April may have been the cruelest month for T.S. Eliot when he wrote "The Waste Land," but for me it's a month of significant anniversaries, including the 40th annual celebration of Earth Day.
Eliot, mind you, wrote his landmark poem as a tonic for a world crawling from the physical and spiritual wreckage of the First World War, and contrasted perhaps his most famous opening lines
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
nicely with the opening lines from the Prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales:"
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
If one is to take Chaucer and Eliot at their respective words by believing that April is a time for pilgrimages and spiritual and physical rebirths, then it's appropriate that we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Earth Day during the same month. From a Christian poet's perspective, the number 40 is significant. Moses and the Israelites wandered in the desert the same amount of time before reaching their destination; God flooded the Earth with 40 days of torrential rains; and Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert prior to his trial and crucifixion. In each instance, the world was cleansed and made better. Likewise, in the 40 years since the first Earth Day, developed countries have experienced what is known as environmental transition, which refers to the massive cleanup of the messes that afforded us our unprecedented wealth and progress.
Prior to the inaugural Earth Day in 1970, we witnessed environmental catastrophes of nearly Biblical or World War proportions. Rivers caught on fire, whole species were on the brink of extinction and smog enveloped our cities. One could say a new breed of Man evolved from this morass, emboldened with the conservative spirit of preservation of our environment. It didn't matter that many environmentalists considered themselves anything but conservative, because what was most important was their dedication to conserving and nurturing those aspects of life that bring immediate aesthetic, spiritual and corporeal value to our lives - namely clean water and air flowing through and over landscapes uncluttered by signifiers of human immoderation. Chaucer's recognition of "aprill" as immediately realized rather than Eliot's hope of April as a harbinger of rebirth.
It was also 30 years ago this month that your writer performed his own pilgrimage of sorts by hitchhiking from Michigan as far west as Missoula, Mont. I recently had the opportunity to retrace my steps as far as Wyoming; although this time I had the luxury of driving. The most significant difference over the past 30 years was the prevalence of windmills dotting the hillsides and pastures, as well as the 20 to 30 semi-trucks laden with one turbine blade each that I passed along my route. One wonders, along with previously stated concerns, how long it would take before the construction and transportation of windmills becomes carbon neutral.
Commemorating another April anniversary, my association with the Mackinac Center began four years ago this month. This tenure has afforded the opportunity to communicate with hundreds of Michigan students and dozens of teachers through my role with MichiganScience. On speaking occasions to high school classes, I enjoy asking whether students feel our state's environment is better or worse off than it was 40, 50 or 60 years ago. Nearly every student believes that it is worse, reciting the barrage of endless media reports indicating the end of our environment is nigh.
While doomsday predictions might sell newspapers — or, considering the sad plight of that industry, perhaps not — and captivate television viewers, that assessment falls far wide of the mark. While wholeheartedly acknowledging that it's important to exercise due diligence concerning conservation of our environmental treasures and that remediation and protection are a necessary, continual process, it's also important to realize that we as a state and a nation have navigated our environmental transition quite effectively.
We have avoided "The Waste Land" and are well on our way to the return of the verdant spring depicted by Chaucer. Our state's environment is far better off than it was 40 years ago.
Bruce Edward Walker is managing editor of MichiganScience at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.