Earth Day begins at home

Earth Day begins at home
© Getty Images

April 22 is the 50th Earth Day. Contrasting it with the optimism and relative consensus of the first Earth Day in 1970 can be discouraging, especially for those of us old enough to remember it. “But in a dark time,” said poet Theodore Roethke, “the eye begins to see.”

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In April 1970, the Nixon administration was laying the groundwork for the Environmental Protection Agency. In April 2019, the Trump administration tried to slash EPA’s budget, and installed former coal industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as Administrator. The Green New Deal drew fire from both parties, including a cynical Senate vote to repudiate it. Washington’s message is that industry shouldn’t be burdened with environmental regulation, and climate change is either an illusion or not something that needs to be addressed with policy, even as we witness its effects accelerating.

It’s enough to make a citizen despair. But don’t. This Earth Day I urge us to look past Washington, and back to home ground. We urgently need national policies, but they aren’t the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter is how we dwell in our home territory, the stewardship responsibility we have for the ecosystems of which we’re a part, and what we do to reconnect our children to nature so they can grow into that role.

More than any previous generation, kids today are media-wired. They aren’t simply distracted; they’re also bombarded with news about environmental degradation, climate change and species extinction. They rarely go outdoors compared with earlier generations, and rarely give full attention to the natural world when they do.

These are risk factors for what Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, calls “nature deficit disorder.”  Not connecting with nature correlates with diminished use of senses, myopia, obesity, compromised attention, Vitamin D deficiency, anxiety and other physical and emotional illness. That’s why doctors are increasingly prescribing time in nature.

Young people need reconnection with their natural environment on both a sensory and an emotional/aesthetic level. Luckily, there’s a method for this: place-based environmental and artistic education in the natural landscapes where they live. It may not seem like a solution to pressing problems like climate change. But it’s actually vital.

I know because I have led place-based environmental education programs with children for two decades and seen firsthand how it connects to health and social well-being, and to effective environmental action. 

In 2002 I started a non-profit to engage young people in their natural surroundings in New York's Hudson Valley, combining arts with hands-on environmental science outside — art with harvested materials, catch-and-release net fishing and aquatic study, gallery shows of kids’ art adventures like our recent Sticks, Stones and Mud exhibit.

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Kids are what I call natural mystics. They’re attuned to the natural world and — given an opportunity — have deep, formative, perceptive, and loving responses to it. And what they love, they will protect. Kids who spend time in nature go on to join advocacy efforts for the natural world. There is a youth environmental movement on the rise demanding to be heard.

One day in 2010 I was with a group of kids exploring the wildlife of the Sparkill Creek, a tributary of the Hudson River. A nine-year-old got a whiff of something septic and spoke up: “The creek smells nasty! You need to tell the adults about this! Tell them the children know what they’re not doing. Tell them if they’re looking for something to do, here it is!”

She was right, and I listened. I called Riverkeeper’s John Lipscomb, who tested the creek and detected wastewater bacteria in the water. That led to the founding of the Sparkill Creek Watershed Alliance, which conducts citizen monitoring of the creek and finds local solutions for protecting it.

Now a teenager, she spoke at a recent Youth Climate Strike event in Nyack, New York, which she helped organize, and after which she sent me a text. “Thank you for listening to me that one day at Sparkill,” she wrote. “We need more adults who listen closely.”

So if you’re looking for something hopeful and effective to do this Earth Day, here it is: Engage children deeply in the natural world on their home ground. Then listen closely. Repeat. 

Laurie Seeman is the founder/director of the non-profit Strawtown Studio which works to connect young people with the natural world and inspire environmental stewardship. The New York State Assembly recently honored her with its 2019 Woman of Distinction Award.