Earth Day in New York was, like, really cool back in the 70’s, Elizabeth Kolbert wistfully tells us in this week’s New Yorker. Cool enough for politicians to be riding their bikes, dead fish to be flung across the streets, soil to be shared among strangers, and the Nixon Administration to take notice and actually do something in response: create the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act. The 2009 equivalent to today’s environmental buzz across the land? The Obamas tune in, and appropriately plant some kale in response.
Of course, I love kale and the publicity of this year’s White House vegetable garden is nothing to sneer at. But the truth is, Kolbert’s right. I mean, how did I celebrate Earth Day this year? I bought herbs. Not even Herbs, like the kind a really cool 20-something would have gotten happy with back on Earth Day ’70 but culinary herbs, for garnish.
After weeks of dithering and spending the last of my singles at the farmer’s market on a sixth basket of Camarosa strawberries for the week, I saved my dollars for the herb man peddling plastic pots. Choosing only three was excruciating, as I had to put back the oregano, the chives, the rosemary, and the baby chili pepper plant (not an herb, but zany nonetheless). I finally exchanged the lemon thyme for silver culinary thyme, which promises to be more potent. And I put the chocolate mint back—not nearly versatile enough, as tempting as adding chocolate flavor to everything savory is—in favor of the Bob Marley mint. The latter originated in Jamaica and was grown by Marley himself on his stoop for his morning herbal infusion, of sorts. Obviously, I’m a sucker for a plant with a story. And I finally chose the purple basil over your everyday trattoria basil, which just seemed so trite at the time (though of course I’ll still be buying bunches of the stuff when my little purple plant is only giving me a pretty little leaf every now and then). Like my friends Abigail and Emma, who have managed to create an entire vegetable garden--radishes included--from these pots on their stoop the size of a Manhattan fire escape, I’m going back, for tarragon and more.
I’ve also begun a new sourdough starter with Earth Day still on my mind and with enough emotional distance from my last failed attempt to be really optimistic about this one’s ability to leaven my dough. I remember hearing once that really old barns make for the best wineries because there are so many generations of wild yeasts hiding out in the woodwork that the wine rarely needs to be inoculated with foreign strains. My 1922 wood-beamed apartment might have the same effect. In fact, the wild yeasts already seem to be churning out a bubbling mess in their jar—so much so that I’ve resigned myself to feeding those damn yeasts once, even twice a day (more coffee for me, a fistful of flour for them). I’d also like to think that my antique brass front door handle, which is stamped with “J.G. Wilson Co., 3 West 29th St, New York, Jan. 20 1890” transported some of those almighty wild yeasts here from back east. Hopefully, from New York’s cooler days.
These are all quiet activisms, though I’m sure many who still practice the throw-a-fish-at-Congress kind of activism would beg to differ. Those who load up on local strawberries, who garden, who bike to work probably don’t think of these acts as a kind of activism at all, except on Earth Day when we’re given a nice excuse to pick up some starters of oregano, chives and rosemary. These little acts have become freed, in some sense, from their attachment to the radicalism of the past. Of course, they don’t speak nearly as loudly as pro-environment uprisings en masse. But they somehow seem more 'sustainable' in the most rudimentary sense of the word, which is, of course, what the environmental connotation of sustainable is founded upon: to keep up or to keep going, as an action or process; to supply with nourishment; to keep in existence. Radical Earth Day acts could never promise to do so much.
So maybe what Kolbert is tapping into is not environmental complacency per se, but a moment of contentment. We got our president. Alice got her garden. I’ve got Marley's mint to muddle for mojitos all summer long. Perhaps we have lost our edge when it comes to Earth Day. But so many of us have taken to dwelling closer to the earth in tiny yet not insignificant ways. I’m not sure what else to say to that, aside from that however we express it, the earth still matters. On Earth Day and everyday.
And on that pun-intended note, I will be starting a new column next month called “Earth Matters.” Not on my own website, but elsewhere—stay posted. Happy Earth Day.