by Brendan McGarry
– The Capitol Hill Times –
Earth Day has passed, and really, it was just another day amongst hundreds. I don’t recall when we started having a million different “days.” “Talk Like a Pirate Day,” “No Pants Day,” I’m sure that someone laboriously compiled a list of every holiday in existence. Many are silly, even asinine, and sometimes I fear that they diminish the importance of significant events.
Now, I’d be the last to suggest that Earth Day is paramount to stopping environmental destruction. You can meditate on disappearing megafauna in foreign nations every year, and it will likely do zilch. I’ve fallen into this trap as a card-carrying environmentalist, growing up with a constant (and warranted) fear for the world’s ecosystems. However, in some ways, this hand-wringing for exotic species further estranges us from nature, bolstering a feeling of hopelessness and lack of control. Earth Day, despite global reach, should focus locally. It’s an important reminder to those who read about deforestation in the tropics, but are blind to the habitat out their backdoor.
Earth Day started 43 years ago, combating pollution in the United States in the wake of Rachel Carson’s 1962 epic “Silent Spring.” Today, the day’s focus is on climate change, a global phenomenon that may not be reversible. Again, momentous issues, which are flabbergastingly difficult to understand our individual role in.
Simply walking outside and appreciating the (relatively) clean air and water that we have in Seattle should be insisted upon on this day. This seems obvious, but the unappreciated easily dwindles. If you take a moment every April 22 to step away from your life as a “tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized” person (as John Muir would have called us), and walk through your favorite green space, you’ll be doing a service. We all must do more, but I argue that this could mean as much as any hybrid car, by breeding affinity for place. The expression may be tired, but we all need to think globally and act locally.
Despite the oxymoronic resonance of the phrase, Seattle is lousy with urban nature. Between our multitudes of parks and waterways, there’s plenty of opportunity for co-habitation of people and other organisms. My step away and into a green space for the day was in Interlaken Park. Taking a detour on a busy schedule, I decided to bike through and enjoy the feeling of spring. Big leaf maples were dangling pendant blooms, birds bursting with song, sunlight filtering magically through the canopy. It was easy to glaze my eyes and see this place without flaws.
Having had my brief chlorophyll bath, I looked around more closely. Many of the plant species that I could see were introduced. From herb Robert weed on the trailside to the exotic cherry growing in the understory, this was not a pristine ecosystem. English ivy coiled around the trunk of a great maple along the edge of a drainage. Following this trough up hill, I saw backyards. It would be no surprise to find that this creek had high levels of fecal coliform or a dose of heavy metals. Yet, without sounding dismissive of these things, no space is perfect. In some ways green spaces exist, just as Earth Day, to instill responsibility for the places we live, even the city.
Earth Day isn’t about blinding optimism. Our thoughts should rest somewhere between sour pessimism and unflagging positivity. Willing to accept that there is no Utopia. Equally capable of recognizing worth and beauty in our manipulated landscape, as well as in the wilderness.
Across the water from the Arboretum is the Union Bay Natural Area, one of the most productive places for Seattle birding, and a Mecca for urban nature in general. Before it acquired its more eloquent name, it was the Montlake Fill, a patch of lakefront that the University of Washington let the city use as a landfill until the 1960s. The garbage now covered, it’s a habitat in progress, but it’s a wonderful spot. We need places like this almost as much as monuments like North Cascades National Park.
Before the banning of DDT 50 years ago, both bald eagles and peregrine falcons were on the brink of extinction. Due to hard work on the part of scientists and citizens alike, both are federally delisted, recovered from endangered-species status. As I sat in Interlaken Park on my Earth Day vigil, I heard the strange whinnying of a bald eagle, and caught a glimpse of the bird overhead, a not uncommon Seattle sight. Earlier this year, I witnessed a high-speed chase between two peregrine falcons, jetting over the urban blocks of Capitol Hill. Both eagles and falcons nest within spitting distance of the Hill. That, if anything, is worth celebrating on Earth Day.