As if there weren’t already enough ways to make yourself feel sad right now, here’s another: today is the 50th Earth Day.
Looking at photos of the earnest, well-attended teach-ins and cleanups that took place during those first celebrations in 1970 can just add the cherry to the top of our current sorrow sundae.
Because what the hell happened, to take us from that —
Wiser heads than mine can’t even begin to answer that question. And even if they could, maybe it would be more productive to ask not how did we get here? but where are we going?
Because someday this will end, and no matter how much I want my regular life back, the last thing I want to do to go back to business as usual. The internet, which has become the world right now, is full of platitudes: don’t read the news too much, don’t get depressed; meditate, feel gratitude. All good advice, of course, but I’ll just say it, as ill-equipped for political statements as I feel I am — don’t forget. Please don’t forget what it felt like, to be at home for 2 weeks, or 4, or in our case here in Spain, for what will probably be 8 weeks.
I didn’t realize it until a few years ago, but I was at that first Earth Day celebration in Madison, WI. Since I was only five years old, who knows what’s actual memory of the day and what’s hazy re-creation. But in my memory, it was a benevolently sunny day, as if to make up for the long dark winter we’d just gone through. The world was full of people — happy, hairy, seventies people, coming together joyfully in their spring clothes. Their sentiment: they could change things, they would, and we’d be better for it.
My father was in graduate school then; we lived in the University of Wisconsin’s Married Student Housing, which I’m sure was a hotbed of progressivism and protest.
Along with being all those things, it also was a place where the public library’s Bookmobile showed up every so often. I found it magical — a vehicle full of books that came to me. And so began my love affair with books, and libraries.
One of the children’s books in that bookmobile was The Wump World by an author named Bill Peet.
Imaginary, grass-eating, peaceful hybrids of capybaras and —possibly? — cows, the wumps inhabited a lush Eden of icy clear water and trees like umbrellas that I wanted desperately to visit.
Life was good.
At least until the arrival of the Pollutians from the planet Pollutus (even at age 5, I got it), who’d “left their worn-out old planet to start a new life in a new world.”
The Wump World being a book from 1966, you can guess what happens next: the Polllutians run amok; to escape the black-skied wasteland they’ve turned the wump world into, the wumps take to caves that were also pretty cool:
The Pollutians, who pretty much sum up the saying “this is why we can’t have good things” immediately turn their attention to making the world a garbage dump and then take off in search of other planets to despoil.
The wumps eventually creep out from their caves to discover a wasteland worthy of your favorite post-apocalyptic movie. After days of disconsolate wandering, they come on one last little patch of Easter-basket green grass and trees like umbrellas and this:
In time the murky skies would clear up and the rains would wash the scum from the rivers and lakes. The tall buildings would come tumbling down and the freeways would crumble away. And in time the green growth would wind its way up through the rubble. But the Wump World would never be quite the same.
That small green shoot.
What will ours be?
How will we nourish and shield it?