Every Earth Day, since the first one in 1970, I reflect on what I did that day 50 years ago, in a small west-central Minnesota town centered around my sophomore biology students, and what we, the human community on this beautiful planet, have accomplished (or not) as earth’s stewards since then.

I was gratified a couple of weeks ago, to find that I was not the only person in the Rangeley Region to regard April 22, 2020, the 50th Earth Day, as significant…despite our primary concern about the world pandemic centered around a very contagious and dangerous virus, Covid-19.  Nini Christensen, local educator at RLRS, and naturalist by nature and training, had convinced two friends, Shirley Schrader and Jennifer Atwood, to accompany her on a 22-mile walk around Rangeley Lake that day to bring added local awareness of this significant environmental anniversary.

Earth Day walker, Shirley Schrader’s, Earth Day 2020 backpack attachment…featuring a map of a small part of the earth, as liberated from an old Rand McNally Road Atlas Allen Wicken

I asked if I could join the walk, even though I would have to cut my participation short after 6.4 miles in Oquossoc so that I could make it back home to attend, thanks to ZOOM.com virtual meeting technology, a mid-day HealthReach Board of Directors meeting.  I usually attended those monthly meetings in person in Waterville.  Like a lot of things, that gathering will have to be via home laptops for the foreseeable future.

I was welcomed (as expected) to join Nini and friends for my abbreviated participation.  Adding to the recognition of the day, Ms. Christensen also had made a very convincing reiteration of the original Earth Day 1970 flag (see photo) to accompany her on the all-day walk, pinned to her backpack.  What a great idea, and personal commitment to spreading the Earth Day word for all to see enroute.

“Nini Christensen (left), her semi-unpinned from her backpack 1970 Earth Day flag, and fellow 22-mile walkers Shirley Schrader (center) and Jennifer Atwood (right)

North by NorthEast columnist, and fellow walker, at the 6.3 mile point entering Oquossoc on the Rangeley River Bridge Allen Wicken

If you recall, Wednesday, April 22 was a challenging weather day.  My 6.4 initial miles of the walk was characterized by a cold westerly headwind with accompanying snow squalls for good measure.  I think you will get a feel for the Earth’s meteorological diversity and challenges if you note my “selfie” on the Rangeley River bridge, 200 yards before my goal to make it to the Oquossoc Grocery where I would be picked up by my very accommodating wife for a very welcome, and heated drive back to Gull Pond.

My intrepid Earth Day 2020 walking colleagues kept going, and completed the entire 22 mile lap around the lake by about 4 p.m.  Quite an accomplishment had it been on a lovely spring day in the Rangeley Region….let alone on the wild weather day that greeted us on this April 22, 2020.

I want to shift now to recounting my efforts regarding that first Earth Day, April 22, 1970…and the role of another homemade Earth Day flag.  The following is excerpted from my North By NorthEast column printed shortly before April 22nd of last year, 2019:

Walkers Nini Christensen (left) and Jennifer Atwood (right) walking in a westerly direction between blinding snow squals (Grasshopper Hill Farm is in the distance)

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On that first Earth Day, I was in my second of two years as a newly-minted high school biology teacher in the small west-central Minnesota town of Madison (graduating class of about 100).  My enthusiasm for, and interest in, the living planet on which we live led me to pursue, then graduate with, high honors in 1968 from a very fine liberal arts school, Concordia College, in northwestern Minnesota with a bachelor’s degree in biology.  It was 1968 and the Vietnam War was continuing to intensify and at the same time, begin to rage out of control.  This biology teaching position would delay my induction, in early September of 1970, in the U.S. Army for two years.

In early 1970, Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin was energized by his observation of a serious oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, Califorinia….and the energy of anti-war demonstrations and rallies on campuses across the country.  He used his congressional influence to focus that activism toward the new and increased public awareness of the devastating effects of water and air pollution (Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring actually began the era of public awareness of our society’s negative impact on our lands, air and waters). Establishing an Earth Day in the spring of 1970 became the focus of his public awareness goals.

