Earth Day, Communes, & the Fear of Failure

NOB HILL--Whatever the calendar says, Earth Day in Nob Hill means one thing:  the big street fair on Silver Ave. just behind La Montanita Co-op.  This year the "real" Earth Day was a week late.  The party occurred the week before.  And if you missed it, be assured all the regulars were there, Fig Man, bedding plant growers, various dancers and bands, bicycle groups, advocates for humanitarian causes, batik tee-shirt vendors. etc.

But the buzz was all about bees.  Hey, I always thought there were two kinds of bees:  honey bees and bumble bees.  It turns out my thinking was a little bit off the mark.  There are actually about 20,000 different species of bees.  And from listening to the people at the bee table, I got the impression that there are maybe 100 varieties of bees right here in ABQ, some of them no bigger than flies.

Now I have been worried about the health of bees for several years, even counting the bees hanging out on my fruit trees.  I'm pretty sure I had not recognized some of the smaller varieties as bees at all.  This is to say nothing about the other pollinators such as moths.  I guess I feel a little bit better knowing all our bees aren't coming out of one hive.

They were giving away bee hatching stumps.  These slices of logs have lots of different size holes in them where different size bees can lay their eggs.  I was told to lay the log on its side with the holes facing east.  It should get some afternoon shade and be about half a foot off the ground.  Well I can do that, I thought.  I'm not sure I understand the whole stump story, but I can follow directions.

Job Killers
I think a lot of people are sort of leery of being part of anything called "Earth Day."  For one thing, any project involving saving the earth seems just a little too big for the average person.  For another, you might get called tree-hugger or hippie.  And people throw out phrases with derision such as "save-the-minnow" just to make you feel stupid.  Gas, oil, and coal companies want to make you feel like a "job killer" and are spending lots of money on TV ads to make sure you know you will be laughed at, or worse.

Even the Governor of the State of New Mexico thinks you are misinformed or she tried to undo pollution restrictions for power plants and pit rules for the oil & gas industry.  Meanwhile, fool that I am, I put my bee hatching stump in the back yard.  I guess I'm convinced that many people doing small things can make a big difference.

Earth Day started in 1970, largely as a result of Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin.  But you really can't talk about that period without mentioning the Vietnam War.  It is a large part of everything in the late 60's and early 70's.  And it speaks to whether the goals of Earth Day are ultimately just a little too big for any kind of rational commitment.  I say just look at the generation who were under 30 years of age during the Vietnam War.  They had a goal:  to stop a large land war in Asia involving half a million troops and tens of thousands of deaths.

Before our involvement over there America didn't even know where Vietnam was.  Most people still remembered it as part of French Indo-China.  During WWII it was occupied by the Japanese.  The French had tried to reclaim that part of their empire after the war and the Vietnamese people resisted the reoccupation.  I was in grade school when the French forces at Dien Bien Phu fell, ending the French attempt to take back southeast Asia.  But by the time of American involvement, a decade had passed.  As a nation we knew nothing about Vietnam.

Earth Day
"Teach-ins" had to be instituted on college campuses across America.  They were usually lectures and Q&A done by university professors in auditoriums.  They lasted well into the night.  Nobody knew anything.  Everything had to be explained:  French colonialism, nationalism, the nature of a jungle war, guerrilla warfare, revolution, the "domino theory," the draft, the Buddhist monk immolations, the corruption, the lies, wars of attrition, the willingness of the enemy to die.  Nobody knew...and most did not want to know.

But teach-ins also gave birth to another idea:  Earth Day!  Here's Senator Gaylord Nelson's talking about the summer of 1969:  "I still hoped for some idea that would thrust the environment into the political mainstream. Six years would pass before the idea that became Earth Day occurred to me while on a conservation speaking tour out West in the summer of 1969. At the time, anti-Vietnam War 
demonstrations, called "teach-ins," had spread to college campuses all across the nation. Suddenly, the idea occurred to me - why not organize a huge grassroots protest over what was happening to our environment?"

Environmental Crisis
And on November 30th of that year the New York Times ran the following:  "Rising concern about the environmental crisis is sweeping the nation's campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam...a national day of observance of environmental being planned for next spring...when a nationwide environmental 'teach-in'...coordinated from the office of Senator Gaylord Nelson is planned...."

The war in Vietnam got passed from Kennedy to Johnson to Nixon.  And trying to stop it sounded like a Quixotic task.  You can imagine (or remember) what people thought.  "It's hopeless.  It's too big.  It can't be done.  You will be an outcast if you speak out."  Families were torn apart.  Kids left home.

President Richard Nixon called a whole generation of college kids, "Punks."  The word "peacenik" was also used quite regularly.  It followed a path from the Soviet sputnik to beatnik to peacenik...highlighting the "spaced-out" similarities of all three.  In college back in Illinois I myself was once assaulted with a tire iron and on another occasion kicked down three flights of stairs.  This was not particularly unusual.  The police were sometimes even worse.  Even my apartment building in Chicago was "raided" several times by the police looking for anything they could find.  And then there was the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.  I know some of what happened.  I was there.

It is no wonder so many urban young people pulled up stakes and left for the countryside.  Sometimes they found a way to live together away from it all.  They formed communes.  It must be remembered that this didn't happen very often.  For one thing, somebody had to have a boatload of money to use for a land purchase.  I never found anybody like that, but I know they existed.  Once started, communes usually emphasized self-sufficiency through farming.  They built their own buildings.  They worked hard, made music, fell in love, raised children.  Eventually, over the course of several years, most people drifted away and started new projects or jobs or families.

