Tag Archives: April 22

42nd Earth Day and Still Counting

On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day, I was a student in Mr. Osborn’s fifth grade class at Sherwood Elementary. Earth Day was organized by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson to bring national attention to the alarming state of the environment through grassroots actions. On Earth Day, people were asked to demonstrate care for an earth whose gifts of clean air, water, and soil could no longer be taken for granted.

My fifth grade class (I'm in the lower left hand corner with knee socks)

Our fifth grade class decided to celebrate the first Earth Day by turning the hard dirt outside our classroom into a beautiful garden of grass and flowers.  All it would take, we thought, were some shovels and a few seeds. We showed up with tools—the girls in pants, which weren’t normally allowed—and worked like crazy all day to get that small square of soil ready for the plants we imagined would grow there. Mr. Osborn even let me run a block home for my wagon to haul away rocks and trash. With rakes and hoes in our young hands, we scratched tiny furrows in the soil to plant our hopeful seeds.  A little water, and we’d have our first Earth Day garden.  At the end of the day we were dirty and tired, but proud to be part of something bigger than ourselves.


Around the world, 20 million participants representing thousands of schools and communities organized events like ours from planting trees to picking up trash along highways in what Senator Nelson called a “spontaneous response at the grassroots level.” Earth Day proved that many people did care about the environment, becoming a symbol for the new ecological movement that at that point held so much promise.

Today Earth Day and its message of stewardship is still part of many school curriculums. Children learn about the value of recycling, saving energy, and protecting endangered species.  Since the first Earth Day, stricter standards have been passed for air and water pollution, cars have become more fuel efficient, and many contaminated areas have been recovered.  But 42 years after the first Earth Day, we are living that fearful future of vanishing species, toxic food, oil spills, nuclear disasters, and climate change-amplified weather crises.

To celebrate Earth Day’s 40th anniversary two years ago, we planted an Opalescent Apple tree at Stonebridge Farm in memory of Mr. Osborn, my fifth grade teacher who had died just a few months earlier.  Many years will pass before Mr O’s tree bears fruit in the old orchard beyond the barn, just as many years have passed since planting my first Earth Day garden. When I tend that tree, I remember how Mr. O inspired us to care about the natural world by getting our hands in the soil. He taught us the Earth Day lesson of working together to care for our environment by visualizing the world in which we wanted to live. Even though the grass and flowers didn’t survive long in the high traffic area outside our schoolroom, it didn’t matter because the real seeds had been planted in us.

Ecology stickers I've saved from fifth grade

This Earth Day we’ll celebrate by learning to forage wild plants on our farm. Foraging lends a new perspective on so-called weeds by showing us that plants we overlook or eradicate can have value. Similarly, Earth Day teaches us that we need to look more closely at the earth’s interconnected ecosystems if we are to be good stewards of this planet.

We’ll plant an apple tree too, one John grafted from the branch of a blush apple tree in our farm’s old orchard. That tree probably came from a seed planted by a bird or squirrel or apple fallen from another tree. Since apple trees grown from seeds don’t come true to the parent tree, until we grafted it, our tree may have been the only apple like it in the world. Now this second Stonebridge apple will bear more wine-fleshed fruit born of this place and bringing the past into a future we hope promises harvests for generations to come. 

In fifth grade, I believed that solutions to the world’s environmental problems would be achieved in my lifetime. How naïve I was to underestimate the economic forces that value profit over preservation and the lack of political will to challenge them. The view that the earth is only ours for the harvesting has led us to disregard its limitations. We should all participate in “green” efforts to plant school gardens, recycle our cans and bottles, or eat locally grown organic vegetables as ways to honor the earth as our home, yet actions like these alone will not save the planet. The changes needed to stop further ecological degradation are monumental and our individual efforts so small, it’s hard to see how the tiny seeds of stewardship planted 42 years ago can still grow.

Celebrate Earth Day on April 22 this year by planting a tree—and then join others in the insistence that the environment must not only be protected for ourselves, but for generations as far as we can count. Together we must create a new vision that inspires fresh seeds of environmental activism, one that looks not only at individual actions but at collective intervention in the mounting crisis of our only earth.

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Bearing Fruit

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.

Opalescent Apple for Mr. O

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.

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