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Correction to This Article
A list of Earth Day-related activities in the April 22 Weekend section, which is printed in advance, incorrectly included the Navy Festival. That festival will not be taking place this year.

Earth Work

By Janisse Ray
Friday, April 22, 2005; Page WE26

In spring, herring spawn along the southeastern coast of Alaska, laying their eggs in unbelievable masses. Tides sweep the eggs ashore, where they cling to seaweed and rock and pebbled beach. Kelp washes up four inches thick with the yellow roe. Murders of ravens feed on the eggs, and scores of gulls. Did I dream that I saw 15 bald eagles, like waiting angels, in one tree? No.

Two years ago, I spent April in Sitka. The tidal pools of the sound are marvelous gardens of anemones, sea stars and limpets. Seals sun on rocks. On the horizon, gray whales spout and breach. How much life. How many hearts. All together, an ocean of blood and another of sap. A continent of bones. I love this world.

Earth Day
Earth Day
(Illustration by Patterson Clark - The Washington Post)

Earth Day Activities

CHILDREN'S CONCERT -- Friday at 7:30. Singer-songwriter Billy B. performs songs about the beauty of the natural world. $2; maximum $5 per family; ages 2 and younger, free. Activity Center at Bohrer Park, 506 South Frederick Ave., Gaithersburg. 301-258-6350

HOWARD COUNTY CELEBRATION -- Saturday 8 to 4. Bird walk at 8, tree planting and trail maintenance from 9 to noon; picnicking from noon to 4. Free. Mount Pleasant Farm, 10520 Old Frederick Rd., Woodstock. 410-465-8877.

MERIDIAN HILL CLEAN-UP -- Saturday 9 to 2. Graffiti removal, weeding, trash pick-up and more. Free. Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park, between Euclid, 15th, 16th, and W streets NW. 202-462-7275.

CONSERVATION FESTIVAL & CLEANUP -- Saturday 9 to 3. Stream and park clean-up, tree and shrub planting, hikes, fishing demonstration, children's activities and appearance by Gaithersburg City Mayor Sidney A. Katz. Free. Izaak Walton League of America Conservation Center, 707 Conservation Lane, Gaithersburg. 301-548-0150 Ext. 236.

"E-CYCLING" -- Saturday 9 to 3. Drop off your old electronics, batteries, cell phones, aluminum cans and tennis shoes for recycling. Free. Rock Creek Park's Carter Barron Amphitheatre, 16th Street and Kennedy Place, NW. 202-645-8245.

GREENBELT CELEBRATION -- Saturday 10 to noon. Plant native species at the Wetlands Educational Facility, see hybrid cars and tour the Public Works Department. Buddy Attick Park, 555 Crescent Rd., Greenbelt. 301-474-8004.

PATUXENT WILDLIFE REFUGE CLEAN-UP -- Saturday 10 to 3. Remove non-native invasive plants and other eco-friendly tasks. Free. National Wildlife Visitor Center, 10901 Scarlet Tanager Loop, Laurel. 301-497-5760.

MONTGOMERY COUNTY CELEBRATION -- Saturday 11 to 3. Environmental information, crafts, family entertainment, energy-efficient vehicle and bus tours of the recycling station, sponsored by the Division of Solid Waste Services. Field in front of 850 Hungerford Dr., Rockville. 240-777-6400.

FREDERICK FESTIVAL -- Saturday noon to 4. Information booths, food samples, crafts and more, sponsored by Community Commons and the Common Market. Free. Baker Park Bandshell, Second and Bentz streets, Frederick. 301-663-3416.

NAVY FESTIVAL -- Thursday 10 to 2. Environmental display booths, alternative fuel vehicles, music by the Navy Band Cruisers, children's activities and more. Free. Navy Memorial, 701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 703-418-3417.

ALEXANDRIA CLEAN-UP -- April 30 from 9 to 1. Help clean up the area along Four Mile Run Park; supplies, snacks and T-shirts provided. Free. Shuttles take participants to sites from Cora Kelly Elementary School, 3600 Commonwealth Ave., Alexandria. 703-838-4844.

