The unintended lesson of being intentional about Earth Day

Confession: I’ve never really paid attention to Earth Week. Sure, in years past, I would read the pro-environment editorials in the newspaper and skim the letters to the editor about saving the planet. Maybe I’d pass some well-intentioned ‘Respect Your Mother’ signs that kids put up at intersections, and see images of the “Blue Marble” (what astronauts called this planet when they first viewed it from space) just a bit more frequently.

My Earth Week 2020 diary

Confession: I’ve never really paid attention to Earth Week.

Sure, in years past, I would read the pro-environment editorials in the newspaper and skim the letters to the editor about saving the planet. Maybe I’d pass some well-intentioned ‘Respect Your Mother’ signs that kids put up at intersections, and see images of the “Blue Marble” (what astronauts called this planet when they first viewed it from space) just a bit more frequently. 

But 2020 was different. Earth Week 2020 — which happens to be the 50th Anniversary of the first Earth Day — found me holed up against a pandemic along with my husband, two sons, sister-in-law, brother-in-law, two nieces, two dogs and one cat in a farmhouse in the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts. I spend my afternoons homeschooling two seven-year olds and two ten-year olds.

All in all, I think I’m a pretty lousy homeschool teacher. I am under-confident in my abilities to captivate four kids with divergent interests. I have little to no time and patience for curriculum planning. And when I do plan out one curriculum or another, one or more kids revolts against it anyway (more often than not, my own sons).

But Earth Week came together nonetheless with some important lessons for me and for the kids. Here’s my diary from those days:

Monday: A lovely day and the kids have been inside all morning. After lunch, I told them we were going to the woods for a cleanup in honor of Earth Day. I quashed the groans and backtalk, packed a snack and two heavy duty trash bags, and within fifteen minutes had managed to pile four kids, two dogs and one bike into or onto the Prius and headed off to the woods.

As we climbed the road to the parking spot, I explained that just like they have a birthday every year, and just like there’s Mother’s Day where you give a shout-out to your mom, or Father’s Day, there’s also Earth Day. This is the day where we show our gratitude for all that the Earth provides us with: clean air, clean water, soil to grow food in, and more. And that on this day, you can not only show gratitude, but also give back. The same way that you might make mom breakfast in bed on Mothers’ Day.

We parked the car, unloaded, and then started the walk down a true New England scene: a dirt road lined by mossy rock walls, with giant sugar maples towering overhead. The road dipped past sweeping fields to a frog pond, and then meandered through the woods en route to an abandoned homestead.  I love the wooded section of the walk. It’s lush and green, and even now, spring ephemeral flowers and fiddleheads are poking through the leaf mulch.

My son Moritz scampers through the woodsy section after one of the season’s last snowfalls in mid April.

Unfortunately, the wooded area is also a historic dumping site. This dump was our adopted Earth Day cleanup site. We didn’t have work gloves or boots, but all five of us got down into the dirt and gathered up the glass bottles or big rusty metal chunks that were sitting on the surface. 

As we gathered the trash, the real Earth Day education happened. The kids talked about how gross it was that someone had dumped their trash there. Then, my ten-year-old son and seven-year-old niece got into a heated discussion about how to most effectively protect rainforests that were being cut down to make way for palm plantations. Susannah’s class had collected money to buy a piece of rainforest in order to conserve it. Meanwhile, Oscar’s class had done a consumer investigation of ingredients in supermarket items to determine which contained palm oil. He has since become a more conscientious consumer, avoiding products with palm oil, and he felt like that was the way to protect orangutans. 

That day, gathering trash in the woods, these two kids went back and forth on which strategy was more effective to protect our planet. When the debate got heated, I stepped in and explained that they were both right. The problems our planet faces, and the solution to those problems, are multi-faceted. Every little step helps and every little bit adds value, whether it’s the grammar school second-graders pooling their money to buy an acre of Indonesian rainforest or one more kid realizing their power as a consumer and not smearing palm-oil-derived Nutella on their breakfast toast.

While discussing the plight of the orangutan’s habitat, we had gathered up two big black trash bags. The kids were pumped. As we walked back to the car, they were crafting plans to return the next day and make even more of an impact.

