Earth Day 1: 50 Years Ago… It Changed My Life

Sand dunes in Death Valley. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.
The world is full of incredible beauty that is worthy of our love and protection. These are sand dunes in Death Valley National Park.

I was recruiting for Peace Corps on the Davis Campus of the University of California on April 22, 1970, 50 years ago. For those of you not familiar with the date, it was Earth Day I. At the time, I was running the Peace Corps’ Public Affairs office for Northern California and Nevada out of Sacramento. Curiosity pulled me away from my recruiting duties to check out the event.

UC Davis puts on great fairs. It probably has to do with an event it calls Picnic Day, a rite of spring with roots as deep as humankind. The birds are singing, flowers are blooming, and the snow is melting in the mountains; let’s have a party! All of the departments become involved, put on shows, put up displays, and do silly things.

The flowers were blooming.

Earth Day at Davis was similar, but it incorporated a vitally important message.

Somehow we had forgotten where we had come from in our rush toward progress and the good life— and in the desire to maximize profits. As a result, we were chopping down our forests, polluting our streams, poisoning our air, destroying our last remaining wilderness areas, and saying goodbye forever to innumerable species whose only evolutionary mistake was to get in our way.

We had forgotten that birds can make music as beautifully as any symphony, that peace and balance can be found in the wilderness, and that somehow, in some yet unfathomable way, our fate might be tied to that of the pup fish. It seemed okay that the last brown pelican was about to fly off into the sunset forever so we could squeeze one more bushel of wheat from our crops, and that it was appropriate for the great redwoods, silent sentinels who had maintained their vigilance for over 4000 years, to die for our patio with a lifespan of 20-30 years.

Brown pelicans, once near extinction because of DDT used on crops, have made a dramatic comeback since the use of DDT was banned. I took this photo south of Santa Barbara, California.

Rachel Carson, in her landmark book Silent Spring, had sounded a clarion call to a Holy Crusade: saving the earth. Others, too, were raising the alarm. Earth Day I was an expression of growing concern. Its message struck a deep chord with me. The years I had spent wandering in the woods while growing up, my exploration of the rainforest around Gbarnga, Liberia during my Peace Corps assignment, and my hiking in the wilderness as a backpacker, all came together in a desire to join the environmental movement and help protect the wilderness I had come to love.

Some of my happiest moments as a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa were spent exploring the rain forest surrounding where I lived.

I wandered between booths on campus, talking to the representatives of various organizations and picking up materials. There was information about the redwoods, over-population, water and air pollution, land-use planning, mass transit and the protection of valuable farm lands. I learned about all the species that had become extinct because of our activities— and that many more were threatened.

Giant redwood tree at Redwoods National Park. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.
How could one not feel awe when confronted by giant redwoods in their cathedral like setting at Redwood National Park. It seemed terribly wrong to me that the life of a 2000 plus year old giant should be ended with a chainsaw to meet our short-termed demand for wood products.

I went home that night inspired, concerned, and more than a little frightened about what we were doing to our planet— the only home we have. Three weeks later, I had left the Peace Corps and become Executive Director of Sacramento’s first Ecology Education/Environmental Action Center, working 50-60 hours a week for one hundred dollars a month. I would continue to devote a significant amount of my time to supporting environmental causes for the next 20 years of my life, working beside some of the most dedicated, selfless and talented individuals I have ever known.

Our efforts, and those of hundreds, even thousands of others, made a difference. The majority of people in the US as well as in numerous other countries around the world became convinced that protecting the environment was a worthwhile endeavor. Air pollution was reduced, waterways were cleaned up, wilderness areas were saved, and a number of endangered species were brought back from near extinction. Once again, eagles soared, buffalos roamed and wolves howled.

But the progress has never been easy and the war is far from won. Nothing represents this better than our present battle against global warming, a reality that was dramatically brought home to me two years ago as I hiked down the Pacific Crest Trail dodging huge fires in Oregon and California. A drought created by climate change had killed millions of trees and those trees were burning.

The massive Carr Fire near Redding sent fire tornadoes shooting into the air, reduced visibility to close to zero, and filled the air with choking smoke for hundreds of square miles. This was the view I faced on the PCT near Chester, California.

The 50th Anniversary of Earth Day 1 is an excellent time to take stock of where we are in our efforts to protect the environment. The news is not good. Over the past three years we have seen our national government withdraw from international efforts to combat global warming, eliminate many of the protections that we have fought so hard to put in place over the last 50 years, back away from using science designed to measure the impact of pollution, and systematically dismantle the EPA. Continuing down this path will once again lead to air filled with pollution, waterways poisoned, wilderness areas eliminated, and species exterminated. This isn’t an exaggeration; it is reality.

But it doesn’t have to be. The time to renew our commitment to the environment is today. Each of us can take action on the personal level to reduce our negative impact on the environment, support positive efforts on the local, state, national and world level, and insist that our political leaders do the same. The future of our children, grandchildren and future generations depend on it.

