Nation: A Memento Mori to the Earth

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IT had aspects of a secular, almost pagan holiday—a sense of propitiating an earth increasingly incapable of forgiving what man has inflicted upon it. Much of Earth Day was festive and faddish; yet it touched the American imagination with a memento mori, a vision primitive as trilobites and novel as the idea of a windless, uninhabited earth orbiting on.

Thus, when Fifth Avenue was closed to traffic for two hours, 100,000 New Yorkers walked up and down in an eerie quiet. In vacant lots, on roadsides from Boston to Sacramento, schoolchildren gathered up beer cans, soda bottles and old tires, as if picking up after a violent party.

Some radicals complained that the nation's relatively abrupt concern for the environment represented a distraction from the issues of war and racism. A few rightists noted darkly that Earth Day was also Lenin's birthday, and warned that the entire happening was a Communist trick. At the Continental Congress of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Washington last week, a delegate from Mississippi declared: "Subversive elements plan to make American children live in an environment that is good for them." Yet unlike, say, a Moratorium, Earth Day at least temporarily gathered nearly all bands of the political spectrum.

Campus Ritual. Expectedly, youth predominated at most of the ecological happenings and teach-ins across the U.S. At 1,500 campuses and 10,000 schools, students, teachers—and sometimes parents—observed Earth Day by studying such previously recondite subjects as hydrocarbons and acid drainage from coal mines. Much of the day was given to theater and ritual. At the University of Wisconsin, 58 separate programs were staged, including a dawn "earth service" of Sanskrit incantations.

Car wreckings—followed by interment of the beasts—were a common protest against the internal-combustion engine. Some students at Florida Technological University held a trial to condemn a Chevrolet for poisoning the air; they tried to demolish it with a sledgehammer, but the car resisted so sturdily that the students finally shrugged and offered it to an art class for a sculpture project.

Some 1,000 students at Ohio's Cleveland State University worked throughout the city gathering litter and loading it into garbage trucks. They ended the day by marching to the almost pestilentially polluted Cuyahoga River. Standing at the spot where Founding Father Moses Cleaveland allegedly landed in 1796, a student held aloft a plastic bag full of garbage and intoned: "This is my bag." Another student, dressed as Cleaveland, rowed up, declared: "This place is too dirty to build a colony," and double-timed back down the river to the almost equally scabrous Lake Erie. In Letcher County, Ky., part of the most ravaged section of Appalachia, 1,200 students buried a trash-filled casket. A young Denver group called CARP (Citizens Concerned About Radiation Pollution) gave the Colorado Environmental Rapist of the Year Award to the Atomic Energy Commission.

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