For many reasons, not the least of which is the current lockdown strategies of Covid-19, I’ve been thinking of Earth Day. Yes, it’s the 50th anniversary, which is somewhat surprising in how it ages me. For it was 50years ago while working for the Denver Post that I helped cover the initial Earth Day celebration at the old Auditorium.
Some are old enough to recall those times when a nasty, grayish hazy smog was so heavy in most major cities, including Denver, that it was difficult to breathe. Just the year before the Cuyahoga River erupted into a blazing fire raging through downtown Cleveland, and out in Santa Barbara an oil spill spewed three million gallons of crude oil into the ocean to create an oil slick some 35 miles long. It now ranks as the third worst oil spill in human history. No longer the worst, but third worst!
There was no EPA. Here in Minnesota, there was no MPCA. Mats of algae and sewage was so prevalent and thick pundits jokingly suggested people could walk bank-to-bank across the Mississippi between St. Paul and Hastings. A year later, and just a month before the initial Earth Day, a huge soy oil storage tank ruptured at the Honeymead Soybean Products in Mankato sending 2.5 millions gallons of soy oil into the streets and the Minnesota River, eventually reaching the Mississippi downriver where just a month prior to that an oil plant rupture in Savage had already sent about a million gallon of crude oil into the two rivers. Into all that algae and sewage.
Environmentally the world was a damned mess. A mess that a lone senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, used to motivate activists across the country to organize that first Earth Day celebration on April 22, 1970. There were a couple of bands and numerous speakers, and seated in the front row was a fellow I wouldn’t have expected being there. When I uttered my surprise, he said, “Why wouldn’t I be? This is important.”
His presence and comment gave me just enough impetus to view the story with an added importance. Since I have found some way to celebrate subsequent Earth Days, be it a column written for my former country weekly, or a picture and caption with reference to the significance of the day. Twice my “Art of Erosion” photojournalistic effort was featured in Earth Day exhibitions, which includes 20 large canvases depicting dirt erosion along with several educational panels. Somewhere through the years, and it might have been at the initial Denver celebration, it was mentioned that there is “no Planet B.” There still isn’t.
Seemingly this singular message has either been lost or ignored by many, including our current president, his advisors and too many members of the Republican Party. Sometimes I think of Gaylord Nelson and wonder what he would think now, some 15 years after his death, of how the many safeguards and efforts to slow the degradation of the environment have been cast aside for basic greed. That lack of environmental goodwill sadly continues to erode and come under attack by President Trump and his cronies. But, I digress …
A few years after the initial Earth Day, Nelson was the keynote speaker at a National Farmers Union convention in Laramie, Wyoming, which was consequently hit by a blinding blizzard during the first night of the event. NFU president John Stencil after the evening events opened his suite to Nelson, Walter Mondale and other key figures, and offered me an invitation.
Although we had a wonderful time, especially late in the evening when Nelson and Mondale started swapping stories from the Senate and Washington, as we stood by a food tray I asked Nelson if those Earth Day efforts had met his expectations. Nelson, who was both gracious and quick with a smile, said he was surprised by the initial response which reportedly was celebrated by some 20 million people from grade schools to large community events like the one in Denver.
He explained that he had initially met with some of the more influential protest leaders in Madison, where he had served as governor before being elected to the Senate, and the strategy was established that the key to success would be for it to be a grassroots effort coordinated in local areas rather than something being originated from Washington. “We needed to convince people that we were facing an environmental crisis,” he said. “What has happened to date is hopefully just a start.”
In a later interview he told a reporter, “We felt if we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse the student anti-war energy into the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force the issue onto the national political agenda. It worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time nor the resources to organize the 20 million demonstrators who participated from thousands of schools and local communities,” he said, before adding, “That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself.”
And led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency nationally, and consequently from state to state formations of departments like the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency … all of which are seemingly targeted for being dismantled by the Republican Party.
Meeting and covering Nelson helped inspire my own environmental consciousness. Soon afterwards I would interview Dr. Stephen Schneider, then with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, for a story in which he explained a scenario that would later be termed “global warming.” I don’t recall where it was “played” in the paper that following Sunday, although it didn’t make the front page. About that time Aldo Leopold’s “Sand County Almanac” landed in my lap, adding a poetic background to my becoming a “tree huggin’ environmentalist.”
I might add that this is a label I thoroughly enjoy and take seriously. It is also a path that led me to become a long time board member of CURE (Clean Up the River Environment), a Minnesota Master Naturalist as well as an artist with an intent to capture what remains of the last one percent of the native prairie and its natural wetlands in what was the most thorough and devastating dismantling of an ecosystem on planet earth. Perhaps this lifetime journey began with covering that first Earth Day 50 years ago, and a friend who said, “Why wouldn’t I? This is important.”
