Celebrating Earth: It’s the natural thing to do

March 2006

By Sylvia L. Lovely

I have years of formal education way beyond his, but my 85-year-old dad always manages to get the best of me.

Being the Depression era bargain hunter that he is, we were looking through grocery ads during my weekly visit with him. Looking at the price of chicken at his favorite “big box” store, I told him that I shopped for chicken at the local health food store where the chickens were raised “naturally.”

He studied my face for a moment before asking: “Are those chickens that are more expensive supposed to be better for you?”

“Of course,” I replied with confidence. Big mistake. I had not immediately picked up on that look, the one he gets when he’s ready to zing me.

“I’ve seen those ‘natural’ chickens and what they eat,” he said. “It’s not very impressive.”

Another “Gotcha!” from the champ.

The upbringing my parents endured was not a pretty one. They were poor. As his comments suggest, however, my father does not wax on about the “good old days” as some unfortunately do. He is perfectly happy that he found opportunity in the factories of the north just like so many of his eastern Kentucky cohorts did.

That said, however, he has remained a man of the land and of simple tastes and lifestyle. He knows trees and plants and sounds and the needs of animals. He has learned to live meagerly. He has an instinctual respect for the good earth. (His homegrown tomatoes are not so much vegetables as they are works of art.)

All of which brings me to Earth Day and the meaning of what we celebrate by observing it.

I’ve lived long enough to know that life is not simple and straightforward. Each day brings decisions on how to live within the context of nature and the earth, and yet it seems unnaturally easy in this day and age to break all the rules.

I can, after all, buy my “natural” chicken at the health food store and never have to observe where or what they ate.

Yet, my awareness of our lack of stewardship grows when I read of the rising threats and resulting illnesses, both physical and otherwise, that come when we are out of sync with our environment.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the reportedly squalid circumstances under which animals are raised in industrialized farming operations.

A fundamental tenet of environmental stewardship is to recognize our linkage in the chain of life. It is also important that stewardship involve the proper use of the environment. Nothing that we do is done in a vacuum. It matters deeply just how well we use the materials that we need to survive and thrive, and that nature provides us.

I optimistically observe that the sentiment for stewardship is growing. While it is our helpmate in many ways, technology is increasingly viewed as a foe as much as a friend if we rely exclusive on it to connect with each other and with the natural world.

A blackberry, in other words, sometimes should be appreciated as the key ingredient in a cobbler to be shared with friends and family, not as something for sending e-mail.

I recently read two books of particular merit by some fellow Kentuckians. The Way of Ignorance by Wendell Berry speaks of the important role of the farmer, who must first and foremost know, understand and respect her land. The other, Extreme Teaching by Keen Babbage, speaks of education and the importance of being a teacher not of subject matter confined to the classroom, but ultimately of how it connects to life.

It strikes me that at the end of the day, we are at our best farmers and teachers—whether we are city or country dwellers, children or adults, and no matter our professions.

We steward our “farms” – be they our neighborhoods or community – and while this stewardship begins with our local place, we also begin to see how our actions can have an effect on the larger world out there.

We also teach by passing onto others around us the respect we have for the sanctity of our environment, whether it is the planting of a tree, the call for more green space in a city, or the tending of a garden. And we can teach our children the importance of stewardship so these values can be passed on from generation to generation.

When my father and I spoke of chickens, it reminded me of something regarding my mother. In her last days, I recall being struck by the fact that she had never taught me how to fry chicken, a talent that she had but one I never had or, now, never will. Preoccupied by her illness, I had simply forgotten to ask her what her secret was.

In a tiny way, not knowing how to fry chicken like her is as much a lost art as my grandmother’s quilt making is.

Then, however, I remember that quilt making is enjoying a small but vibrant comeback. And can there be any doubt that somewhere someone is frying good chicken?

Best of all, my quarter-of-a-century old son has jut asked my more than three-quarter-of-a century old father to teach him how to grow a garden.

I think I will be hopeful. It is the nature of things to be so, and I wish to pay homage to the natural order of al things.

Sylvia Lovely, President of the NewCities Institute and executive director of the Kentucky League of Cities, is the author of New Cities in America: The Little Blue Book of Big Ideas. She is a noted authority on community solutions and has been featured on CNN, CNBC, ABC Radio, and in the Miami Herald, Indianapolis Star and Cincinnati Enquirer. Lovely has been named one of Kentucky's Top Women of Influence and Appalachian Woman of the Year.

Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues
School of Journalism and Telecommunications, College of Communications & Information Studies
122 Grehan Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042
Phone 859-257-3744 - Fax 859-323-3168

Al Cross, director al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated: 10/19/2007