They say it’s Earth Day today. It’s chilly and a bit cloudy in the corner of Earth I call Bedhead Hills. The weather forecast called for a severe thunderstorm yesterday around 3 pm, and it arrived punctually at 2:45 pm, with a rumble of thunder, a blast of wind, and rain, ending the streak of unseasonably warm and mild spring weather. I like the weather in New York, because you get a bit of everything.
I do not recall observing Earth Day when I was a kid; we had Arbor Day, though, and I know this because there was a Charlie Brown animated special about it. I don’t think I ever got to plant any trees. I found plants frustrating when I was a kid because of their tendency to die in my care. For a while, I had a cactus that I kept outside my bedroom window on a tiny, hot, brick ledge. You could see it from the street. The cactus was green on the bottom and bright orange-pink on top. I watered it irregularly, which seemed to suit it fine. But it didn’t last.
My mother had a real way with plants, and kept a window full of African violets in the kitchen in the 70s. There was a bottle of Miracle-Gro under the kitchen sink that she put in the violets’ water. I watched these ministrations with awe, as if these were plant-growing skills I could never myself attain. When she remodeled the kitchen a second time in the 80s, she switched to a collection of cacti which also did well in her care. Once she knocked a grapefruit-sized barrel cactus off the counter when she was getting ready to water it, and used her lightning-fast baseball skills to swoop in with her left hand and catch it before thinking. Of course it landed needles down.
There were new sponges, and Comet (for scrubbing the sink), Fantastik, and dish soap, and a switch for the garbage disposal under the sink. The thing that took up the most room under there was the brown plastic garbage pail, which was just the right size for a paper grocery bag to stand up in it. Today, paper grocery bags in the U.S. have handles; when I was a kid, they did not have handles. The kitchen garbage can was for the stuff that did not go down the garbage disposal in the sink. My. mother had strict rules about the garbage disposal (you had to run the water; you had to check for spoons), and what could go down the garbage disposal (chicken bones?!), and what could not (corncobs).
When the trash was full, someone (rarely me) would carry the weeping paper bag to the galvanized steel garbage cans with banged-up, ill-fitting lids that sat in our driveway. We also saved things for recycling, and I knew of no other families who collected empty glass bottles or washed steel cans, removed the labels, opened both ends, and flattened them.
Every few months we would load the recycling into the car and drive up a road that took you to the big bins where recyclables were collected, and we got to sort and throw in the bottles and cans. As embarrassing and hard to explain as it was that we collected months’ worth of empty soup cans in our garage, it was thrilling to toss the empty bottles in the glorious anticipation and certain fulfillment of hearing them break. Just writing this makes me want to go do it.
My children grew up in Seattle, where we had three large, wheeled bins in the alley behind our house: one for garbage, one for recycling, and one for yard and food waste. All were collected by a municipal service, weekly for garbage and probably every-other weekly for the rest. Because our bins lived in the alley, there was little sense of ever missing garbage day. Sometimes we had to go gather our bins because of the chaos of the aftermath of collection.
We had a big recycling bin in the kitchen, which the kids raided for materials for making things. On a trip to Alaska, one of my kids discovered he couldn’t recycle his empty bottles, and wanted to carry our recyclables back home in his suitcase. He was probably 10 or 11 at the time, but I can still see him doing this.
When we lived in New York City, where every day is garbage day, and there are no alleys, we experienced both the weirdness of taking our garbage to the basement in the elevator of a small residential building and the magical commotion of sliding the bags into a labelled chute in the utility room of a high-rise. And the intense peculiarity of witnessing a screaming argument between an interloper and the regular person who picked through the recycling of our building looking for the bottles and cans that could be redeemed for 5¢ each.
I buy many different kinds of plastic garbage bags for my house, including special sizes for different cans, and small ones on a tidy roll for picking up dog poo, and it feels shameful to admit that I buy them to throw them out. But that’s what everyone buys garbage bags for. Anyway, Americans make a lot of garbage, sure (the EPA estimates that each American typically makes about 6 pounds of trash per day), and use a lot of water (100 gallons per day per person), but the 20 metric tons of CO2 per American per year might be the biggest of our problems. The catastrophic global climate change of human activity we usually call global warming isn’t stoppable or reversible at this point.
Even though we are now in the second year of our global pandemic, known mostly as coronavirus, or, familiarly, as the ‘rona, there are bigger threats to humanity because they threaten our planet’s ability to sustain life.
I spent part of the afternoon of this Earth Day in the yard with the dogs. They never know what day it is, and continue to love the fact that everyone is home all the time. I don’t think I’ve ever been more grateful to have them.