COLUMN: The meaning of Earth Day is more than just dirt

Wednesday, April 28, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

A couple of years ago, I asked some of my students what Earth Day was.

“Something about dirt?” one offered.

For some of us, that wasn’t such a bad answer. Earth Day 2010 represents 40 years of dirt under our fingernails as we scratched our way away from environmental disaster.

I have an old photograph of me on April 22, 1970. It’s black and white, but my mind’s eye can still see the vivid green flag emblazoned with the slash-O Greek theta symbol. I carried that Ecology Flag as a hundred or so community college students marched through my hometown of Redding, Calif.

My beard was scruffy and my hair was longer back then. And I was nervous. It was the first time in my life I had protested anything.

As it happened, it was also about the last. I went from a unfocused freshman to a journalism major to a working journalist in short order. Working journalists don’t march, they take photographs of marches.

I didn’t give up my environmental beliefs, however. I’m not a preservationist, nor an organic food eater, nor a tree-hugger. I’m a steward. We take care of what we are given.

My students found it hard to believe that my unexciting stance was considered radical in 1970. They take for granted the recycling bins, the air free of brown smog, the rivers you can’t smell before seeing.

Like most of my friends, I grew up on the blue-collar side of our town.Gardening was not a hobby, it was a way to get vegetables. Recycling was not a statement, it was how our little brothers got last-year’s shirts. No one had to invent a “slow food movement” in my neighborhood.

But the county dump (pre-landfill) spewed clouds of eye-watering smoke. The water in my parent’s sink was milky with the residue from the asbestos-cement mains. They dammed the salmon-rich Trinity River and diverted the water across the mountains to water the tomato fields in the Sacramento Valley.

What we marched for on April 22, 1970, was the chance to ask “why?” Why are we doing this to the Earth? Why are we doing it to ourselves? Isn’t there a better way?

Today I drive a hybrid car. I put my cans and bottles in a blue bag that someone from the city takes to the recycling center. I can swim in the rivers I once smelled.

In 1970, all of that was inconceivable. Progress was not to be questioned.

But now my students don’t question the need for stewardship nor give it a second thought. It’s just dirt. Wonderful dirt.

Clyde Bentley is an associate professor for the Missouri School of Journalism and one of the founders of

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