Grand Tetons National Park photo by Curtis Mekemson.
A final reminder of the beauty that exists in our world. This are the Grand Tetons. Happy Earth Day. May we have 50 more!

Earth Day 2012

The extensive use of the poison DDT in agriculture was a death sentence to the California Brown Pelican. Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring raised people's awareness of the issue and helped kick off the environmental movement.

The first Earth Day I celebrated was Earth Day 1 at UC Davis in California. At the time I was Director of Peace Corps Public Affairs for Northern California and was recruiting at Davis. Earth Day 1 made a deep impact on how I viewed the world. I quit my job and became Executive Director of the Sacramento Ecology Center. Ever since, on one level of another, I have been an environmentalist.

To celebrate Earth Day 2012, I am using my blog to feature two wonderful animals that were on the edge of extinction before they were saved by growing environmental awareness. The California Brown Pelican was victim of the extensive use of the poison DDT. Elephant Seals were hunted to the brink of extinction for their blubber, which was turned into lamp oil.

The world would be a much poorer place with out these animals.

Have you heard the news? It's Earth Day.

The world would be a poorer place if we could no longer hear the roar of a bull Elephant Seal.

Or watch one scratch his nose.

I call this photo of Brown Pelicans The Committee.

Without environmental awareness and action, this magnificent bird would have never flown. Happy Earth Day 2012, and thank you.

Earth Day 2011… a Home in the Woods

A view from our patio. Tomorrow is Earth Day 2011, a time to stop and appreciate the diversity and beauty found in nature, a time to remind ourselves of the critical role we have in protecting this beauty and diversity for future generations.

My earliest memories of childhood are of exploring the rural countryside around my home in Diamond Springs, California. As a result, I have always loved wandering in the woods. When other boys my age took up baseball bats, I disappeared into the forest and tracked Jack Rabbits.

This splendid fellow considers our property part of his range... Here he reminds me.

Later my enjoyment of nature turned into a passion for protecting the environment.

I was recruiting for Peace Corps Volunteers at the UC Davis when Earth Day I took place. It started me on the road to becoming an environmentalist. I quit my job with Peace Corps and became Executive Director of Sacramento’s Ecology Information Center.

The beauty of nature is found in many forms, from the small flower to the grand vista. The hills behind our home are now filled with spring wildflowers, such as this Shooting Star I photographed last week.

Forty years later the message of Earth Day remains the same.

Diversity in nature helps assure our continued survival. Within that diversity there is also unity. All of life is tied together in a complex whole. When we destroy one part of life it has a rippling effect, reaching out and disrupting other aspects of our existence.

Predators, such as this small fox who has a den on the back of our property, have historically been considered an enemy to be wiped out. Ecology has taught us of the vital role these predators have in maintaining the balance of nature.

It’s not nice to mess with Mother Nature.

Protecting the diversity of life through maintaining natural areas does more than help assure our survival, however; it provides a sanctuary where we can escape the busyness and worries of our everyday urban life and return to roots that reach back to the very beginnings of human consciousness.

The beautiful Applegate River flows by our home and provides a rich riparian habitat for birds, mammals, plants and fish. My wife Peggy has already claimed a rock where she can sit quietly and meditate on the beauty.

I am convinced we lose something of our humanity when we isolate ourselves from nature.

When I hike down a woodland trail, a sense of peace settles over my mind even as my fat cells scream for mercy. Both body and soul gain. The benefits are so persuasive I have been drawn to the wilderness again and again during my life.

At an elevation of 2000 feet we have a mixed woodland forest of Ponderosa Pines, Douglas Fir, White Oaks and Red Cedar. A March snowstorm decorated this Douglas Fir.

Our recent move to the Upper Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon is but one more example. The Applegate River flows past out front door and 1.8 million acres of national forest and wilderness form the boundary of our back property.

A herd of deer and a flock of wild turkeys consider our five acres as part of their range. Fat Gray Squirrels chase each other through the mixed oak, pine, fir and madrone forest. A small fox has chosen to make its den in our blackberries.

A herd of seven black tail deer often bed down on our property. They drop by our house frequently to see if Peggy has her garden in yet.

As I look out our window, Mountain Jays, Gold Finch, Grosbeaks and tiny hooded Oregon Juncos are gathered around our bird feeder, more or less taking turns.

Larkspur, shooting stars, buttercups and numerous other wildflowers provide spring decorations on the slope below.

I realize how very, very lucky Peggy and I are to have this home in the woods. With the approach of Earth Day 2011, it is my hope that future generations will still have such wilderness areas to enjoy and cherish.

Sunset from our patio... and a final reminder of the beauty and peace to be found in the natural world. May our children and grandchildren continue to enjoy it. Earth Day 2001.

(Next Blog: How the Pond and the Woods introduced a seven-year-old child to the wonders of nature.)