Today is the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day celebration. In this piece, Paul Feather describes how hope and optimism live alongside knowledge of the destruction of Mother Earth. He brings it home with the need for direct action, ceremony, and love of the self, family and the wild, natural world.  

Today I saw the first blossom on the pea vines. It is a rite of spring. I’ve retreated to the warmth of my woodstove to weather a blackberry winter, but I believe this is the last fire my stove will hold this season.

It’s a time of accelerating change, days lengthen, T-shirt weather followed by surprise frosts that wilt the leaves on the potatoes.  Every day new green leaves to eat after the boredom of turnips and turnips and turnips. It’s no wonder that we celebrate this time. The small community where I live has held Earth Day celebrations at this time of year for longer than I’ve been here, twenty years at least.

This year marks the fiftieth national celebration of the holiday. There  will be no gathering here this year. We’ll spend this Earth Day quarantined in our homes—hopefully very pleasantly—some of us with our most immediate family, and some of us alone. What does it mean to miss our little celebration? It means songs not sung,  meals not shared; recipes not exchanged, games not played; community connections not maintained, created, or reborn. It also means other things undone: cars not driven, drinks not drunk, cans not crushed; tinfoil not thrown away, fancy foods from faraway lands not cooked and eaten. Our place as part of the “solution” un-confirmed. I do not know what to do with this.

Earth Day Gatherings

For several years, I was well fed by our yearly gathering. I do not wish to cheapen it by wallowing in hypocrisy, self-righteousness, or the unavoidable imperfections of an impure world. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but cringe last year at the food still on plates in the trash cans. I do not mean to be this way. I’m preoccupied with the meaning of what we’re doing. Why are we here? What does this mean?

The Earth Day Network aims to “flood the world with hope, optimism, and action” on April 22nd, and I presume these are all good things, indispensable to any progressive movement. With good reason the Network celebrates their many successes. From organizing what’s become the largest secular observance in the world to their contributions toward very real and practical actions such as getting lead out of gasoline and planting hundreds of millions of trees. Their narrative is contagious. It is full of young people refusing to accept platitudes; global outpourings of energy, enthusiasm, and commitment; action at all levels; we are transformational, galvanized, unparalleled, and bold. Are we though?

For all the work put into building a successful narrative—the need for which I don’t doubt—where has fifty years of Earth Day got us? There are almost four times as many cars in the world as there were in 1970. There are twice as many people. Atmospheric CO2 is up nearly 100ppm (doesn’t sound like much, but it’s rather a lot). I’ll spare you the litany. Things aren’t getting better. There’s food on the plates in the trash cans at Earth Day.

Hope and Optimism

I wonder what we’re trading for this optimism and hope. Do we exchange honesty for enthusiasm? Truth for positivity? How much hope do we really need? Author and activist Janisse Ray, in The Seed Underground questions this preoccupation with hope and optimism:

“The assumption is that hope is a prerequisite for action. Without hope one becomes depressed and then unable to act. I want to stress that I do not act because I have hope. I act whether I have hope or not. It is useless to rely on hope as motivation to do what’s necessary and just and right. Why doesn’t anybody ever talk about love as motivation to act? I may not have a lot of hope but I have plenty of love, which gives me fight. We are going to have to fall in love with place again and learn to stay put.”

Earth Day is a Rite

Many of us are staying put now whether we are in love with place or not. Perhaps this is a call to find that love we have been missing. Perhaps we don’t need these optimistic narratives with long lists of “successes” that somehow end in failure. Perhaps we need to fall in love.

I think a lot about these rites of spring. The first pea blossom. The last fire in the woodstove at blackberry winter. These passages from one thing into another. We often say that, “every day is Earth Day,” but the truth is, it’s not. Earth Day is a rite. A ritual. A symbolic event. When we gather in community to observe a special day, there is meaning in what we do and how we do it. Our celebration of Earth Day conveys our beliefs about the Earth and our place in it, both in the content and form of that event.