From Mount Verstovia, looking down at the vastness and breadth and power of the Alaskan coast, I wondered how we humans have been able to make such a pathological mark upon nature.

To celebrate Earth Day that year, my husband dressed as a raven and I as an eagle and entered the wildlife parade. We did so in honor of the Tlingits, native people of the Alaskan coast, all of whom belong to and marry between two matrilineal clan houses, Eagle and Raven. The evening before the parade, my husband and I worked for hours, gluing white crepe-paper feathers on Eagle's cardboard head, fashioning winglike cloaks, making Raven's black beak. The next day, a few spectators watched as schoolchildren wearing butterfly wings and bunny ears wavered in a thin, faltering parade down a Sitka street. Crowing and squawking, we led them.

This year, communities around the world will celebrate Earth Day with recycling drives, alternative-fuel-vehicle fairs, plant giveaways, poster contests, street festivals, field trips, fireworks displays, canoe runs, lectures and beach cleanups. Even surfing contests and pet-blessing services. Thousands of Americans will participate. Organizers will have worked ceaselessly in the hope that the eerie cry of a gunshot hawk or the woebegone eyes of a box turtle will ignite in even one child a recognition that our survival depends on a functional environment.

I have always thought holidays a little ludicrous in this country. They become so engorged with nonsense. Even Anna Jarvis, the woman credited with the idea of Mother's Day, grew disenchanted with its commercialization. She was arrested for disrupting a Mother's Day celebration and before her death told a reporter she wished she had never started the holiday. Christmas embraces the birth of a prophet -- and becomes a day in which 25 million tons of bright paper get wrapped around a multibillion-dollar boost to the economy. Annually, 32 million trees get cut.

Yet humans crave ritual and festival. Margaret Mead understood this. "Earth Day," she said, speaking of the United Nations celebration of Earth Day on the vernal equinox, "uses one of humanity's great discoveries, the discovery of anniversaries by which, throughout time, human beings have kept their sorrows and their joys, their victories, their revelations and their obligations alive."

The first U.S. Earth Day, took place April 22, 1970. It was the brainchild of Gaylord Nelson, a senator from Wisconsin who helped ban the use of DDT and Agent Orange. Nelson had become increasingly concerned that the state of our environment was "simply a nonissue in the politics of the country." After studying the Vietnam War protests, he set about in late 1969 to organize a massive grassroots teach-in against environmental destruction. Three months before the event, he hired Denis Hayes, a Harvard graduate student, to coordinate its activities.

That first Earth Day, 20 million people, mostly university students, took to the streets. If the publication of "Silent Spring" in 1962 inaugurated the modern environmental movement, Earth Day shuttled it into the zeitgeist. Some called it a communist plot. (Even as late as 1997, Alan Caruba wrote in the Fargo Forum: "Why is Earth Day, today, also Lenin's birthday? Coincidence?")

Bill McKibben, a popular Earth Day lecturer, is the author of eight books about nature and the human community. His "The End of Nature," published in 1989, is a brilliant and seminal work on the effects of greenhouse gases on climatic disruption. He remembers April 22, 1970.

"The first Earth Day was politically threatening," McKibben told me recently. In the years following, Congress enacted a series of watershed legislation, including the Clean Air, Water Quality Improvement, Resource Recovery, Occupational Safety and Health, and Endangered Species acts. Earth Day's legendary triumph was that environmental concerns became part of the architecture of government policy.

But holy days never attain much import until business figures out how to go commercial with them.

The holiday, plagued by the contradictions inherent in the movement -- specifically, a mixture of sorrow and possibility -- degenerated into a Keep America Beautiful lovefest. A who's who of polluters attempted to "greenwash" their images by signing on as corporate sponsors. The day lost its restlessness and its outrage. Hundreds of fans of the planet flocked to whimsical street festivals in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco. They came, throwaway coffee cups in hand, driving their SUVs from starter castles built on the vestiges of wild land.

Sixteen years after the first Earth Day, it had become so insignificant that no one considered the irony of scheduling a nuclear test on that date at the Nevada Test Site.

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