It was a great success.  Leading up to April 22, 1970 demonstrations were being organized, press releases and environmental impact stories were making it into the newspapers and on television, etc.  I gave some thought to what we could do in rural west central Minnesota.  I decided to energize my four biology classes to begin with.

Our school complex, much like Rangeley’s school, K-12 were all located in one location, with an open grassy courtyard in the middle and featuring a prominent flagpole flying “Old Glory” that was raised daily by a school custodian at some point before students began to arrive.  I thought a well-publicized ceremony, complete with the raising of the American flag in that courtyard fifteen minutes before the start of classes would be a good way to get Madison, Minnesota’s environmental awareness off to a good start.

An official Earth Day flag had been created sometime shortly before April 22nd.  I had shown a picture of that flag design to my biology classes, and mused that it would be pretty cool to have one to be flown just below the American flag.   One of my students , went home and asked her mother if she could make one on short notice.

Her mother, a waitress in a downtown cafe’ and seamstress on the side, said that she would get on board and do her part.  I knew her mother, a very bright, thoughtful, and likable woman….just like her daughter.  She called me and asked if she could be our designated Earth Day “Betsy Ross”.  I was delighted.

The morning of April 22, 1970, just before classes began….my four biology classes (esentially the entire sophomore class) assembled around the flagpole.  We had our favorite custodian do the honors…this time raising two flags, the second was the beautifully stitched Earth Day flag with green and white stripes and a yellow greek “Omega” on a green background where the stars are featured on Old Glory.   The flag’s seamstress was on hand as well, proudly watching her creation’s raising below the American flag.  Her daughter was beaming proudly as well.

We read a Madison Earth Day statement composed by a team of biology students, while the remaining K-12 students, their teachers, and other school staff watched and listened from open windows on that shining spring morning.  It was a successful event that I have reflected on every April 22nd since then…all 39 of them.  I hope that the grown students in Madison, Minnesota continue to remember that day, and its intent, as well.  I also reflect on what has been accomplished environmentally since then.

Much has.  Later in 1970, the U.S. House and Senate passed, and President Nixon actually signed, the landmark creation of the Environmental Protection Administration, the Endangered Species Act and the first Clean Water and Clean Air Acts…legislation championed by Maine’s Senator Ed Muskie.  However, now these 39 years later, we know the efforts have moved too slowly for the ticking clock of climate change.

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Sadly, we have taken some heartbreaking steps backward environmentally as a nation these past three and a half years.  The current administration and its rejection of overwhelming scientific studies that have sounded the alarm with increasing data, coupled with woefully misguided policies currying favor of the deep pockets of the fossil fuel industries and their lobbyists…are at this moment continuing to overturn the positive steps taken by more thoughtful presidents and congresses since 1970.   It is truly disgusting.  And in my mind,  almost the worst of this administration’s many misguided actions.

The worst, and we are living through it right now….is the present administration’s further rejection of medical and scientific advisors leading to a much delayed and half-hearted response to Covid-19.  Our national readiness has been compromised, and an increased viral spread across our country is the result.

Sad, very sad and heartbreaking.  But this too shall pass, but not without lasting consequences, to both our national health as well as our national economy.  On a more hopeful note, I see this current challenge bringing Americans together (at least 6 feet apart, of course), so that we will be better prepared to use our fine scientific resources in the interest of our national health policies and readiness, as well as increased stewardship of our national environment and that of the earth as a whole.

We need to write, otherwise nobody will know who we are.

Garrison Keillor

I’ll be ridin’ shotgun, underneath the hot sun, feelin’ like a someone…

Pomplamoose

Per usual, your thoughts and comments are more than welcome.  (Please insure that they are thoughtful and science-based).   Jot them down on a 3”x5” card and slip it inside the log door on our mudroom on the rockbound west shore of Gull Pond….or simply fire off an email to [email protected]


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