Every April 22 is a red letter day for many of us because it’s Earth Day. This year’s Earth Day was additionally special as its 50th anniversary. It seemed to me a good idea to reconsider my participation in the vision that energized the first Earth Day half a century ago.
As I’ve read about that firsr Earth Day and recovered my own 50-year-old memories, I’ve relived the surprise and satisfaction that the event, intended by Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin to be a college teach-in, exposed an already vigorous movement. Two million Americans were on the streets. Demonstrations were daily events those days, most against the detested Vietnam War, which can make it seem even more phenomenal that 10 percent of the population were sufficiently riled up about earth care to put their beliefs and commitments on open display.
The loudest grievance then was POLLUTION—air, water, land, ocean pollution. 1969 is not only famous for the moon landing and awesome photos of a pristine blue globe but notorious for a gigantic oil spill from a drilling rig blow-out close off-shore in the Santa Barbara channel, fouling nearby beaches with raw petroleum clotted with bodies of dead birds and sea animals and providing photo ops of tarred sand and barely-alive birds being rescued and cleaned to appear in every form of public media.
Adding fuel to that provocation, oily debris on Cleveland’s share of the Cuyahoga River was set on fire by a passing train, with clouds of black smoke darkening major telecast news and rousing press conferences by Cleveland’s highly-vocal mayor, Carl Stokes, better remembered as the first African-American mayor of a major US city, demanding federal action. Acid rain was also in headlines as test sites in New England recorded and reported deadly effects from pollutants that poured out of industrial smoke stacks in the Midwest, newly elevated to placate locally contaminated communities. Jet stream winds carried toxic residue hundreds of miles to pollute New England forests, streams, and humans. With such news increasingly being considered dreadful by an obviously growing segment of the public, an awakened Congress got to work on the National Environmental Protection Act, signed into law on January 1, 1970, by President Richard M. Nixon.
Looking back those 50 years from a perch within today’s tormented political scenery, I wistfully recall that Nixon, a staunchly conservative Republican, who had defeated progressive Hubert Humphrey in 1968, now infamous for his grim support of an extended war and for eluding impeachment by resigning the presidency, consistently promoted environmental protection and encouraged hard-hitting legislation by a largely united Congress. A major section of Nixon’s 1970 State of the Union speech sounded the alarm. In summary, he stated
The great question of the ’70s is, shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land and to our water?
Continuing, he specified more than 30 instances in which he would work for change, including these:
- improvement of water treatment facilities throughout America
- air quality standards and guidelines to lower motor vehicle emissions
- federally-funded research to reduce automotive pollution
- a tax on lead additives in gasoline
- safeguards on the seaborne transportation of oil and guidelines for treating oil spills
The Evironmental Protection Agency (EPA) emerged later that year, surviving to the present with fits and starts and backtracks through assorted administrations but overall assuredly improving the quality of our environment, yet over time the issues grew more complex, exposing atmospheric damage, a depleting ozone layer, harmful effects of greenhouse gases, increasing global temperatures, disastrous forest fires, gigantic storms, ruinous floods, disappearing glaciers, and rising sea levels. Current reactionary politics, Nixon’s leadership forgotten or snubbed, brushes aside warnings, denies science, and intentionally depletes or deletes earlier restraints on climate destruction. Earth Day 2020 came and went in the United State under that cloud of denial and scorn with the denier in chief in the White House in the lead, despite disposition for climate control in the general population persistently strong. Without the crippling limitations of COVID-19, that important anniversary most likely would have energized many millions of protesters still willing to engage intensely on behalf of an overheating and flooding earth.
I cannot claim sensational deeds of impassioned activism through all those years but a steadfast concern has prompted recycling and other actions that likely have provided a modicum of benefit to the environment. I continue to drive a fossil fuel powered vehicle and am conscious of my complicity in global warming, yet my heroes include Al Gore, Bill McKibben, and Greta Thunberg.
Of late I have given more attention to how my concern for the earth has been impelled by biblical theology of earth care and neighbor love, and also, surprising to me, I am fascinated by a new awareness of my tap root in Iowa topsoil and of my father, Edgar, the hero of that story.
Dad was a quite ordinary Iowa farmer for his time. When I appeared in 1930, he had been farming for a decade on an 80-acre farm half a dozen miles or so east and north of Essex, Iowa, near the tiny settlement called Nyman, that his father had helped him buy, those few acres today a mere corner of a typically massive Midwest farm. Also, since his father’s illness and death in 1928, he had farmed my grandmother’s 80 acres half a mile away, all of which he managed with heavy labor, largely alone, and with an fine team of horses as his power supply.
