National Poetry Month, April 22, 2014

NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti

NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti

The flourish of a poem to launch things is always the right touch, akin to a benediction; and today is, after all, Earth Day. So let us begin with the poem, “Earth Day,” by Jane Yolen, an author of wide range, whose children’s books I read to my own children.

Jane Yolen

Jane Yolen

Forty-four years ago today, when I was 16 years old, a high school junior, the first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970. Its promises, sweeping and revolutionary, inaugurated what would become the Environmental Movement. That very first Earth Day in 1970 dovetailed into the revolutionary consciousness streaming through the United States at the time. Harnessing the energies of the Anti-war, Women’s and Black Power movements, Earth Day placed the plight of the environment squarely before the American public. It led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency as well as the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts.

earth-day--340x340I’m not sure if, prior to that first Earth Day, I had ever considered the word environment, though I was keenly aware of place, and that place was Pittsburgh, the city in which I was born and raised; a city, perhaps more than any other in 20th Century America, renowned for its grit and grey, its toxic unbreathable air – an indictment that still dogs it, though it’s been for years a shimmering city, cleaned up after its legendary chief industry, steel, failed. Indeed, in many neighborhoods, when I was growing up, the street lights had to be turned on mid-afternoon for the sake of visibility. It was that bad. Air pollution – pollution, another word that began to inch into our daily vocabulary in the 60s – was a fact of life in heavily industrialized America.

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson

Things began to change, however, with the late 1962 publication of Silent Spring, written by Rachel Carson, a Pittsburgh native. A withering indictment, chapter and verse, of how the natural world was atrophying at an alarming, even fatal, rate, the book, a best seller, sold half a million copies, was a Book of the Month Club Selection, and is dedicated to Albert Schweitzer, winner of the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize. Today it is a classic, standing at the top of the canon of environmental literature and is still being taught.

Silent SpringI have this minute, in front of me, the 75 cent Crest Book paperback, published in 1964, that belonged to my sister, Marie, who was fourteen when she first read this book. Prescient and precocious as always, the first thing she has underlined, neatly, in pencil is: “Only within the moment of time represented by the current century has one species – man – acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.” That century, the 20th, has spilled into this next, the futuristic 21st. We know that we do have the power to alter our world in dark, irrevocable ways. But we also have the power to alter it as well in terrifically brilliant sustainable ways, and we are doing just that in visionary fashion in various pockets all over the world.

However, it is news to no one that the initial fervor of Silent Spring – whose message remains ever-crucial this minute, as does the thrust of that very first Earth Day – rioted, then slid and slumped and lost traction. “The explosive bestseller the whole world is talking about,” the cover of Marie’s worn copy announces in all caps. But, relatively soon, apparently, folks stopped talking about it. I imagined, back then, not quite a year after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, that, come 2014, I’d be living in a completely different world, the fictional future our fledgling Utopia of 1970 promised to chart. If you are old enough to recall, the concept of not littering was wholly unique. Indeed all of the covenants were not kept – are they ever? – but many of them have been, and continue to be. And, of course, like you, I am living in a completely different world, one, as it often is, at a crossroads; and I am not here to wring my hands over what we have not accomplished, but rather to champion what we have accomplished and what we have yet ahead of us.

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry

In the over half-century since Silent Spring blazed into the American consciousness, and then perhaps blazed out – though the pilot light remains forever ignited – the scholarship and activism that has emerged to link arms with Carson’s charge are staggering. We know what we must do. Our path is clear. The task is urgent. But I don’t wish to merely regurgitate pamphlets. Wendell Berry, the fire-breathing Kentucky farmer-poet-environmentalist-theologian, states in his essay, Getting Along With Nature: “In the hereafter, the Lord may forgive our wrongs against nature, but on Earth, so far as we know, He does not overturn her decisions.”

As I began, I’ll close with a poem – along with warm Happy Birthday wishes to Robin Greene – and let nature have the last word, as it undoubtedly will, in any event. I am so glad to feature Robin’s “Zen in Early Spring,” which appeared originally in the anthology: The Nature of Things, 2012.

Zen in Early Spring

Robin Greene

Robin Greene

Sitting on brown grass in early spring,
I reach into the azalea and daffodil beds

to gather last fall’s leaves by hand.
And I’m reminded of how to be

with each moment, the underbelly of
a voice, a sigh. And how to pay attention

to the breeze, that insistent, presumptuous
whisper. One gust promises lazy-mind

and another, idiot compassion.
And when questioning-mind raises

its voice at the end of a sentence
and my bare hands become full

of brittle leaves, I rise finally and take
them like grateful moments

over to their black barrel by the brick
walkway, to simply let them go.

Robin Greene is Professor of English and Writing, Director of the Writing Center, and co-founder/editor of Longleaf Press at Methodist University in Fayetteville, NC. She is author of four books and remains a driving force in Fayetteville’s Veterans Writing Collective, housed at Methodist University.

One last flourish: a little Earth Day jazz from some student musicians in Illinois.

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