Earlier this week we awoke to a fog so heavy and dense we could barely see the bird feeder tree some 30 feet or so from the bedroom window. Foggy mornings, a special treat of environmental “softness”, generally pull me outside to commune with nature’s many offerings. Most times with a camera in hand.
You see, I bank ideas. Image thoughts. Sometimes as we’re driving I’ll pass something that makes me think it will make a subject in the right light. Like in a heavy fog, perhaps. A tree down the way in a bit of a prairie hollow I’ve passed probably 100 times always make me think of fog. And now just south of town is a hill of emerging pasqueflowers going into spring bloom. I sensed an early morning calling. As we gathered around the steaming water pot for morning tea and coffee, a particular pasqueflower image came to mind, of the pastel purplish flower blending into the softness of fog. This is easier to visualize than explain, and perhaps it’s something Georgia O’Keeffe might have painted were she a prairie artist.
So we quickly loaded up for the drive to my favorite patch of pasqueflowers, a route that conveniently took us past the tree down the road. And past the wetland up on the hill above our upper prairie that sometimes offers me framing for Northern Lights minus light pollution from farms to the north of us. Driving in dense fog is often chilling, for in my newspapering days I covered too many accidents, including some fatalities, on foggy roads. Seems there is always some asinine fool who quite possibly thinks to him or herself that they can see just fine without headlights in dusk, blizzards and fogs … and in every single fog wreck I covered it was because an unaware driver couldn’t see a car coming toward them because the other driver didn’t have on their lights.
Thankfully we safely survived our way several miles due south of here to the pasqueflowers. The gate had a beautiful long resting necklace of heavy dew drops stretching across the horizontal rounded metal beams. Across the hill itself tiny blossoms poked through scraggly grass that perhaps had never seen a plow, and hopefully never will. I don’t remember ever seen pasqueflowers on a restored prairie, and certainly not on mine here at Listening Stones Farm. This isn’t uncommon among prairie forbs, and many of which are so rare they’re on an endangered species list. Dense grasses also seem to crowd out the delicate rooting systems of pasqueflowers.
With the O’Keeffe inspiration in mind I began scouting for just the right blossom, one that angled freely toward the gray sky. Most were hugging the slope of the hillside too closely for my visualization. Such disappointment isn’t rare. For years I’ve carried a mental image of a series of four or five pasqueflower blossoms pointing away like a small choir of bonneted singers. Not once have I found a cooperative bunch. One blossom will be pointing off in a different direction, or one or two will be split just far enough away that the focal range isn’t right. That is the will of nature, for it is rarely there for our beck and call.
My writer friend, Tom Watson, calls my affliction, these unmet visionary dreams, “the Dulcinayas to my Don Quixote photo quest.” Perhaps he’s right, although these visualizations fuel my “artistic fires” enough to get me into the field. Time and time again. I’m not a painter. I must work with nature as it presents itself. I cannot create a nature I cannot see. Painting is not my art.
Maybe, though, I was looking for the wrong things. Rather than dealing with the dissatisfaction of not finding my pastel blossom high and free enough of the lay of the land, perhaps I should think and look more metaphorically … to seek imagery within this vast fogginess much like we are all searching for hope within the fogginess of our coronavirus pandemic. While Mary and I are somewhat fortunate in our age that we are settled in our respective ways, we are no different than anyone else in our search of hope. Could this dense, foggy morning on the hillside overlooking the Minnesota River serve as a metaphor for our lives right now? In finding positivity? Hope?
That simple change of thought altered my view significantly. Looking at the broader view, of challenging myself to see within the grayness the small things, small pasqueflowers seemed to appear in all directions. A near carpet of them. Nearby, as if magic, dozens of birds appeared as leaves on a tree truly barren of them. Being partially deaf I had not heard them, and up to that moment when I started to look around me I hadn’t seen them. Dew droplets, clung to the dried dormant autumn-browned plants, glistened like miniature diamonds even in the gloomy grayness. Trees disappeared ghostlike in the grayness, silhouettes shading away into oblivion. All of this brought a deep and reflective sigh. I had not found just a single Dulciana, but rather many that surpassed my thoughts of a simple if hidden beauty … Don Quixote be damned!
As we delve deeper into the weeks and possibly months of the pandemic shutdown and social distancing, seeking elements of hope and beauty becomes paramount for our individual health and harmony. This is what we need, individually and collectively, as we traverse this health fog that has settled upon all humanity. We must find and concentrate on jewels of hope beyond our limited vision. For now our personal survival depends on finding the small pasqueflowers and murmurations resting in treetops … however hope may be defined to us individually. Those small tokens of hope and beauty are all we have at this point and time; absolute yet small, but beauties to grasp just the same.
As we head into our third … or is it our fourth? … week of pandemic social distancing, our local Big Stone Arts Council is challenging us to promote something so severely needed throughout our souls and communities: Hope. A church in town has those four letters prominently displayed in windows facing our main street of commerce.
