By Miranda Glasbergen, 350 Denver volunteer

In the current coronavirus vortex, the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 seems like several lifetimes ago. Some of us are too young to remember that day – or maybe weren’t even born yet. We think of the 1960s and ‘70s as the start of the environmental movement. But the first Earth Day was a culmination of more than a hundred years of ever-growing environmental awareness and thinking about our relationship with, and dependence on, the natural world.

Here are five foundational classics of the environmental movement that remind us how the first Earth Day came about. Need a reboot to the basics? Put these on your reading list to get into the spirit of the environmental leaders that led to that first Earth Day. Library closed? Support a struggling small business by ordering from your local independent bookstore. Or: Several of these are in the public domain, and available free online.

1854: Henry David Thoreau – Walden, or Life in the Woods

Not the lightest bedtime reading, but well worth the effort to discover how much Thoreau’s experiment in simple living overlaps with our current ideas about mindfulness, reducing consumerism, and living in harmony with nature. Thinking about self-sufficiency and growing your own food? You’ll be surprised what you have in mind with Thoreau. While the world around him was starting to speed up towards the 20th century, Thoreau wanted to slow down and experience a simpler, less resource-intensive mode of living. In many ways, he was light-years ahead of his time. Whether you’re a hiker, naturalist, gardener, carpenter, self-sufficiency enthusiast, or generally a philosopher, you will find something here.

1911: John Muir – My First Summer in the Sierra

Muir is famous for his lyrical descriptions of the landscapes and animals he encountered as a young man in California. In his descriptions, even streams and trees and blades of grass are imbued with the sheer joy and exuberance that he himself experienced while exploring the Yosemite area. But besides opening his readers’ eyes to the splendor of the High Sierra, he also made them aware of the damage being done by the “hoofed locusts”: the sheep he tended, that grazed all the wildflowers down to unrecoverable stubble. If you feel limited by social/physical distancing, read Muir for temporary escapism. To this day, whenever I hike, I often think about Muir with his wool suit and his knapsack holding nothing but some black tea and a bit of hard bread, happily enjoying the Sierra backcountry for weeks at a time. What different times those were.

1949: Aldo Leopold – A Sand County Almanac

Part I of this book is outstanding nature writing in the form of the almanac named in the title. Fabulous literary replacement for the real thing, while we hunker down. Exceptional as Part I may be, for me Part II is even more powerful. In the short essay “Thinking Like a Mountain”, you can literally see and feel the mid-twentieth-century mindset shift happening in Leopold himself – from ‘dominion’ and killing a wolf because one can, to respecting nature for itself, and for the delicate balance it maintains between all participants in its ecology. Reading this essay is like catching ourselves in the act of becoming a wiser humanity. Worthwhile lessons for all times.

1962: Rachel Carson – Silent Spring

Relentlessly researched, exhaustive in its detail, and unafraid of digging into the underlying chemistry, Carson describes how the proliferation of pesticides like DDT had started killing off bird, fishes, amphibians, plants, mammals and of course insects, leaving traces everywhere and endangering human health in the process. Silent Spring was shocking, and spurred a generation of environmentalists into action. Her book changed our world. Read it, so you may take courage to change ours.

1968: Edward Abbey – Desert Solitaire

When Abbey was a seasonal park ranger at Arches National Monument in the 1950s, hardly anyone had even heard of the place. Nowadays, visitors brave long lines at the entrance station many days of the year. Desert Solitaire offers a glimpse of Southern Utah before the large crowds discovered it. Abbey writes beautifully of his solitary treks through the red-rock country in and around the park, as well as the La Sal Mountains just outside it. He relishes the “sun, sky, stars, clouds, mountains, moon, cliffrock and canyons”. But he also rails against tourists, the National Park Service, billboards, hospitals, and… Progress.

On a personal note, I read these books when I was still a fresh-faced immigrant to the United States, trying to thoroughly absorb and incorporate my adopted fatherland through travel and books. These book and authors have changed me, and brought me to where I am today, a 350 Denver volunteer. This is my 25th year in the U.S., and a good time to look back where I came from.

These look like apocalyptic times, and not just because of a coronavirus. It’s a good time to look back to where all of us came from. Connect with us if you want to band together for people and the planet. So do we.

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