Fifty years ago, on April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans, many of them on college campuses, rallied in honor of the nation’s first Earth Day. Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson was a driving force behind the event. Nelson had toured the area of a massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara in 1969. He was outraged by the damage but inspired by the volunteers who gathered to help. On the flight back, the senator read an article about the anti-Vietnam War teach-ins that were taking place at colleges. He wondered if a similar grassroots model could champion the environment.
Nelson worried that the United States lacked a “unity of purpose” when it came to protecting the natural world. But Americans, and thus Congress, were ready for change. The Environmental Protection Agency was founded eight months after the first Earth Day. The basic framework of the Clean Air Act also was established in 1970. The Clean Water Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Endangered Species Act and Safe Drinking Water Act followed.
Today, with the looming calamities posed by global warming serving as cannon fodder on a partisan battleground, a unity of purpose seems even harder to come by. But adherence to the social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders prompted by COVID-19 have demonstrated that Americans, and people around the world, are willing to act together for the common good — even at economic expense. And an added benefit of all that time at home has been reduced carbon emissions and a resurgence of interest in growing food. Mainers have parked their cars and turned to the land for entertainment and sustenance.
Demand for seeds and chicks has skyrocketed. Seedlings are taking root in trays on many a windowsill. Newbie gardeners are digging in the dirt as a form of therapy or as a hedge against an uncertain economic future. Some are calling their efforts victory gardens, a term that dates to the world wars, when governments urged citizens to plant gardens to supplement rations and boost morale. There is something deeply satisfying about nurturing a plant from seed to plate.
Gardening fosters a deeper connection to the environment than indoor pursuits and it’s close, personal connections that are most likely to spur humans to action. Our normal, busy lives can make it seem like nature is something we visit, not something we’re part of. A renewed interest in the land and in working together can only be a good thing for the planet.