At first, the focal issue was overpopulation. But today, Earth Day is celebrated by over 300 million people in more than 140 countries. It brings awareness of other problems — pollution, pesticides, loss of wilderness, sustainability, and global climate change — under the Earth Day flag, which depicts a shining Earth against a deep blue backdrop.
Each of us is aware of and values particular parts of nature. In the space of a single afternoon last week, I witnessed examples of this broad palette.
I am teaching a class at The Evergreen State College called Trees and Humans: Ecology, Art, and Culture. In typical Evergreen fashion, the class is co-taught by faculty of different disciplines.
That afternoon, I led the installation of an experiment to study the rates of survival of moss in different environments, which required placing labeled samples of mosses beneath trees and on hanging racks within the upper canopy. Students were excited to isolate the environmental factors that affect the dynamics of the forest. My co-faculty, a philosopher, led another group of students to construct a debris shelter, a simple but elegant tent made only of branches and leaves that could save the life of someone lost. At day’s end, we grinned at the very different approaches we had taken to illustrate that the forest provides humans with support for the mind and the body.
When I returned to my office, I saw a notice for a forestry presentation at the University of Washington. One highlight of the conference, “Future of Forestry in the Pacific Northwest,” was the management aspect, e.g., “Wood Products, Biofuels, and Carbon Sequestration: Future Forest Products?” and “New Precision Tools for Forest Management.”
Driving home, radio tuned into a country radio station. I listened to an ad from a major retailer for a plant-based instead of a petroleum-based detergent. The selling point: Environmental sustainability.
When I got home, my spouse’s parents, visiting from Florida, greeted me.
On a post-dinner stroll, my mother-in-law exclaimed over the dogwoods now popping their buds. A lifelong Presbyterian, she noted the connection of the dogwood tree to Christianity: four petals of the flowers, arrayed in the shape of a cross, have rust-brown dents to remind people of the nail prints in Christ’s hands.
Thus, in the space of an afternoon, I encountered a broad diversity of the ways people view and value our natural world: science, survival, resource management, consumerism and religion.
How can these values extend further and deeper to protect this shining Earth? The words of the French writer, Antoine de St. Exupery, seem appropriate: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
This Earth Day, in our yearning to maintain the sea of a healthy natural world, I hope that each person will find his or her own connection to nature and ways to protect it.
Every day is Earth Day.
Dr. Nalini M. Nadkarni studies trees and forest canopies as a member of the faculty at The Evergreen State College and is president of the International Canopy Network. A member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors, she can be reached at email@example.com.