Awash in coronavirus concerns, I wonder if anybody noticed that last Wednesday was Earth Day. And not just any Earth Day. It was the 50th birthday of a celebration that started in 1970 as a way to bring worldwide attention to the sad state of our planet.
In an impressively short period of time, environmental concerns sparked by Earth Day led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, among others. Sadly, many of the progressive efforts that were decades in the making have been weakened and sometimes gutted over the past three years by the current occupant of the White House, who seems intent on taking us backward to a time when environmental destruction was simply the price our country paid for doing business.
If there’s any bright spot at all in this Covid-19 crisis, it’s that the planet appears to be healing itself. With fewer cars and factories spewing poisons, some amazing stuff has happened. The Himalayas can be seen from northern India for the first time in 30 years. Wildlife is reclaiming national parks and near-empty cities. Shipwrecks are visible in once-murky waters.
Nature always bats last if you let it.
This happy news won’t last, of course. When the virus runs its course—as we all hope and pray it will soon—business will crank back up. That’s a good thing. But perhaps when the world gets back to work it will be with an environmental consciousness that was lacking before the shut-down. An invisible enemy brought us to our knees. Maybe that will humble and encourage us to study and respect science more than ever before.
In early January, I made tentative plans about some of the topics I wanted to write about in my 2020 newspaper columns. Covid-19 turned many of those plans upside down. I intended to write a series of columns, perhaps enough to fill all four Sundays in April, about saving the earth. I was going to write about compost barrels and graffiti and plastic straws and the demise of whippoorwills.
I was also going to rant against one-use plastic shopping bags, which has been a crusade of mine for a long, long time. But the coronavirus changed that. On the rare occasions I go grocery shopping these days, I leave my reusable bags at home. I don’t want to set them in a grocery buggy that might be working alive with the virus. I don’t want to place potentially infected food packaging into the bags and then move the virus into my car and house.
So I watch in dismay as my groceries are placed in flimsy plastic bags that will never completely disappear from this earth. When I get home, I unpack my groceries and wipe them down. I wipe the kitchen counters down. Then, with a heavy heart, I throw the flimsy plastic bags away. Yet another reason to hope this horror will soon be over.
So how did I observe Earth Day 2020? I watched the sun come up in my astonishingly green part of the world. I put fresh nectar in the hummingbird feeder and watered the lettuce that grows in a flower pot on my deck. Then I pulled on a pair of disposable gloves and walked through my neighborhood picking up litter. While I walked, my favorite stanza of W.H. Auden’s 1940 poem “The Fall of Rome” rolled through my head. It goes like this:
Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.
Kind of makes you change the way you think, doesn’t it?
(April 26, 2020)