We walk on it, lie on it, roll on it, plant in it, build upon it, swim in it, tunnel deep down into it, fly above it, laugh, cry and sleep on it, all the while often never even thinking of it. We also hoard its resources, burn its forests, pollute its land and waters and deplete its animal citizens, again often while never even thinking of it. But then sometimes we weep for it. And once a year, since April 22, 1970, we pause for a day to salute it, or, at the very least, consider it — and maybe even try to clean it.
Earth Day began in 1970 inaugurated by Sen. Gaylord Nelson, and the Vineyard took notice. A raggedy band of early conservationists led by Bob Woodruff scoured the Island picking up more than three thousand pounds of trash on that day. They hauled an oxcart and never even got up-Island, finding more than enough refuse from Vineyard Haven to Edgartown to realize that being stewards of the earth was not something everyone thought necessary on a daily basis. Earth Day predates the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts and the Endangered Species Act. Closer to home it predates the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, but not the Vineyard Conservation Society or the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation. Islanders knew early on which way the wind blows.
Forty-four years later, Earth Day continues for many to be merely an annual handshake with the environment, something akin to discovering there are such things as churches on Christmas Day. But trash on the roadside, the type an Indian weeping at the side of the road helped call attention to in television advertisements in the 1970s, and the more frightening disturbances in nature that Rachel Carson brought to the surface in her seminal book Silent Spring, seem almost childhood bogeymen compared to the current state of the Earth’s affairs. Living on an Island provides a front row seat to the seismic changes taking place that require immediate attention.
Houses literally perched on the edge of cliffs where beachfront once stretched out for yards upon yards into the ocean are now a common site, particularly on the south shore. The Gay Head Lighthouse, if not moved, will in a short time roll down those majestic cliffs of clay and into the rising ocean. Erosion is not new, but a steadily shrinking shoreline is.
Each year since 1993, the Vineyard Conservation Society has organized an Islandwide beach cleanup to celebrate Earth Day. It is an important and powerful event that brings a community to the edges of our home here in the middle of the ocean. Some two hundred or more people turn out to collect tons of litter, and later swap stories at the Harbor View Hotel about the oddest piece of trash they found. This year’s cleanup is Saturday, April 19, from 10 a.m. to noon.
We salute all those who turn out tomorrow. We also give praise to everyone working on these important environmental issues all year long. Everything needs a hug more than just once a year, especially Mother Earth.