The Cracker Barrel: This is home

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Fifty years ago this week the U.S. celebrated the first Earth Day.

Earth Day was the brainchild of former Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson and generated lots of excitement, especially among the young. For the first time in history, millions of human beings joined hands to publicly acknowledge two growingly obvious facts: 1) they were all children of Mother Earth, and 2) they’d been mistreating their own mother.

At the time of that first celebration, I was a teacher at Pequot Lakes School. Together with several colleagues and the generous cooperation of Superintendent Vern Dowty and the school board, we planned an ambitious day’s work. We ordered several hundred pine and spruce seedlings from the DNR, established planting areas around the perimeter of the school grounds, surveyed the community for places in need of cleanup, contacted the television station in Alexandria and decided on the rather audacious plan of picketing the town dump (located just north of town and draining into Sibley Lake) in hopes of forcing its closure.

The engine to drive all this effort, of course, was the student body. From kindergartners through high school seniors, the students responded with incredible enthusiasm (fanned, at least in part, by the prospect of having a day off from regular studies). Looking back through the years, I’m still amazed at how easily and well they organized into work crews, and how vigorously they threw themselves into planting, raking, picking up trash and making signs for the dump protest.

Young and old worked together, along with adult volunteers from the community. A husky upperclassman would ram the planting spud into the earth, rock it back and forth to make an opening, and a little second-grader would ease a seedling into the hole, careful to get all the root hairs buried.


Kids raked their way through the entire city park along the shores of Sibley Lake, laughing and yelling in spite of their growing blisters. As others spread through town picking up junk, it grew clear to residents that there was no place to hide, and that one person’s backyard storage might be another person’s eyesore.

“The care of the planet is up to us all. So far, we’ve been doing a haphazard job. But we can do better.”

That, in essence, was the message of the first Earth Day. Some of the oldsters seemed puzzled by all the hoopla, and a little amused. But the kids took to it as naturally as breathing. They seemed to understand it intuitively. One of them, a grade-school girl whose name I don’t remember, came up to me and said, “I get it. I belong here. This is home.”

Later that afternoon, I saw her brandishing a homemade picket sign and joining her classmates as they walked back and forth in front of the old dump, demanding that it be closed. Once the TV news crew from Alexandria showed up, the kids got serious about strutting their stuff - and thanks to the resultant pressure on the city council, the dump was in fact put out of commission and covered up, though much of the existing trash was not actually removed from the site until many years afterward.

Now, half a century later, there are some among us who still argue that common citizens are powerless to change much more than light bulbs and TV channels. But those who were part of the first or subsequent Earth Days know better. All it takes to change most anything is the simple will to do it. That, and the realization that this is home.

We belong here. Earth is our home. If we won’t take care of the place, who will?

Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at


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Craig Nagel, Columnist

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