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Earth Day and you

What would you have done if you saw your river burning? The Cuyahoga River that runs through the northeastern corner of Ohio was so polluted in the 1950s and 1960s that fish populations were decimated because of the river’s oily, industry-produced pollution. In 1969, with a spark from a train traveling nearby, the river began to burn.

Image of a nature scene with mountains in the background, rocks and a stream in foreground, and trees. Misty, cloud, but slightly sunny.

Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson (1916-2005) was inspired by the burning Cuyahoga River and other environmental disasters of his day. He served as a governor (1959-1963) and U.S. senator (1963-1981) of Wisconsin, and founded Earth Day in 1970. Nelson had cared about the environment since childhood and, as senator, reported that he was inspired to break from the "frontier philosophy that the continent was put here for our plunder," according to Bill Christofferson's 2004 book, The Man from Clear Lake: Earth Day Founder Gaylord Nelson.

Nelson's heritage and upbringing had allowed him opportunities to regularly interact with nature in his native Wisconsin. The realization that his earth was being destroyed by pollution, deforestation, DDT use, and other devastating occurrences inspired his political involvement in environmental activities.

In the early 1960s, Nelson was intent on creating the momentum for a grassroots movement to promote resource conservation. He was inspired by and partnered with contemporary public advocacy for social change. The thriving American economy of the 1950s and 1960s, along with increased leisure time, had put pressure on parks and recreation areas to the detriment of natural resources. Nelson's philosophy, responding to these circumstances, included an interest in the concepts of not just survival but "decency . . . and mutual respect for all . . . creatures," including humans, according to Christofferson's book.

Brochure with images of wolves, butterfly, fish, geese, and mountain background.

Nelson became convinced that the purchase of land for future parks and recreation purposes was the best first step toward his larger environmental goals. He introduced a bill to save the Appalachian Trail, which, by the early 1960s, had become segmented and in some places inaccessible because of privately held lands and parkway construction. Nelson was also involved in the Outdoor Recreation Act (later Action) Program whose main objective was also the purchase of land for parks and recreational purposes. Nelson believed that congressional support for these and other environmentally-directed activities was imperative. He proclaimed that "we only have, in this country . . . another ten years . . . to preserve a significant amount of the outdoor resources we have . . . [that are] being destroyed by pollution of water, drainage of wetlands, and rapid city growth." (Quotation found in The Man from Clear Lake: Earth Day Founder Gaylord Nelson.)

In a front-page story on November 30, 1969, the New York Times reported that "rising concern about 'the environmental crisis' is sweeping this nation's campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam . . . [and that] the deterioration of the nation's 'quality of life' is a pervasive, here-and-now, long-term problem that students can sink their teeth and energies into. And they are doing it."

Earth Day itself spawned many environmentally-directed activities, especially those having to do with waste recycling and trash cleanup. Other activities were reported in the following months, such as a movement to rescue the prairie grasslands, which assisted the later establishment of the Tallgrass Prairie Historical Preserve.

For the first anniversary of Earth Day, in 1971, E. W. Kenworthy of the New York Times reported that bicyclists rallied to oppose auto emissions; the citizens of Ann Arbor, Michigan, planted an organic garden, "and what was more to the point, there was increasing evidence that the ecological issues had, in the last year, taken on new importance where it counts: in Congress."

Gaylord Nelson and others during and since his time have successfully laid the groundwork for the continued grassroots advocacy for environmental protection through individual promotion and activity. And even though the ongoing, public endorsement for environmental protection is indisputable, all environmental success stories still rely on citizen support.

Book cover with crayon child's drawing showing a person in a boat fishing and a few fish swimming around.

Would you be willing to go out and enjoy nature, plant a tree, help monitor the quality of your local stream, teach others about nature, clean up garbage, buy solar panels for your house, buy an alternative-fuel automobile, use public transportation, or stop your junk mail? Assuming you are willing, as most of us already partake in some of the above-mentioned environmental activities, perhaps you should be pushing yourself harder. Perhaps you could pick a new activity close to home (figuratively and literally), as such an activity may well mean more to you in the end.

Perhaps activities associated with this year's Earth Day (Friday, April 22) might inspire you. Earth Day Network, the caretaker of the movement, "is the world's largest recruiter to the environmental movement, working with more than 50,000 partners in 196 countries to build environmental democracy." Its main goal towards the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, in 2020, is the planting of "7.8 Billion trees . . . one tree for every person on the planet." (Trees absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. They serve as a buffer to extreme temperatures, they reduce water and chemical runoff, and they're beautiful!)

Photo with rising sun. In silhouettes, two children dig a hole to plant a tree. The small tree is in their Little Red Wagon. They wear baseball hats.

Perhaps your state or local community is coordinating tree plantings and other Earth Day activities. Perhaps you'd like to coordinate your own. There are many ways to help. I've found that my personal inspiration has to do with the number of trees suffering the effects of English ivy and kudzu. Both vines compete for the resource needs of trees, particularly sunlight. You might notice the dominance of these vines in your sight line on major highways in your area. Who cares for these trees? Do our state and local governments have programs and funding to manage the invasive plants causing damage to our trees? It's up to each of us to investigate ways we can help.

Joan Boudreau is a curator in the Graphic Arts Collection at the National Museum of American History.