Earth Day

Washington, New Hampshire, has the distinction of being the first town in the country named after George Washington (he was still a general, not yet president) and of having one of the most photographed town squares in New England. Beyond that, this tiny town in the White Mountains lacks the drama or glamor of other mountain destinations. In an age of more constrained transportation, though, it was adequately wild for the denizens of suburban Boston, and in 1924 Edena and George Fleming, of Worcester, Massachusetts, bought a cottage on the shore of Half Moon Pond. One of Washington’s several mountain lakes, Half Moon Pond quickly became a beloved destination for the Fleming’s son Frank and the young woman he’d started seeing, Pauline Goodale. When they married in 1929, the cottage on Half Moon Pond was a central feature of the life of their young family, which grew to include their daughter Janet, their son Wayne, and eventually a second daughter, Sally. In the days before highways, the family made the four hour drive from Massachusetts and remained at Camp for most of the summer. Without electricity or plumbing, they hauled water from a well, waited for the arrival of the iceman so that they could keep food refrigerated, and relied on the outdoors for entertainment. Hiking in the mountains, swimming and boating and fishing on the pond, and picking blueberries in August were features of life at Camp. Sally, 11 years younger than her big sister, induced her cousins to combine all the activities into an epic game of ‘Lewis and Clark’ which involved various hiking and boating adventures to the far reaches of the known wilderness.

Years later, Sally’s daughters – my sister and I – would play similar games of exploration, ignoring the fact that we were simply retracing paths that had already been walked. At Camp, everything felt wild and newly discovered. Except for the addition of electricity in the 1960’s (the iceman closed his business and the cottage required a refrigerator – my grandparents installed a 1929 GE model that is still running to this day), Camp was the same experience for my generation that it was for my mother and my grandparents, and it was very much an experience of sheer outdoorness. The cottage was so rustic that there was no real distinction between outdoors and indoors; except when it was raining, one didn’t spend time inside. The lake, the mountains, and the forest were home. The wildlife – deer, bears, moose, frogs, fish, beavers, loons, herons – were our shy but much-loved fellow residents.

Pauline and Frank Fleming at Camp in the 1930's

Summers at Camp were integrated with nature in a fully holistic way, and this unique experience marked our entire family with a sense of environmental ethics that pre-dated a broader societal recognition of the need for a green movement. I don’t know where, exactly, my grandparents Frank and Pauline were on the first Earth Day, but I do know that they were celebrating my Grandmother’s birthday, which is also on April 22. I suspect that my grandfather would have been supportive of any attempt to protect resources and the planet – one of my earliest memories of him is of sitting in the apple tree in their backyard, breaking twigs, and being told to stop it; “How would you like it if someone came along and broke off your fingers? That’s what it feels like for the tree.” (My grandfather, in old age, was slightly terrifying, especially to small children. I never broke another twig off any tree) – and I’m sure my grandmother would have as well, out of a general good-natured love of the world.

I’m always curious to hear people’s stories of how they ended up in the environmental field, or how they evolved a sense of responsibility that might lead them to recycle or bike to work or buy organic food, say, when their neighbor has no problem building a 6000 square foot house, driving an SUV, and claiming that global warming is a conspiracy. How does one individual come to have a sense of reciprocal relationship with nature, while another has no sense of relationship? For my family, the answer is tied to those summers spent at Camp, and the sense that the outdoors was our wider home, the organisms around us an extended family. The values that were passed down to us are the result of an inter-generational story rooted in love of the outdoors, which grew to incorporate a sense of relationship with nature, and finally blossomed into a sense of responsibility towards the global environment. I’m out here chasing wolverines today, and trying to understand and protect mountain ecosystems, because my great-grandparents bought a little cottage on the shore of a lake in New Hampshire.

Forty years after the first Earth Day, being an environmentalist is a badge of identity – political, social, and frequently economic. I embrace those political and social identities – I’m young, liberal, progressive, highly educated, perceive myself to be part of global society – but part of me is saddened by the fact that even love of nature has become compartmentalized and politicized. For my grandparents, my mother and aunt, and my cousins, sister, and me, the relationship was effortless. Why is it so difficult for our society?

The other part of this story is this: my grandparents were devout Republicans. Granted, they were Republicans in the old New England sense – socially liberal and fiscally conservative. My grandfather would have been furious at the infusion of radical fundamentalist religion into the party, mortified at the delight conservatives have taken in recent years in denigrating education and intellect, and ashamed of the denial of science inherent in the Republicans’ stance on climate change. As interested as he was in economic growth, I know that neither he nor my grandmother would have countenanced destruction of the environment as the price. That 1929 fridge is still in place up at Camp because they couldn’t fathom spending money or wasting resources on something more modern; the idea was always, in all things, to conserve, to protect. Wealth – environmental or personal – was not to be found in a display of consumption, but in the reserves that one put aside as the result of hard work.

Forty years on from the first Earth Day, we’ve accomplished a lot, through a lot of hard work. We’ve protected, put aside, conserved, and we’ve even renewed. In 2000, my mother was astonished to see a bald eagle flying over the pond; thirty years earlier, the species was considered doomed by DDT. Neither she nor my aunt remember moose at Camp during their childhoods, but now they’re everywhere. Two years ago, they saw a mountain lion walk across the road, pause to look at them, and then disappear into the forest. Things that were once gone have returned, like long-lost family members coming home. We’ve made huge strides.

The challenges that face us now are broader and more demanding; they will require an inventiveness and creativity and a shift towards thinking at an ecosystem level in a way not seen before. Americans complain that this is too hard, and in the heated rhetoric of the current political scene, fear of compromising the American lifestyle is used to delay action on vital issues. The negativity, the attitude of defeat, the sense of ‘we can’t do this,’ is pervasive, especially on the right. Yet forty years ago, rivers burned, pesticides threatened wildlife, and native species like wolves, bears, and wolverines were absent from much of their historic range. The previous generation could have turned aside. They could have whined that it was too hard, that they were afraid, that they didn’t have the vision, that the costs of cleaning up and protecting the environment were too hard for industry and society to bear. They didn’t. They rose to the challenge, prevailed against resistance, and the world is a richer and better place for it. I am profoundly grateful to those people who had the foresight to fight, and I know that those people did not fit neatly into political, religious, or economic categories that have come to characterize the environmental movement today. I hope that in the coming years, we’ll see a return to a less politicized environmental movement, and an expansion of our understanding of what it means to be part of our local and our global ecosystems. I hope that it will become something as ingrained and effortless as opening the door and running outside into our broader home has been for four generations of my family.

To all the devout Gulophiles out there, I promise something more wolverine-focused next time! Meanwhile, Happy Earth Day to all….

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2 thoughts on “Earth Day

  1. Dear Rebecca,
    This is lovely. Thank you so much for brightening my day!
    Affectionately,
    Anne Jones

    P.S. I know what you mean about the changes in the Republican Party. My cousins Jay and Bill and their parents, Uncle John and Aunt Fran, were Republicans in an extended family that consisted almost exclusively of Democrats. When we were kids, we had some very heated political discussions. Jay is now a flaming liberal Democrat, and Bill, I think, still considers himself a Republican. However, he voted for Obama, and he is very uncomfortable with the Republican Party as it is now.

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