The kids pose – superhero style – with the haul of Monday’s clean up for Earth Week.

Tuesday: The weather was miserable and the enthusiasm that had been there the previous day had evaporated. When it was time to head out, three of the four kids stayed home. But my niece, Susannah and I, dressed in rain pants, boots, many layers, rain coats and worker gloves, headed out in the truck with both dogs. Strong winds and the periodic snow shower whipped at us as we walked to our cleanup site, which was thankfully in the lee of the wind. We happily worked side by side in the streambed, digging up layers upon layers of old household trash. The epic finale was Susannah lashing a rope to a couple of rusted out metal drums, after which she and I worked side-by-side to haul them up to the road, where we loaded them in the truck.

And then Tuesday’s Earth Day lesson emerged. Susannah and I got to talking about how unsatisfactory it was to both of us that we were merely shuttling trash out of this patch of woods to the transfer station, where it would then get shuttled somewhere else to either get buried or burned. Neither option sat well with us. We got to talking about composting and circular economies, the need to design goods to be reused and repaired, and to eliminate the concept of waste from our product design.

Susannah and I celebrating Tuesday’s Earth Week haul – including a rusty drum and two bags of trash.

Wednesday: The ACTUAL Earth Day. Much nicer weather than Tuesday. All four kids piled into the truck with the two dogs and we headed to the transfer station to dispose of the previous days’ haul. Then, back up the hill to the worksite. 

In addition to layers of household trash on the wooded hillside near the stream, there were also a few old appliances that had likely been there since the first Earth Day. Having cleared out the rusty drums with ease on Tuesday, we tackled the skeleton of an ancient fold-out couch (the fabric had decayed long ago). I hauled the metal up to the road, while the kids broke off rusty springs and positioned them under their feet to add a little bounce to their step. After we tired of bouncing (I admit, I tried it too), we had a snack. As the kids munched, I guided them through some Earth Day math and history:

“Today is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. So, what year did the first Earth Day take place? Who was the president during the first Earth Day? Was he a Democrat or a Republican?”

I explained that the Republican President Richard Nixon, under whose administration the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and so many other cornerstone environmental laws were passed, was the most environmental president to date, second only to Barack Obama.

With the power of carrots, cheese sticks and ginger snaps in their bodies, the kids set their sights on pulling out an old rusty washing machine. This 200-plus pound behemoth from the early days of electric appliances, with metal stand, heavy-duty drum, and an awkwardly attached wringer, was half buried in the mud of the stream. Although I appreciated the kids’ enthusiasm and supported them in their desire to unearth this thing and get it into the proper waste stream, in my heart of hearts I was skeptical we could do it.

But the kids were persistent. They dug the soil out of the drum. They broke off the rusty metal stand that kept getting caught in the dirt. Together we developed a strategy of coordinated lifting and pulling to get the awkward bulk of the wringer over a line of barbed wire. Ultimately, with four kids up on the road pulling the rope and me pushing the bulk of the machine from below, we heaved this massively cumbersome appliance up the bank and then, again in defiance of my expectations, the five of us managed to lift it into the bed of the truck. 

For me, this final act of our Earth Week cleanup — working alongside the kids — provided my biggest lesson. It showed me that when we work together, we can accomplish what we think is impossible. Whether it’s four kids doggedly determined to get trash out of their special place, or citizens worldwide working to prevent even worse climate change, or to protect our oceans from a flood of plastic pollution, the same formula applies. Hope. Dogged determination. Teamwork. And persistence.

Happy Earth Week.


Johanna Neumann

Senior Director, Campaign for 100% Renewable Energy, Environment America Research & Policy Center

Johanna directs strategy and staff for Environment America's energy campaigns at the local, state and national level. In her prior positions, she led the campaign to ban smoking in all Maryland workplaces, helped stop the construction of a new nuclear reactor on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and helped build the support necessary to pass the EmPOWER Maryland Act, which set a goal of reducing the state’s per capita electricity use by 15 percent. She also currently serves on the board of Community Action Works. Johanna lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her family, where she enjoys growing dahlias, biking and the occasional game of goaltimate.