In the main, Dad raised corn, but he systematically used a four-year rotation of his crops, corn planted on a field two years in sequence, then one year of a grain, likely oats, occasionally wheat. As he planted grain in early spring, his seeder also drilled in red clover seed, and when the grain had been cut and threshed, usually by late July, red clover was growing vigorously. It survived winter and then the next summer, became a crop that in full, colorful, and fragrant bloom was mowed and dried and brought in loads of loose hay or bales to the barn to feed cows and horses during a long, harsh Iowa winter.
More important for the rotation pattern, however, was red clover’s disposition to fix nitrogen in the soil as it grew. Plants recovered after hay was removed and continued generating nitrogen until autumn when ideally the clover was again in bloom, the team of horses returned to the field for their toughest job, pulling a plow through densely thatched roots to bury the clover plants, which added a powerful dose of nitrogen and humus, and, lo and behold, a field ready for two more corn seasons.
Sometimes dad would order a truck load of limestone to be spread on a field, providing a higher pH for red clover. It was the only additive, wholly natural, that Dad used beyond the nitrogen that red clover provided. He was indeed an organic farmer, a title he did not know or seek as he simply applied the customary farming practices he trusted.
Meanwhile, back at the barn, horses are not only storing up energy for plowing and cows not only producing milk, but both are providing an unending and abundant supply of manure that was, with much effort and a special pitchfork, piled in a aromatic stack outside the barn. Mixed with all that muck was straw saved after the grain harvest and used as soft animal bedding, all of which would be loaded into a manure spreader, again with much effort, and spread on unplanted fields, later plowed into the topsoil, adding more natural humus and nutrients, and so that rich top soil was being steadily replenished to support abundant corn harvests while maintaining the quality and value Dad sought for his farmland.
“A lot of people would say that the best fertilizer for the soil is the footsteps of the owner.” 1
Of course, farming never has been all bucolic routine. Weeds thrived in rich top soil just as did corn. Given any headway when corn was young and small, weeds would soon dominate, using up valuable nutrients and choking young plants. Removing the weeds was a constant battle waged with no weed killers other than cultivating machines, mowers, and scythes, and intense labor. Nor did weather always provide ideal growing conditions; too little rain, or too much, could destroy or greatly reduce yields. Hail storms could damage crops beyond recovery in a few minutes. Insects—grasshoppers, chinch bugs, others—needing to be fought but not always defeated. I recall one summer when a chinch bug invasion set off frantic attempts to protect corn plants. Since chinch bugs do not fly, Dad placed a barrier of creosote-soaked roofing paper around the entire perimeter of a field.
During the Great Depression, which colored much of my childhood, farming challenges were intense as commodity prices plunged desperately, confronting many farmers with fearsome threat of foreclosure and loss of their farms and livelihood. Through those contrary years, Dad probably worried like all the rest and worked very hard to pay at least the interest on his loans, managing in the long run to keep his farm.
Early in the Roosevelt New Deal, with the Great Depression at full force, legislation had an epochal effect on agriculture with efforts to shore up farm income and head off the barrage of foreclosures. During these same years, drought scorched the Great Plains which in previous decades had been homesteaded, prairie grasses plowed under, and turned into cultivated farms. The result was the great Dust Bowl when constant westerly wind blew millions of tons of top soil off the land and carried it far in towering dark clouds, with some estimates tallying nearly 500 tons of top soil missing per acre. Responding to that disaster, Washington politicians came up with the Soil Conservation Act of 1935 and handed its provisos to the long-standing Agriculture Department.
Perhaps Dad reaped some questionable benefits from the Dust Bowl as those dark clouds blew in from the west bringing good soil lost by a distant farmer. I doubt he gloated, because he was well aware that although his soil did not blow away, it could and did flow away. Dad knew that normal rains would carry away his precious topsoil to the nearest creeks and rivers. For the most part, southwest Iowa farmland is rolling; few acres of my dad’s farm were not on a slope. So, when the Soil Conservation Act was passed and signed by President Roosevelt, it included programs intended to curb rainwater erosion.