The Need for Ceremony

There are different kinds of ritual, but we don’t do them very well. This essential part of what it means to be human has been long scattered to the wind, and we must do the best we can with scraps and pieces. Malidoma Somé, in his book Ritual draws from a knowledge base within tribal communities of West Africa and insists on the need for ceremony at all levels of the social structure: individual, family, and community. Without careful attention to ritual at each of these levels, the community and each individual will suffer.

Perhaps our celebrations and rituals, such as they are, need to come home.

Long before the quarantines, I found that I had inadvertently isolated myself within this community that I respect and love so dearly. My efforts to push our community toward greater integrity in various ways have moved others very little but left me on the edge. (Perhaps I am clumsy in my efforts.) But, as I have become increasingly unable to shake this empty feeling about our collective celebrations and community rites, I have become occasionally more attentive to my own rituals and observances. I wonder if that is our next step.

We cannot separate the individual from the community, the personal from the structural; the self is embedded in the system.

If our community rituals are failing, if Earth Day feels empty, if half a century of “success” by the largest environmental organization in the world leaves us worse than we’ve ever been, perhaps there is something missing from our community space.

Perhaps it is time for something different

This year, the Earth Day Network is going digital. We are unable to gather during quarantine, so we will gather in the virtual world … on Earth Day… Seriously?

I am reminded of something from the book Becoming Animal, in which David Abrams pushes back against the conventional symbolism of environmentalism embodied in the image of the whole Earth from space. Supposedly, this symbol conveys the isolation of our fragile and finite planet in an otherwise inhospitable space. Since Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth movement succeeded in introducing this image to the environmental movement in 1970, it has become one of the most familiar and widely distributed images in history—inseparable from Earth Day. Abrams suggests that there are ways in which this image is unhelpful. When we are asked to imagine the Earth, we imagine this view from space—from outside. As a phenomenologist, Abrams suggests that our perception and imagery of the Earth should remain rooted in our physical and bodily experience. The Earth is what you see before you in this moment, right now.

Finding a wild place

Is it good then that we respond to this quarantine by moving our environmentalism online into the virtuality of screens and digital interactions with far-away humans? Or is this a call to usher that movement through the front door, to invite it in, or listen as it calls us out through that door and into the yard and the streets? What would happen if we turned the screens off? What would happen if we went outside and felt the snap of blackberry winter? What would happen if we dusted out the backwoods of our DNA for remnants of remembering of being alone in a wild place, or found one and went there? Would we be braver? Would we become more galvanized and bold?

Earth Defenders

Indigenous people make up less than 5% of the world’s population, but they protect 80% of the remaining biodiversity. In Odisha India, a group of women have protected forests from timber smugglers for the past 20 years, keeping vigil in groups of ten and carrying sticks. Activists in the Philippines continue to blockade mines in spite of targeted killings that make this country the deadliest place to defend the planet. Unfortunately, in spite of these efforts, land defenders aren’t winning either: deforestation in the Amazon is up 80% since Jair Bolsonaro took office. Twenty defenders in the Amazon were killed last year, but this number fails to capture the physical attacks, threats, and criminalization that these people endure to protect us all.

Every day.

Perhaps I do us all a disservice, but it’s hard for me to imagine many people I know, people whom I love, respect, and cherish, voluntarily taking this level of personal risk to defend anything. I wonder if this galvanization can take place in a community space, at least here in this culture. I wonder what it will take for individuals to summon the strength that protection of the remnants of our future will absolutely require of us.

Think about that on Earth Day. Think about it with your family, and then go outside and think about it alone or with the blackberries and the budding trees and the orioles who have just turned up in the yard.

Make it a rite of spring.

Paul Feather is a an animist farmer and writer living in Georgia, USA. He advocates for direct, community-scale, production of basic needs. To find out more:

Featured image: Max Wilbert