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Learn to embrace Earth Day

April 16, 2014

Mourning Cloak butterflies emerged from hibernation last weekend and the adults are celebrating their survival by basking in the sunshine and looking for mates.

On April 22, a couple of days after Easter and about a week after the start of Passover—linked holidays, in calendar and spirit—we’ll be celebrating Earth Day, a time to reflect on our role in preserving the planet. This last celebration, the 1970 creation of very progressive U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin, was envisioned as a cross-country, consciousness-raising rally to push for a cleaner environment. In a sign of those times, it was a bipartisan effort, with conservative Republicans joining liberal Democrats like Nelson in efforts as local as picking up roadside trash to as national as the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and other landmark legislation aimed at saving the natural world.

Given the sorry tenor of our times, this coming together is not currently possible, and while I hardly want to inflict my pessimism on readers, I fear that by the time we regain a kind of national environmental common sense, it will be too late to reverse course and we’ll just have to see how the experiment we allowed to happen by our inaction plays out. Good luck to us all.

I, however, and many people with the same kind of environmental values that I try to embrace, will endeavor to do something on Earth Day that advances the cause. Perhaps it won’t matter much in the grand scheme of things—I don’t think I’m going to be able to stop global climate change by myself—but throwing up one’s hands in despair gets you nowhere. “Think globally, act locally,” as they say—who first came up with the phrase is uncertain—and make a start.

On the ridge, we’ll have a run-up to the actual day by leading our granddaughter through the ancient Jewish tradition of hunting for Easter eggs. I’m not being entirely facetious, for eggs figure prominently in both holidays as a metaphor for birth and rebirth. Where “peeps” come in remains a mystery, but after the hunt and before the ceremonial meal, we’ll be heading out for a long hike, probably to one of the nearby splendid preserves I’ve been leading people into and monitoring.

In years past, Stasia and I, along with whomever else wanted to walk with us, would have just trekked down the road to a place we called a refuge but was, in truth, a parcel of land that was for sale. I couldn’t buy it and give it away to one of the local land trusts, and I knew it wouldn’t last on the market forever. I was right, and it sold earlier this month, with development into several house lots to start as soon as all the town permits are taken care of. What it will eventually look like is anybody’s guess at this point, but, unless the business endeavor falls apart, I think it’s fairly safe to assume that a land ethic which prevailed in the past—feel free to walk the land, but make sure the gate is closed so the sheep don’t escape—will no longer be operable.

Walkers will no longer be welcome.

Still, thank God and far-sighted people, we are blessed in our area with a reasonable abundance of conservation land, so there remain places, in addition to the increasingly small acreage of the ridge, to watch natural history unfold.

Very locally, i.e., the backyard, we noticed the first flights of the bumblebees, as the large queens emerged from underground hibernacula and flew about, both in search of sources of pollen and good places in which to build nests and start the next generation. For food, the bees didn’t have to look far, for we now have an abundance of Bloodroot flowers, which have just opened their exquisite white blossoms, and a small patch of Dutchman’s Breeches, whose cream-colored flowers are rustling gently in the wind and calling out for pollination help.

Farther afield, on the rock slopes leading up to the summit of Lantern Hill, I didn’t spot any bees in several stands of another early blooming wildflower called Trailing Arbutus. But soon enough, I’m sure the pollination crew will have flown up the slopes of this much-beloved preserve and gotten to work.

The insects weren’t yet celebrating Earth Day on the hill, but a songster I’m pretty sure was a newly arrived Pine Warbler was trilling beautifully, and while I didn’t get a definitive photograph, the song seemed a pretty good match for that species. Down slope, as well as on a different refuge trek, there was no uncertainty whatsoever about the identity of Garter Snakes, which have also just emerged from winter headquarters under ground and in rocky cliffs to hunt insects and rodents on the leaf litter. I had actually hoped to see Copperheads and perhaps one of the few remaining Eastern Timber Rattlesnakes, but if any of those rare creatures remain in our area, they didn’t show themselves.

That, of course, would have been cause for celebration. But just being able to get out to places preserved from become subdivisions—the fate of all too many areas these days—is reason to cheer. And on Earth Day, there was another reason: I was asked to teach kids about the value of understanding and protecting local habitats.

In addition to the many, many years I’ve been writing about nature, I’ve been working increasingly with local land trusts and schools to bring people outdoors and help them appreciate the natural world. I always did this with my kids and grandkids, but I’m now putting the expertise I’ve garnered to work for advancing the cause.

It’s subversive, to be sure, but I’m nothing if not subtle. My belief has always been that if you turn someone on to the fascinations inherent in nature, that awakening will help keep a person on the right side of protection and preservation.

So on the 22nd, I’m escorting middle schoolers into the wild—well, the local wild. We’ll be exploring various wetlands habitats, from vernal pools to permanent rivers. The Speckled Alder has opened its catkins and the Swamp Maples are displaying glorious red flowers. Skunk Cabbage and Green Hellebores leaves are pushing out of the mud, and there’s no telling what sorts of birds we’ll see and hear, and what kinds of aquatic insects will appear in our nets. We’ll be on the hunt for amphibians, and we may even spook a turtle or two.

Indeed, there’s no telling what we’ll experience out there, but I’ll bet we’ll come away with a rise in our environmental awareness level. We won’t have saved the natural world, but if we’ve started to think about saving even a tiny corner of it, or, at least, appreciating that corner, then Gaylord Nelson, who passed away in 2005 at the age of 89, will be smiling on our efforts. Earth Day will have done its necessary, necessary job.

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