What’s green, 41, and more important now than ever? Earth Day! 41 years ago today, my fifth grade class joined thousands of people in celebrating the first Earth Day with hope for a better future for our planet.
But in the last 41 years, the health of the earth hasn’t improved and instead is steadily declining toward environmental—and social—crisis. Activists like Winona LaDuke, whom I saw speak last night at our university, are working to stop the devastation through sustainability projects in their own communities that will inspire change in others. LaDuke is a compelling speaker because she alerts people to the urgency of the problems without projecting doomsday fear, but she realizes the difficulty of shifting our economic paradigm to one measured by progress seven generations from now rather than in quarterly profits.
Forty-one years ago, I was lucky to be a student in Mr. Osborn’s fifth grade class at Scott Elementary in Greeley, Colorado. 1969 and ‘70 were challenging times in this country. Amidst the Vietnam War and the dawning awareness of environmental degradation, sometimes the world seemed a pretty dark place.
But in Mr. Osborn’s fifth grade class, we students felt the hopefulness of a world blooming with new and exciting possibilities. Under Mr. Osborn’s gifted teaching, we fifth graders engaged with important social events of the times in our own youthful way. That April was the first Earth Day, and to celebrate this momentous occasion, our class decided to plant a garden and grass outside our building where we then had nothing but dirt.
A few years ago, I made a digital story about our Earth Day project to remember that time as the seed of my own environmental advocacy. You can watch my video “Flowers Are Better Than Bullets” at vimeo.com/kayannshort/flowersarebetter.
After I finished the video, I decided to send it to Mr. Osborn to let him know how much he had influenced my life for the better. I wasn’t certain he was still in Greeley but I found his and his wife’s names in the directory, sent off the DVD, and kept my fingers crossed.
Three weeks later, I got a letter from Mr. Osborn. That was one of the happiest days of my life. I was amazed that he remembered me after 24 years of teaching hundreds of students—but that’s the kind of teacher he was. He made each student feel important because to him, they were. We continued to correspond and I visited him at his home, where he joked in that familiar way about retirement and getting older.
A little over a year ago, Mr. Osborn passed away. To commemorate his teaching of Earth Day lessons, I asked people at his memorial service to plant a tree on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day last year. We planted one here at our farm, an Opalescent apple tree to remember Mr. O, as he was often called.
This morning I walked out to check on Mr. Osborn’s tree and found a few leaves newly unfurling. We had a terribly cold and dry winter, followed by a cold and windy spring, but the Opalescent seems to have come through just fine. Our other apples are slow to bud but that’s preferable to budding too early and freezing from a late hard frost. It will be many years before Mr. O’s tree gives us apples but we’ll wait. Just as he hoped that his fifth graders would one day grow up to care about the world about them, we hope that our work will continue to bear fruit seven generations from now.
It’s not easy to celebrate Earth Day this year as news about the nuclear disaster in Japan, the first anniversary of the BP spill in the Gulf, the approval of new Genetically Modified crops, and contamination of land and water with oil and gas production fill our media spaces. But even amidst this destruction, small plants are coming up in the greenhouse, the trees are leafing, and the air after a rain still smells good. Let’s keep going in the knowledge that the cycles of our seasons will continue and the hope that our best efforts will yield exactly what we need.