“There was a special adventure to being a young boy in northwestern Wisconsin. There was the adventure of exploring a deep green pine forest, crunching noisily through the crisp leaves and pine needles on a sharp fall day, or taking a cool drink from a fast-running trout stream or a hidden lake.”
Those words come from Gaylord Nelson, the U.S. Senator from Wisconsin who is credited with inspiring the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Next week, on April 22, 2020, we will mark the 50th anniversary of that momentous event, when some 20 million Americans from all walks of life took to the streets to demand environmental action and, in the process, launched the modern environmental movement. Earth Day led to the passage of a long line of landmark environmental laws in the United States, including the Clean Air Act in 1970, the Clean Water Act in 1972 and the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
There has been an annual Earth Day ever since Senator Nelson’s 1970 creation. Modeling it on the anti-war protests of the late 1960s, Senator Nelson began Earth Day on university campuses as a national teach-in on environmental issues. Particularly, Nelson hoped to shine the national spotlight on air and water pollution.
That’s the historical context of Earth Day. But today, my tale will be a personal one. I want to tell you about the time I met Gaylord Nelson, widely known as the Father of Earth Day and one of my heroes.
Clean air, safe water and Clear Lake
Gaylord Nelson was born—prophetically, I think—in Clear Lake, Wisconsin, in 1916. It was there that his views on nature and citizenship were formed. Years later, he said that “there was never any reason to believe that the rest of the world wasn’t as clean and comfortable as northern Wisconsin. It was easy for the children [in Wisconsin] to believe that the legacy they had inherited in rich land, clean air and safe water was one that every boy and girl in the nation had.”
After receiving a bachelor’s degree from San Jose State College in California, he returned to Wisconsin to attend law school. He graduated in 1942 and served in the United States Army for four years during World War II. After the war, he set up a law practice in Madison, Wisconsin.
In 1948, he ran for the Wisconsin state senate and won. He was reelected in 1952 and 1956, holding the seat for 10 years. In 1958, he became the state’s governor. In 1961, he established a 10-year, $50 million program to buy privately owned lands and preserve them as recreation and wildlife areas. The program was funded through a penny-a-pack tax on cigarettes and was the first program of its kind in the nation. The Outdoor Recreation Acquisition Program (ORAP), as it was called, preserved hundreds of thousands of acres for public parks, recreation areas and wildlife habitat. He also helped protect the environment with laws regulating the use of detergents, as well as strict littering and trash disposal laws.
In 1962, after two terms as governor of Wisconsin, he was elected to the U.S. Senate. “When I arrived as a senator from Wisconsin in 1963,” he said, “there were probably only 20 members of Congress out of 535 who would have considered themselves to be environmentalists.” When other politicians asked why he insisted on talking about such an unpopular issue as the environment, he responded “because people care about the disappearance of their favorite childhood nature spots.”
Capitol steps, ad series and saplings
I was in high school in 1970, and I remember being one among those millions of people who took to the streets that day in April. With a group of students who were environmentally minded like I was, I walked out of my classes and marched to Madison’s Capitol Square, about four miles from my high school. I joined the throngs gathered there to hear speeches from state leaders on the capitol building’s steps.
By 2001, I was working as a writer and marketing director for the Wisconsin Alumni Association, a nonprofit affiliate of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In 2004, I created an ad campaign titled “Keeping You in the UW.” In this series of ads, I featured a different, prominent UW alumnus every month. Of course, I desperately hoped that one of my idols, Senator Gaylord Nelson, would accept my offer to be included. I was beyond excited when he did.
Senator Nelson was 88 years old when I met him in person. He came to Madison in the spring of 2004 because I had arranged for him to sit for a photo for his ad. He had requested that he hold a white pine in his hands for the image. So, on the morning of the shoot, I drove around to several nurseries in the city searching for a white pine sapling. I managed to find one.
When I met Senator Nelson that day, I found him to be gracious, with a bit of mischievousness. Behind his bright eyes, however, there was an aura of wisdom born of long experience; and he exhibited extreme patience with the arduous process of the photo shoot. My whole insides shook as I handed that little white pine tree to Senator Nelson to hold. On a cloudy morning in Madison, in front of Lake Mendota, we got the shot.
That evening, Senator Nelson was to receive a University of Wisconsin Distinguished Alumni Award. I wrote and produced a video about his life for that program, which you can see below—in all its 2004-era graininess!
Another march, a new path and a way forward
Senator Nelson passed away on July 3, 2005, at the age of 89. On July 13 of that year, I once again “marched” with masses of other environmentally minded Wisconsinites and Gaylord Nelson admirers to the state capitol. This time, I didn’t stop at the steps. I went inside for Senator Nelson’s memorial.
Wisconsin’s two U.S. Senators, then-Senator Joe Biden from Delaware, Wisconsin members of the U.S. House of Representatives, former Wisconsin governors, Wisconsin state senators and state assembly members, justices of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, other politicians, friends and more than 600 appreciative citizens like me filled the capitol rotunda to pay respect to Gaylord Nelson.
That wasn’t the only commemoration I made that day. It was precisely then that I decided to leave my job at the Wisconsin Alumni Association and become an environmental writer.
In 2004, after the photo shoot, I didn’t have the heart to callously dispose of the little, white pine sapling. Because it had once rested in my personal hero’s hands, I took it home and planted it in my yard.
To this day, I still don’t know why Senator Nelson asked to hold a white pine. But I do know that it was important to him. The white pine is not our state tree (that designation belongs to the sugar maple), and our state motto is “Forward”—it has nothing to do with trees. I did find out, though, that according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, “the westernmost section [of Clear Lake] contains a gently sloping sandy peninsula that supports a dry-mesic forest dominated by red pine, red oak and white pine.”
I’ve also since read that white pine is very susceptible to air pollution damage and can be an indicator of poor air quality.
As time goes on, the reason becomes more and more clear to me.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,