An Earth Day Challenge

Wednesday was Earth Day. Last weekend would have been Burlington’s annual cleanup event in which hundreds of people from around the community would have spent the morning picking debris off the city’s streets, ravines and right of ways and then gathered at the Port of Burlington for lunch, music, and a rehashing of all the interesting finds. The annual Earth Day cleanup event is always a good time and the volunteers that organize it deserve much thanks. It makes our town look much nicer and gives those who participate a sense of pride knowing they contributed to our community’s improvement. Not to mention the benefit of spending half a spring day outside with a few hundred of your neighbors.

And this would have been a big year for annual Earth Day celebrations which occur around now en masse around the world. This year marks the event’s 50th anniversary. It began in 1970 as a nationwide environmental teach-in spurred in part by a blow out on an oil platform that released more than three million gallons of crude oil into the ocean off Santa Barbara, California in 1969. The following year, schools and communities across the nation hosted events reaching some 20 million people to advocate for environmental reform. Earth Day is now celebrated annually in some way in 192 countries around the world.

Except for this year. At least not so far anyway. Thanks to all the isolation and social distancing and crowd-reducing measures in light of the coronavirus pandemic, most Earth Day celebrations and associated events, ours included, have been cancelled or postponed indefinitely. Yet another casualty of the ongoing virus battle.

But just because we’re not organizing events around it doesn’t mean there’s any less trash to pick up or fewer neighborhoods to beautify. It doesn’t mean the spring sun shines any less bright or the spring temperatures are any less inviting. Just because there aren’t roaster pans full of luke-warm hotdogs waiting for us doesn’t mean we can’t glove up and take to the streets, trash bags in hand, to do something good.

One of things I always love about our local clean up event is the demographics of the volunteers. There is practically no age that isn’t represented there. Families with kids as young as toddlers. Parents. Grandparents. Probably even some great-grandparents. Organized clubs and groups. White collar professionals to starving artists. Giving back to one’s community knows no demographic boundary.

I see no reason why now should be any different. Actually, I take that back. Things are very different now, but in a way that is kind of better. We all have lots of time on our hands. It’s not like we can go anywhere. The kids are home and probably itching for something to do. The weather actually feels more like spring so if you’re anything like me, you feel the inexorable pull to be outside.

So, go.

Here’s my challenge to you. This weekend, or some afternoon next week, or whenever the sun shines the brightest in the next seven days, grab a trash bag and go for a walk somewhere. It can be your own neighborhood or the local park or down into the nearby ravine. Take a stroll along any of the town’s heavily traveled roads. The location matters less than the intention. Fill that bag with whatever you find that wasn’t made in that spot by nature. If you’re real ambitious, fill two bags. Take the family with you and have them do the same.

Without an organized event, there will be no city trash trucks coming around to pick your bags off the side of the road, so you’ll have to add them to your own container. And there won’t be a semi-trailer on site to fill with tires like there is during the normal cleanup event so the tires you find down in the ravine may have to wait. But there’s nothing stopping you from collecting all the fast food containers, plastic grocery bags, beer cans, cigarette butts, and plastic bottles you find along the way. Unless you’ve done it before, you’ll probably be surprised, and maybe even a little appalled, at the sheer magnitude of the trash you find. I know I always am.

I appreciate all the work that so many people put in to organizing the annual cleanup events. It’s a lot of work organizing the trash trucks and coordinating lunch service and ordering supplies and tee shirts and planning where best to deploy volunteers. But the return on that investment is large. The community always looks so much better afterwards. Let’s not let a little pandemic take that from us. We can’t gather as a group, but we can still act collectively as members of a community. Our community.

Will you accept the challenge?

This is a modified piece that originally appeared in my "Living Land" column in The Hawk Eye.

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