Evanston RoundTable, April 22, 2020
The 50th anniversary of Earth Day is here and, appropriately, spring is slowly making its long overdue and much anticipated reappearance in the Chicago area.
“Appropriately” because with Earth Day, as in spring, we celebrate the beauty and renewal of our earth, our little spinning home, as it makes its way around the sun, through the solar system and across the universe.
However, this Earth Day is different, marked with fear and anxiety because the earth (or mankind) has sprung this very lethal and surreal surprise on us.
The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, “activated 20 million Americans from all walks of life and is widely credited with launching the modern environmental movement,” according to the website of Earth Day Network, which coordinates events marking the day in 193 countries.
It certainly activated me. I remember the day well. Having graduated University of Illinois in 1969 with a degree in history and recently returned from a stint in the Peace Corps, and with the draft and the Vietnam War hanging over my head, I was at “loose ends,” as they say, driving a cab while trying to figure out my future.
One thing was for sure: everything seemed dire. The war, the assassinations, the campus riots, the “generation gap,” the environmental depredations. The country seemed to be coming unstrung.
The first Earth Day was a welcome respite from all that, an opportunity to draw people together to highlight earth’s spiritual and fragile nature and “activate” our efforts to improve the environment. From the time of Rachel Carson’s massively influential book “Silent Spring” in 1962, people had started to view the planet in a new light, especially since astronaut William Anders had snapped the iconic photo “Earthrise,” taken Christmas eve 1968 from lunar orbit. We could see how beautiful—and fragile—the Earth looked.
The day itself was unseasonably warm in Chicago, sunny and in the low 70s. There was a rally scheduled in the Loop and I decided to add my emphatic and dramatic support by marching there wearing the beautiful chief’s robe I had brought back from Liberia, West Africa, and, incongruously, a WW I gas mask, one of those weird items with a canister for a nose that I had purchased at an Army-Navy surplus store for a few bucks to use on just such an occasion as this.
I was going to make a statement, though of what, I’m no longer sure.
I took the Lake Shore Drive express bus downtown and nervously exited, planning to walk “in costume” to the rally. I knew it was a little wacky, and I was prepared for some startled and even nasty reactions. But within a few seconds of donning the gas mask it fogged up and I bumped into a light pole.
So much for my activism.
Funny how few spring days I can remember since then, which is a shame since late April through mid-June is the most beautiful time of year in Chicago. Every year I vow to pay more attention. And every year the season slides right by.
But not this year. The renewal of hope that spring eternally brings and the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, with its promise of a cleaner, brighter future, couldn’t come at a better time.