The vectors of conservation planning to Iowa farmers would be Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in Ames (“Iowa State”) and extension offices in county seats, which for Page County is Clarinda, Iowa. Dad made many trips to Clarinda during those years, each one a special event because it was a 20-mile drive across most of the county, a field day for me if I got to be at his side. Those trips often included visiting the extension office for negotiations and paper-signings, often also the court house for other essential business, and usually there was time for a visit to Anderson Drugs where my dad’s Uncle Joe and later his cousin, Virgil, held forth as proprietors and miracle workers behind their soda fountain. I doubt I learned much then of how essential those trips were for Dad’s efforts to protect the soil and productivity of the two farms he cared for.
When row crops such as corn were planted on hillsides, especially when using a system called checking that created equally-spaced perpendicular rows, wide enough for a horse to pass when cultivating for weed control, rainwater flows freely downhill. Now and then gully-washers, downpours of several inches in a few hours, produced gullies throughout an entire field.
Dad prized his perfectly straight rows of checked corn, which were indeed impressive, but he also wanted to block erosion as much as possible and knew he must accept changing his habits, so he joined programs that provided government guidance and subsidy for change. Eventually his hillside cornfields were contoured, which not only reduced soil loss but also helped to retain cherished rain water and so increase yields at the time of harvest..
By that time Tony and Queen had been retired, displaced by a 12-horsepower John Deere B tractor. Then, instead of locking his eyes on a distant fence post as his guide across a field, he watched a level mounted to his tractor to produce an effective contour around a hillside, towing a lister that created a furrow and planted kernels of corn at the bottom of that furrow. There was a remarkable beauty in a well-contoured field as crops grew, as well as controlled water flow. Furrows, the crop itself, and even machinery wheels contributed to soil conservation.
However, it was soon obvious that if a gully-washer passed through shortly after planting when the furrow was still loose and corn seedlings small, furrows could wash away and gullies form regardless of contour. The federal government was advocating permanent terraces that required large earthmoving equipment for the construction, offering subsidies, and Dad bought into that earth saving advice as well. Soon bulldozers had piled up terraces on the contours of the steeper hills.
Through most of those years, I am attending Center School, located at the geographical center of Fremont Township in northwest Page County, the nine almost-identical white clapboarded schools of that township with their eight-mile square boundaries forming a virtual tic-tac-toe diagram, each with its one room and one teacher. My experience was especially unique in that through eight years I had one teacher, Elpha Falk, whom I remember gladly and gratefully as much perhaps because of her stern expectations as her friendliness and endless affirmation.
During those early years of the fledgling Soil Conservation Service, some smart person in Washington had a fertile idea: get rural children to compose essays about the causes and cost of soil erosion and comparisons of methods of conservation, to be judged by the county extension agent and awarded appropriate blue, red, and white ribbons. How many essays I wrote and with what results, I cannot recall, but I’d guess my learning about conservation was estimable and probably repeated in total at home in a way that may even have influenced Dad, or likely as not, he let me know that he’d learned those lessons as well as I.
As I try to evaluate those early experiences, I cannot imagine my dad adopting new methods simply to be up-to-date and innovative. There were other areas of his life and work where he seemed to have no motivation to innovate, especially new labor-saving devices like, say, a mechanical milker for the most detestable job on the farm, but not so with the topsoil that blanketed his farm. He and his soil seemed to share a simple mutuality: treat soil well and it would return the favor. Moreover, he seemed goaded by the need to improve his farm, make sure it was in better shape than it had been, that it would pass on to others better than he had received it.
My only explanation is that he was simply, innately committed to earth care. For what other reason would he spend weeks of late summer, after the harvest, destroying weeds before they could go to seed? Surely, besides milking half a dozen cows and forking manure, the most taxing job one can imagine in dog-days heat was to hone a scythe and spend hours daily hand-cutting weeds, beyond what a mowing machine could manage. A cleanly cut fence row looked smart and acclaimed a farm well cared for, but there was more, that relentless aim to be good to the land, and to do so without weed-killing chemicals was far more beneficial to the land that he could have known.
Not that he totally disregarded the new chemicals: 2,4D and 2,4,5T were available after World War II, and Dad used one or both. He had a small number of noxious weeds he most detested, including buttonweed, cocklebur, and Canadian thistle, against each of which he carried on a crusade. Canadian thistle seemed the most resistant to his attacks, which required more than cutting but also persistent digging that was never deep enough to destroy the long taproot, with a resulting new supply of thistle in the identical spot in a few weeks. I remember his jubilation when 2,4,5T wiped out that patch of thistle once and for all. He would have had no idea then of the dangers those chemicals posed to health and life. They became the notorious Agent Orange of the Vietnam War with its long list of lethal consequences.
