In the Beginning – Earth Day 1970

First published April, 2011 – EMC St. Lawrence

Wednesday, April 22, 1970, was glorious.  It was early spring in southern New Hampshire and the earth had decided to give up its white blanket of snow and push forth as much green as it could get away with on such short notice.  The sun was warm and pleasant, and the black flies had as yet to come out in full force as students from 12 -18 years of age gathered outside the dining hall on main campus to be given garbage bags and instructions.

“We are here,” the headmaster told us, “to participate in a nationwide project to help clean up and improve the world we live in.”

“We’re here,” came a voice behind me, “because it beats going to class!”

Stemming from an idea originated by Senator Gaylord Nelson, the project for the day would be to go out as a school of roughly 100 students and numerous staff and clean up a one-mile stretch of Highway 119.  If it was inorganic, didn’t belong there, and could be picked up and removed, we were to collect it and put it into a bag to be taken to a recycling centre and/or appropriate disposal facility.  Schools across the country would all be participating to see just how much could be done in a single day.

Sounded good to a bunch of kids tired of early morning Latin and calculus classes, all eager to be out and doing something that didn’t chain us to chairs.  It was spring, the air was fresh and sweet, and the promise of something good was dangling in front of us just waiting to be grabbed.

So we took off in our might-be-organized groups, bell bottomed jeans swirling around our Fryes, tee-shirts covered up by blue chambray work shirts, ready to do our part in this grand experiment.

“Oh, yes, I was there, too, walking the ditches of New Hampshire Highway119 with trash bags in my hand,” recalls Nathan Hall, now living in Los Angeles, California.

“We had a good time as we were all thinking it was a new beginning and this would get everyone involved as who likes trash or a dirty environment?”

So off we went, cheerfully picking up any and all odd items and stuffing them in bags.  Some accompanied the trucks and helped load full bags into them, replacing them with more empty ones.  Others went farther afield, finding all manner of interesting items amongst the trees.

“I remember a small bottle in particular,” says Leslie Simpson of the greater Boston area in Massachusetts.  “It was like nothing I had ever seen before, and I couldn’t imagine how it had ended up where it was.”

Leslie Simpson - ca 1970

       Leslie Simpson – ca 1970

At first it was fun, stopping every few feet to show off our finds, shoving items into bags which strained and tore under the weight of refuse they were never designed to hold.  But as the morning wore on, it got hot.  And dirty.  And HARD.  This was work, REAL work, and most of us hadn’t thought about that when we started.  And the bugs were coming out.  And where was lunch anyway?

Noon finally came, and we trudged back.  The laughter and happy chatter had diminished to occasional grumbling and extended silences.  A staff member started singing “Kumbaya”, but stopped pretty quickly as tired students stared her down.

The trucks had been coming and going during the entire walk and we hadn’t really paid attention.  They were there, then they weren’t, then they were back.  So when we got to the parking lot, we were startled by what was waiting for us.

There, on the ground, were the results of our morning.

A mountain of black plastic bags, full to beyond capacity, rose before us waiting to be sorted.  On the very top was a younger student waving in triumph.

In the end, it turned out that we had collected about a ton and a half or so of metal, about half a ton of glass, and a couple of school pick-up trucks worth of paper.  Considering that this was only a single mile of remote rural highway, this was mind boggling.

But, instead of becoming a grand annual event, Earth Day crawled back into the woodwork and disappeared.  For years it lay dormant, with occasional members of the original groups still going out every year to clean up.  It might not have been a mile of highway, it might only have been the street near their own homes, but they had caught the bug and couldn’t let it die.

Then, in 1990, the media resurrected it.  Celebrities came out and held gala events celebrating the earth.  People started to think about moving forward in a more ecologically friendly manner.  Ever so slowly, communities created programmes to start cleaning up their environment.

We are now approaching the original goal of worldwide environmental awareness and concern.  Annual events are held, educating children and adults alike as to the dangers of all forms of pollution.  Communities hold Pitch-In events where residents are encouraged to go out and work in groups to help clean up their local areas.  Everyone has heard of Earth Day and recycling and the need to become more environmentally correct.

And it all started with the dream of a single man which spread to 20 million kids in schools across a single nation who went out to clean up the roadsides in their towns to show what a difference it could make to global thinking and behaviour.

Lorraine Payette - ca 1970

Lorraine Payette – ca 1970

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s