My 7-year-old daughter and I crept beneath a stand of massive willow trees, trying to spot a fox squirrel that scampered to the other side of the trunk at our approach. As I scanned the deep-cleft bark for our fuzzy quarry, my daughter surprised me by asking, “Daddy, this is a big history time, isn’t it?” I stopped, squirrel momentarily forgotten. With Michigan on a shelter-from-home order, my daughter hasn’t been to school in over a month. And even though my family tries to watch what they say in front of a first grader, I know she listens as we quietly talk about the COVID-19 crisis. I look at her curious, surprisingly frank face and answer, “Yeah, it is. Probably the biggest Big History time of my whole life.”
April 22, 1970 was another Big History time. The first Earth Day. Almost 10% of the country’s population, especially young Americans, came together in a day of protest over the health of our planet. At that time there was no Clean Water Act. No Clean Air Act. No Environmental Protection Agency. In fact, the year before, Michigan’s own Detroit River caught fire due to massive oil pollution in our waters. But this day of action, this first Earth Day, helped galvanize public opinion on the importance of being stewards of our natural environment. The Environmental Protection Agency and all the aforementioned legislation grew out of this public demand. While important, even dire, environmental threats remain, we’ve made progress; we now see bald eagles soaring every day over a river that once caught fire.
I’m so thankful every time I watch a bald eagle with my daughter. As a child of the 70’s and 80’s in Southeast Michigan, so few eagles survived that I never saw them. Today, I spot them all the time. As a top predator, they’re an essential component of their ecosystem. That’s an important word – essential. Today, because of the COVID-19 crisis, only essential businesses remain open across Michigan and many other states. I’m also so thankful for every single essential worker that helps keep us healthy and safe and fed. Like the eagle, they keep the whole system running even as it strains under the pressures we all face. Earth Day reminds us to acknowledge that the straining human system and the embattled natural systems are really just one big interconnected system. Without clean food, water, soil and air, we have no medical testing reagents, no curbside-pickup groceries, no fancy electronic components that make up the screens we look to for news or for reassurance, or even for a moment of human connection through Zoom of FaceTime.
This human connection isn’t optional. It’s essential for the mental and physical health of our social species. On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we find ourselves hungry not just for clean food, water and air, but for each other. Many of us sit stuck at home, away from friends, extended families and the other social networks we depend on. But Earth Day reminds us that this need for connection goes beyond the human. Study after study points to the power of walking beneath a forest canopy, of feeling the wind and the sun on our face, of stepping outside and listening to the song sparrow singing its heart out from the juniper shrub at the edge of our lawn. And in Southeast Michigan I’m so thankful for the tapestry of city, county, state and Metroparks that remain open and invite us to get outside (while keeping an acceptable social distance!) and really feel this more-than-human connection we’re all hungering for. It’s an essential component of what Earth Day’s all about. Because I hope that 50 years from now, my daughter can walk beneath towering willows in a thriving ecosystem with her own daughter or granddaughter and look back on this Big History time, and know that it inspired us to work toward a better future, both for our human systems and also for the more-than-human systems, together.
Written by Justin Smith, Community Outreach Interpreter (Southern District)