I heard a guy on TV last week calling the idea of communes "naive" and that they were failures because they had a limited life span.  That would be like calling going to college a failure because you left before you turned 50.  You live, you learn, you grow, and you move on.

Block by Block
The idea of starting a new society from scratch with basic beliefs involving love, kindness, sharing, respect of the earth, sustainability, creative expression, brotherhood, and sisterhood seems just too enormous a task to be undertaken.  Yet it was done over and over again.

One of the results of this self-reliant mood among young people was the spurt of owner-built homes, especially in New Mexico.  The Rio Grande valley is full of these houses, mostly built in the 70's and mostly built of adobe.  Talk about taking on a big project!  Where do you even start?  But we did.  My wife and I built one.  My brother-in-law and his wife built one.  Our friend Sal and his wife built one.  Our next door neighbor built one.  They are all over the valley.

Fear of Failure
Deep inside we fear this job of saving the earth is too big and we are so small.  The enemies are too powerful.  We are just a few peaceful people in a land seemingly full of armed idiots.  But sometimes small individual actions can make a difference:  like with the Vietnam in starting a new way of living together.  But let me give you a bigger and better example.

In late May of 1940 Germany was about to wipe out the entire British expeditionary force in France.  The only hope the British had was to evacuate their army of 340,000 troops by sea.  But their destroyers were too big to get close to the beaches and at the end of the first day just 7000 soldiers had been ferried or waded out to where the ships were and boarded up the gangplanks.  The "Little Ships of Dunkirk" came to their rescue.  Even while being attacked by German airplanes, a flotilla of around 700 merchant marine boats, fishing boats, pleasure craft, and lifeboats (the smallest of which was 15 feet!) crossed the English Channel with their civilian crews and helped evacuate the 340,000 British troops.  Little people...peaceful people in small boats went up against the German war machine and came away with the lives of over 300,000 men.

The Bees in my Backyard
So far I have no tenants in my log condo.  I'm not sure if I'm even supposed to.  I have to imagine that laying bee eggs in that stump would be something of an "any port in a storm" situation.  Still, what harm does it do to put it out there--facing east, with shade in the afternoon, six inches off the ground.  I've done things that were a lot more of a long shot than this.  Sometimes it works out.

Views: 135

Comment by JeSais on April 26, 2011 at 10:36am

I love your posts! and I especially love this one--  a bit of history with personal narrative from then and now woven in...  and a subtle call to action.

RE the Vietnam War era:  I was super young during the Vietnam War era, and mine was a military family. I remember welcoming home soldiers in Hawaii, standing on the tarmac cheering and waving American flags. I also remember my 2nd cousin was rumored to be paid by the communists because he was a frequent protester of the war...and now into his 60s is still a peace activist. 

Comment by Johnny_Mango on April 26, 2011 at 10:56am
Thank you JeSais.  And I am so glad for everyone who comes home.
Comment by jes on April 26, 2011 at 11:54am
An especially moving and evocative post ... what memories. I didn't see you at the Chicago-68 demonstrations, but there were a lot of people there :) I was busy trying to get arrested (a real status symbol in that time and place) and a policeman patted me on the head and told me to go home, little girl... Then of course there were all those who never made it home. As I said, very evocative. May the bees come.
Comment by chantal on April 26, 2011 at 6:56pm
Johnny, if you need bees just let me know and I'll bring about 40,000 over ;-)
Comment by Julie Heinrich on April 27, 2011 at 6:56am
As always, your pieces are so enjoyable, Johnny.
Comment by Martha Whitman on April 27, 2011 at 8:44am

Thanks for reminding us and illustrating how people do influence change. The Co-op is an great example of the commitment started in the 70's holding strong today. (Disclaimer, I'm on the Co-op board.) We're well aware how challenging it is to swim against the tide for our mission, we get a lot of comments about our high prices. In order to pay a fair wage, pay fairly for our local food (20% of sales are local product), provide volunteer discounts in community projects as well as produce a modest profit our food can't be cheap. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of good deals to be had at the Co-op, but what you see at the Co-op is the real price of food. While many of us intellectually understand that it can still be a challenge at the cash register, it gets very personal very quickly. I am very heartened by those of us who can support and I hope everyone can see it's made a difference. Just about every good idea co-ops come up with (organic, natural, local) has been co-opted by the big companies. That's not all bad as more people do have access to better food and more people are aware of our environmental issues. We have made a difference!

Comment by Robert A. Martin on April 27, 2011 at 10:41am



Well done, as usual, and very informative.


Bob Martin

Comment by Victor Gomez on April 27, 2011 at 8:54pm
I used an electric drill in a 2x4 mounted on some old bees could lay their eggs in the holes.....guess that is what you are talking about....those bees are not as good as honey bees for pollinating but are better than my area a couple years ago I had hundreds of blossoms and no bees and made no fruit......sad but true.
Comment by Victor Gomez on April 27, 2011 at 9:05pm
Forgot to talk about communes, I lived in Northern New Mexico in the 60's early 70's---don't think it is practical for mixing the extremes of personality, however a co-op doesn't require the close up living and holds many more advantages----we need more of those kinds of "Tools" to bring us together for positive causes. We also need to build on our own individual citizenship and family to form the healthy basic of society. Sometimes small rural communities are easier places to build on and it is the city dwellers that will have to struggle the most, but also may have the greatest rewards as well.  From the rurals, vic


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