I’ve been turning compost), it feels like Earth Day bliss-joy.
Somebody told me recently that composting seemed daunting and that she didn’t have room to set up bins. Bins aren’t necessary, I said. Dig a small hole in a raised bed, toss in your kitchen scraps and cover it with soil. Done. The worms take it from there.
As we continue to heed the call to stay safe by staying home, the Earth is displaying signs of renewed health. In India, there are no flights, no passenger trains and few functioning industries. In normal times, cities experience long spells of hazardous air.
These days, blue skies, the moon and the stars are seen without the usual barrier of smog. In northern India, the Himalayan mountains are visible from a distance for the first time in years.
In the midst of gloom-and-gloom stories, there are well-founded reasons for hope. “You will never be able to generate a movement if you don’t have hope,” said Denis Hayes, organizer of the first Earth Day.
“You can’t have a civil rights movement unless you think you can prevail,” he said in an interview in the Christian Science Monitor. “And you won’t have a climate movement unless you can build a safe, healthy, resilient, beautiful society that isn’t dependent on fossil fuels.”
In 1993, the smokestack in Tacoma was demolished as part of a Superfund toxic cleanup of the 67-acre smelter site. An estimated 100,000 people gathered to witness the detonation.
Fast forward to today. What comes to mind (an odd transition at best) is that hope is an act of will. And with a strong, focused will, we can create healthy change.
Here are 10 things you can do to celebrate Earth Day in Kodiak:
1. Join the Island Trails Network (ITN) Earth Day Challenge: Choose a safe place outside to clean up. ITN will supply bags. Contact Hana Reyes at 907-205-5222 ext. 2 for more information.
2. Sprinkle used coffee grounds in your garden.
3. Replace paper napkins with cloth ones.
4. Use a refillable water bottle.
5. Thank your local grocer.
6. Unsubscribe to catalogs.
7. Go tide pooling.
8. Learn about local birds.
9. Eat less red meat.
10. Wash your hands.
I believe the rapid response to the COVID-19 virus illustrates the capacity of our society — local and global — to “put the emergency brake on,” as I read recently. And perhaps the current response is getting us accustomed to new lifestyle patterns that can heal the planet.