Earth Day 2011 – Mercy, Mercy Me

When it comes to soul, it’s hard to beat Marvin Gaye.  And in 1971, Marvin gave the nation’s growing ecology movement an anthem with world-class soul…

“Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology Song)” was the second single off Gaye’s classic What’s Going On album.  The single peaked at #4 on the pop charts and hit #1 on the R&B charts.  The album itself is considered a landmark recording in music history, ranking #6 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list.

Today is Earth Day 2011 – the 41st celebration of our home planet.  I can still remember the first Earth Day – April 22nd, 1970 – very clearly.  It spoiled my routine.

Every day while walking to school I’d stop at the local Drug Store to feed my Bit-O-Honey habit. I’d pick up one of those chewy chunks of heaven to have with lunch – it was one of the secret treats of walking to school.  Fourth grade was a great year – Miss Riordan was our teacher – the first young, single teacher we ever had.  The other 4th grade class had Mrs. Heinhold who, I believe, started her career teaching math and spelling to cave dwellers.

Anyway, it was a nice spring day when I bopped into the Drug Store like Norm strolling into Cheers.  Walking up to the candy counter I noticed something was missing.

Like the candy.

It was all gone.  The Good ‘n Plenty’s, the Reese’s, the M&M’s, the Nestle’s Crunch bars – all gone!  Even my own beloved Bit-O-Honey.

Trying not to whine (I don’t think I succeeded), my 9-year-old self asked the girl at the counter where the candy was.

“It’s Earth Day,” she said.  ”Mr. Garrick (the owner) isn’t selling candy today to get kids to think about littering. No candy – no candy wrappers.  No candy wrappers – no littering.”

Earth Day?  Who’d ever heard of such a thing?  Well apparently, Mr. Garrick had.  And, as it turned out, so had Miss Riordan.  Part of the educational curriculum that day included an Earth Day art project involving water colors, construction paper, macaroni and paste.  But no Bit-O-Honey.

That night we watched the news during dinner, with Howard K. Smith reporting from Washington (the Barba’s were an ABC News household) all about Earth Day.  To my recollection, that first Earth Day was mostly about littering and pollution – both very serious problems in 1970. Case in point was the Nashua River.  The Nashua River ran through Fitchburg, MA – where my grandmother lived – and through Harvard, where we lived.  The Nashua was, in a word, disgusting – at the time one of the 10 most polluted rivers in the country.

The river would literally change color every day.  The paper mills in Fitchburg would dump their industrial waste – including paper dye – into the river. You could always tell what color paper they were making that day by what color the river was. The pulp in the water from paper mills would harden downstream, leaving a cardboard-like crust on the river shores.

And the stench was overwhelming.  I can remember walking over a bridge in Fitchburg that crossed the Nashua – the river was bright green, and every form of junk imaginable was in the water – old tires, shopping carts, you name it. Dougie Smith used to terrorize his little brother Duane by threatening to toss him in the Nashua, where the water would eat the flesh right off his bones.

To us kids, the river had always been this way. As far as we knew, it was supposed to be this way. Pollution simply “was.”

But then came Earth Day, and Mr. Garrick’s simple message that litter doesn’t just “happen.”  And maybe rivers aren’t “supposed” to be polluted.  The “Ecology” flag started flying, and people started acting.  Marion Stoddart, for one, had had enough.  In 1969 this housewife from Groton, MA helped organize the Nashua River Watershed Association, which started the hard work of bringing the Nashua back to life.  It took a little over 20 years, but by the mid-90′s you could swim and canoe in the Nashua again.

And just in case you missed the Earth Day message in 1970, this powerful piece of television worked its way into pop culture and drove the point home with a jack-hammer:

On its 10th anniversary in 1980, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson – the “founder” of Earth Day, wrote the following:

So long as the human species inhabits the Earth, proper management of its resources will be the most fundamental issue we face. Our very survival will depend upon whether or not we are able to preserve, protect and defend our environment. We are not free to decide about whether or not our environment “matters.” It does matter, apart from any political exigencies. We disregard the needs of our ecosystem at our mortal peril.”

So here we are, 41 years later.  That first Earth Day was about pollution and littering.  Today, we still have pollution and litter, but we also have a clean Nashua River.  So let’s use today to think about our home planet and about taking good care of it by conserving energy, seeking sustainable solutions, recycling and generally using less of whatever we can.

And one last video for you.  This is from Taco’s YouTube channel.  it’s Part 1 of 2 on Taco’s culture of sustainability, and it shares with you our own efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle.  Enjoy…

Walt Kelley's Classic "Pogo" cartoon from Earth Day 1970


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