Every April 22 reminds me of that very first Earth Day celebrated in 1970. It started as a nationwide Environmental Teach-In, championed by Wisconsin’s own US senator, Gaylord Nelson. The Teach-In echoed the “ins” of that generation, like the Love-In and the Be-In, and many of its advocates wore bell-bottom pants and their hair as nature intended, long or “fro.” A newsletter reported “Earth Day observers in Milwaukee nominated the toad, the praying mantis and the ladybug as substitutes for DDT.”
I was part of a big group of students who gathered in Milwaukee that day on the banks of the polluted Milwaukee River near the performing arts center to hear speeches, a rock band and street performers with a common message: that we need to keep the Earth, our home, free of pollution, litter and other things harmful to children and animals. Music pulsed through the the air while a banner fluttered over a bridge proclaiming “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.”
It was an exciting day, full of hope, the camaraderie of fellow college students and the heady belief that we were part of something important, something smart leaders were willing to lead. We believed we ourselves could make changes happen by not polluting our fragile environment in any way.
So, fired up and hungry after the rally, I was happy when my boyfriend John suggested we go down to the lakefront to grab some burgers from a stand. We sat in the car talking and eating and just before John started up the engine he did something shocking. He took the paper sack from the burgers, crumbled it up in his fist, and tossed it out the open window in the parking lot.
“What did you just do!” I gasped.
For G—d’s sake, it was Earth Day! (And this was my future husband!) One simply does not litter on Earth Day.
So my memory of Earth Day always had this little asterisk after it. The next day, on the news, we learned that the National Mall was filled with litter after its first Earth Day rally. We all had a lot to learn, and still do.