Unfortunately, for some, fear has become an overriding mental hurdle that seemingly overshadows a sense of hope. Some cannot pull themselves away from the constant news and propaganda channels, hanging onto numbers, breakouts and disgruntlements of the political arena. Some feel locked in with few, if any, avenues of escape either physically or mentally. Some are virtually paralyzed by fear … that they might contact the coronavirus and die; that life as they knew it will never be the same; that there are family members they’ll never hug or touch again; that financial ruin and joblessness awaits each and every one of us, and perhaps even for mankind, world-wide.
All are valid concerns, and I have them as well. Yet I’m also feeling hopeful, and much of that hope has sprung from our artist community. Poets are posting themselves reading poetry. Painters are displaying some of their works since being sequestered. Many musicians are posting videos to cheer us up daily with free, online songs and music concerts. Away from the worldly touch provided by artists via social media, Spring is coming to life outside our windows and walls. That outside world is still vivid, valid and real, or as Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.”
Feathers and perches! Songs without words! Out past our windows a Wood Duck drake and hen returns to the grove. Goldfinches appear at the feeders in full mating plumage. Swans and geese continue to fly over, and out beyond us are reported sightings of Great Blue Herons and Sandhill Cranes. A single Pasque Flower was seen sprouting on a nearby hill. Ah, yes, beyond fear is a world of life continuing. A natural world showing us hope!
Fear and hope are both rather basic to our human spirit. And, yes, it’s natural to feel fear in such a time of uncertainty. Hopelessness didn’t limit the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, who penned a book after he was exiled in the early 1960s during the devastating war in his native Vietnam called “The Lotus in a Sea of Fire.” It’s theme? Hope.
Thich Nhat Hahn, known affectionately to his followers as “Tay,” led a remarkable life in exile. Shortly after leaving his birth country Tay taught Comparative Religion at Princeton University in 1961, then spent the following year teaching and researching Buddhism at Columbia University before heading to Paris. Eventually he formed the first Buddhist temple in the “Western World” in the Bordeaux region of France he called Plum Village, which still exists. Teachings continue today during this worldwide pandemic via social media, and, yes, “hope” is still the basic message.
Tay is also an artist, and was once a nominee for a Nobel Peace Prize. Martin Luther King was among his close friends. His life was full of both immense challenge and incredible success, surrounding his visions of peace and hope, starting in his youth at 16 entering the monastery to his eventual return after 39 years of exile to Vietnam following a massive stroke in 2014. And, yes, he was intimately aware of the perils of politics. “In order to rally people, governments need enemies … if they do not have a real enemy, they will invent one in order to mobilize us,” he wrote.
Yet, there was always that four letter word. “Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”
Our worldwide human society is now in uncertain times. We are both mandated and encouraged to practice social distancing in hopes of “lowering the curve” on a pandemic that may cost hundred of thousands of lives in the U.S. alone. We have been asked to remain homebound with prospects of having a completely different “normal” if and when the Covid-19 crisis is abated and/or controlled. We face this uncertainty with fear, for we have no model to look toward in searching for a future. Right now hope is a thread we must grasp.
Said Tay: “People sacrifice the present for the future. But life is available only in the present. That is why we should walk in such a way that every step can bring us to the here and the now.”
Here are a few more thoughts from Thich Nhat Hahn as we edge along in our quest for a hopeful future:
“We humans have lost the wisdom of genuinely resting and relaxing. We worry too much. We don’t allow our bodies to heal, and we don’t allow our minds and hearts to heal.”
“People deal too much with the negative, with what is wrong. Why not try and see positive things, to just touch those things and make them bloom?”
“Enlightenment is always there. Small enlightenment will bring great enlightenment. If you breathe in and are aware that you are alive – that you can touch the miracle of being alive – then that is a kind of enlightenment.”
“It is possible to live happily in the here and the now. So many conditions of happiness are available – more than enough for you to be happy right now. You don’t have to run into the future in order to get more.”
Here on our little piece of the prairie we grasp threads of hope within our well of fear. We often find it in the little things. Prairie Smoke poking up through gray winter fallow in our small native prairie garden. Those Wood Ducks, that even just days before I’d given up hope of seeing in our woods this year, are seen perching on a heavy branch. Even two promising buds on the mum plant on the kitchen window sill. Waking each morning knowing we here for one another for another day.
“Why not try and see positive things, to just touch those things and make them bloom?” Thanks, Tay, I needed that. So now we spend unprecedented time with our families, sequestered in homes some of us return to only to escape corporatism. We are becoming acquainted with our children, schooling them in ways we hadn’t imagined, and rediscovering the whys and ways of our closest relationships. We are not spending what is really unnecessary cash in bars and restaurants. And collectively, worldwide, we are rarely driving anywhere so we’re giving the planet a bit of healing time. And, more than all of the above, we are finding within ourselves a stout resilience and a real sense of compassion and care. Adding hope to those simple traits are perhaps our “lotuses in this sea of fire.”