Forty-six years ago Friday, the Vineyard marked the first Earth Day with a home-grown event. Led by Bob Woodruff, who had a red oxcart built from driftwood and scraps of lumber, a group calling itself Vineyard for Environmental Action staged an Islandwide walk to pick up litter. The Gazette covered the event.

“One passer-by asked incredulously if they could possibly be gypsies, strapped as they were with their ox-cart on the grass,” the newspaper wrote. “They were clad in velvet and jerkins and speckled headbands and carried gunnysacks and played kazoos. And they were of all ages — 5 to 55 — many with long, flowing locks. There were about 60 of them, who gathered at Owen Park at 9 a.m. . . . . It was quiet enough at 9 at Owen Park and looked pure enough in the early morning air, so one might have thought all the brouhaha about Earth Day was nonsense and unnecessary — that on the Vineyard at least, unlittered land and clear water and fresh air were cherished.

“But by 5:30 p.m. when the merry gypsies of morning wearily straggled into Edgartown after a day of trash collecting, it was evident that the Vineyard was far from unlittered.”

The group had collected nearly two tons of trash. A splinter group collected its own pile of trash and dumped it on the steps of the courthouse to demonstrate the futility of the cause.

An era of environmental activism was born.

Twenty years later, in 1990, the Vineyard marked the anniversary of Earth Day with a huge fair at the regional high school. More than a thousand people of all ages came to see demonstrations by conservation groups and naturalists. They recycled thousands of cans and bottles to raise money to help save the rain forest in Belize. Cong. Gerry E. Studds was the keynote speaker.

“There are no islands anymore,” he told the crowd, quoting Gazette editor Henry Beetle Hough. “Look around at the young people in this room. And ask yourself whether you want them to grow up in a world where each generation looks out only for itself; and where helping hands extend only as far as the nearest boundary — whether of town or state or country does not matter — for they are all meaningless lines drawn in the sand.”

He continued: “Not all of us have the pleasure of living in a place as beautiful as the Vineyard. For some, their cliffs of Gay Head may be only a quiet place by an urban river. Their Katama Beach may be an old muddy pond. Their Oak Bluffs may be tiny hill like any other, except it is their tiny hill. Each of us has a part of this earth toward which we feel a special love.”

Now many of the activists from those early years have grown old, and younger environmentalists are taking their place. Among them are Aquinnah documentary filmmakers Liz Witham and her husband Ken Wentworth, who will mark Earth Day today with the formal launch of their documentary series Sustainable Vineyard, made possible in part by a Vineyard Vision Fellowship.

And one Earth Day tradition endures: the annual cleanup of trash and litter. The Vineyard Conservation Society will host its annual beach cleanup day next Saturday, April 30, when volunteers will fan out around the perimeters of the Island to collect literally tons of trash, much of it washed up from the ocean over the winter.

It is hard to imagine two generations later that the Environmental Protection Agency did not even exist when the first Earth Day was celebrated. Over the last 46 years, environmentalism has gone mainstream. Today there is far greater public awareness of the fragility of our natural world and many more organized efforts to protect and preserve our planet.

But the image of that pile of trash on the courthouse steps still haunts. If our efforts to date to address the growing threats to the environment, both globally and locally, are not futile, we surely face an uphill battle.

Earth Day 2016 is a moment for each of us to consider what we are doing now and what more we can do. Plant a tree. Ride a bike. Start composting. Get involved. For more ideas, visit