In his time and in his way, Dad was, without question, a good steward of his land. Though he may not have so identified himself, good stewardship was definitely his demeanor, and it was closely mixed, as I see it, with his persistent Christian faith.
He talked little about his faith; he simply lived it day by day in his life and work, and come Sunday, he thought about no other option than to take his family to Sunday school and worship in the only church he’d regularly attended, founded by his forbears 80 years and more before, a few miles away on a country hilltop. True, he would fall asleep sometimes after six days of intensive labor, seated in a church pew on a warm Sunday listening to a tedious sermon, but no one questioned Dad’s sincerity.
All livestock farmers got the best prices for their animals at early Monday stockyard sales in Omaha or St. Joe, but truckers knew they must arrive after midnight to load livestock Dad was selling. Early Sunday mornings on a clear, quiet day during planting or harvesting seasons, one commonly heard neighbors’ tractors at work, but never was Dad’s John Deere in a field on Sunday unless it were to bring feed to animals. Cows were relieved of their milk on schedule, but working in fields was not an option. Predictions of a heavy Sunday night rain, even if severe with possible total damage of a drying hay crop, did not tempt Dad to fetch hay on a Sunday afternoon.
What was that kind of faith? Beyond static rules or mere habits, I see an implicit understanding of Sabbath. Dad wouldn’t have outlined the theology, but he firmly believed that all he received was gift: good soil, sunshine and rain, seeds that germinated and grew, crops that matured and provided food and sustenance, life for his family, a bit of savings now and then when the season was beneficial. All was gift, as was good health and energy that enabled his very hard work. Sabbath then was time for thankfulness and as well, admitting that his own hard work was essential but not central; a day off was possible without his farm or his good life imploding. What to others must have appeared foolish was really a deep and abiding trust in God.
Like the farmer of Jesus’ story who planted his seed, then went about his life, confident the seeds would sprout and grow to the time of harvest, so Dad assumed God’s working without his own seventh day in his fields. When occasionally a bad season occurred—too much rain, a severe hail storm, an invasion of insects, drought—he would say simply, through his disappointment, “Next year will be different,” and it usually was. That was faith at work, daily.
As I remember Dad, I cannot think of a better model and implicitly a teacher of what earth care means. Whether or not he could explain the science of nitrogen fixing, he planted red clover to keep his top soil, he cut weeds that wasted soil nutrition, and when it was explained, used his good common sense to plant rows of corn with a hill’s contour. That’s the way you took care of the earth you were given. I had no idea I was learning those broader lessons from him, but it would be singularly ungrateful or dishonest of me not to recognize how much his life and work contributed to how I see the world. Nor being honest, can I fail to see where his trust and faith are lacking in me.
Through all the years since that early 1960s encounter with Jim Nelson, I’ve located myself within the sphere of earth carers, although clearly too often neglecting to alter my own consumption and activities to the extent that should have been obvious. Our family began recycling early on and has maintained that practice, little knowing or caring that plastics/petroleum lobbies had co-opted recycling practices to their own advantage. As climate change and the problem of green house gasses have become known, I still proceeded to drive a gas-guzzling tow vehicle around the nation with a trailer behind us, and when that tow vehicle changed to one with a diesel engine, despite some likely improvement in emissions, I continued to drive, although often during summer months using bio-diesel whereever it was available, but always with the consciousness that every time that engine was running, I was contributing to the destruction of the earth’s atmosphere. Still today, although involving vastly fewer miles and far less fuel consumption, I continue to drive a gas-powered car . I can lay no claim to purity of my devotion to earth care.
Yet, the fundamental principles that motivated my dad—the acute concern of Jim Nelson, the probings of Rachel Carson, the promptings of Earth Day, the pleas of scientists, the fervor of the young today —perpetuate my concern for a healthy planet. I maintain ever more strongly that such a stance is unapologetically Christian, a matter of stewardship and neighbor love that, for me, has a genetic connection I gratefully acknowledge and value, plainly well-developed in a father who loved the dirt that supported him and his family and did his level best to protect that bit of land that was his to care for as any good steward should.
- Neil Hamilton, emeritus professor of law at Drake University and author of The Land Remains: A Midwestern Perspective on Our Past and Future from an interview by Daily Yonder and added here on April 18, 2022.