April 22, 1970, the very first Earth Day, dawned pure and clear on the Vineyard. “One might almost have thought all the brouhaha about Earth Day was nonsense, and unnecessary . . . but by 5:30 p.m . . . it was evident that the Vineyard was far from unlittered,” a Gazette story said at the time.
Bob Woodruff and a group of about 60 others, including many high school students, collected more than 3,000 pounds of litter that day, hauling Mr. Woodruff’s oxcart along the roads of the Island and picking up all debris and trash in its path. The team began in Owen Park, pulling the cart along State road into Oak Bluffs and making it as far as Trapp’s Pond in Edgartown by the end of the day, as Mr. Woodruff wrote in a retrospective published last year by the Vineyard Conservation Society.
The next year the Vineyard Conservation Society conducted a weeklong recycling experiment around Earth Day, encouraging Islanders to bring in their bottles to the Edgartown A&P (now Stop & Shop), where the glass was crushed onsite, and their magazines to the Whiting farm, where the papers were bound into bundles. By the end of the week, more than four and a half tons — about the weight of a small elephant — had been recycled.
Earth Day predates the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, and the Endangered Species Act. It was a drop, so to speak, in the riverbed of environmental awareness that began to fill up several decades ago. But without the drops, there can be no flood.
The day, as noted in a 1993 Gazette editorial, is “about stewardship, about the sense that each of us is here for but a short while, and about our responsibility to leave this place whole and healthy for the enjoyment of generations to come.” It’s about small, personal actions, creating new habits and shaping public consciousness — because without these things, the work at higher levels cannot take place.
Fast forward to this year. Laurisa Rich, secretary of the Lagoon Pond Assocation, is spearheading an initiative to help reduce nitrogen levels in Vineyard ponds, the primary aim of the Massachusetts Estuaries Project. Her project — encouraging others to use rain barrels to collect nitrogen-rich runoff and use it in personal gardens — is typical of the Earth Day spirit. Garden plants love nitrogen, Mrs. Rich said, so diverting rainwater toward the plants and away from the pond is a mutually beneficial situation.
Three palettes of 50-gallon rain barrels were delivered (free of charge, courtesy Trip Barnes) to the Island earlier this week for pickup this weekend. A second phase of rain barrel sales continues through the spring, with another pickup scheduled for Memorial Day.
“A lot of the solutions have to come from our leaders — municipal, state and federal, and of course global,” Mrs. Rich said. But individuals can make a difference as well, she said, just by “capturing some of the rain that comes.”
On Saturday, Vineyarders can continue doing their part during the annual beach cleanup, now in its 21st year. Sponsored by the Vineyard Conservation Society, the cleanup will take place on 23 beaches around the Island.
“It’s grown tremendously,” said Penny Uhlendorf, who organized the first beach cleanup in 1993. Since the first cleanup, she said, the number of beaches covered has “practically doubled,” as has the number of volunteers who participate. Signe Benjamin, this year’s coordinator, estimated that over 200 people participate each year, and that each person collects one to two bags of trash. (The bags, fittingly, are reused grain, birdseed and wood pellet bags.)
Each beach is staffed by a volunteer group, which provides supplies and coordinates the overall sweep of the shore. Island Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Brownies have been part of the cleanup since its inception, Ms. Uhlendorf said, as have groups like the MV Surfcasters. This year, the Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank and Harbor View Hotel are primary sponsors of the event. The cleanup’s after party, featuring free T-shirts for kids, free food and raffles, will be held at the Harbor View Hotel. MVY, another sponsor, will host a live broadcast from Eastville Beach.
Ms. Uhlendorf advised those who participate this year to be extra wary of piping plover nests on the beaches, and to not let dogs run loose as they could disturb the nests.
“It’ll be very interesting this year to see [what gets picked up] after all these winter storms,” she said.
“There are always lots of ropes and fishing gear [collected],” Ms. Benjamin said, adding that last year beach cleaners found everything from microwaves to sneakers to balloons.
Mr. Woodruff recalled a year when he returned home from the cleanup “almost unrecognizable” because he was draped in so much rope. The rope, he said, doesn’t need to be taken to the dump with other trash, nor do the small polyproplene bags used by fisherman for bait. The latter make great suet holders for bird feeders, Mr. Woodruff said.
“All it is is resources, right?” he said.
One year, according to Gazette archives, a Harvard student’s wallet (since returned) and the “tagged skull of an unidentified duck” were found during the cleanup. In 1997, as reported in the VCS newsletter, executive director Brendan O’Neill found a test tube, part of a Newton high school student’s science project measuring ocean currents. The student started the project in 1973. Ms. Uhlendorf’s son, Karl, had returned one of the student’s original test tubes when the experiment was first begun.
Ultimately, Earth Day reminds us all how small the world really is.
The 21st annual Earth Day Beach Cleanup takes place Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon at 23 beaches around the Island. Volunteers will be on hand to provide bags and gloves. The after party will be held at the Harbor View Hotel beginning at noon. Fifty-gallon rain barrels can be ordered through Laurisa Rich and the Lagoon Pond Association. Please contact LPArainbarrel@yahoo.org. A limited number will be available at the A Gallery on Saturday.