It’s difficult to say, since I don’t get outside much, but reports have come in that the earth is healing itself while we’ve been sequestered. Rivers usually polluted have begun to run clean. Smoke-smuggered skies have turned blue. Animals have begun to explore human-made environments abandoned while we all shelter in place. Could there be a more poignant statement about the reason for Earth Day? If our worst behaviors are ceased even for a little while, the damage we do to our home planet begins to come undone. To me that has been the most profound hope brought to light by this crisis. Living more simply might be a virtue after all.
Going without can be difficult. Every time the fleeting thought comes that I need to run to the store for this or that—and I’ve been taught that shopping is normal and natural and good for everyone—I have to stop and weigh the options. Do I really need whatever it is? Can I do without it? Even bank accounts, for those fortunate enough to be able to keep working, have started to recover. The frenzy we normally live under—earning money to keep buying things we don’t really need—is suddenly cast into perspective. Times like this Earth Day I think of Henry David Thoreau. Sometimes we like to laugh about our American saints, but his desire to live more simply does have appeal.
Like many students who find themselves in Boston, I once made pilgrimage to Walden Pond. The day I went there with some friends I believe we were the only car in the lot. We lived simply in the way that grad students do, being under the sword of educational debts and loans, but we had come to see the place where nature had called one harried philosopher to solitude. I knew, even as I stood by the marker of the cabin site that we couldn’t all live like this and still enjoy the benefits of medical science and technology (such as it was in the 1980s). Perhaps it is possible, however, to reflect on better ways of living now that we’ve all been placed in a kind of enforced solitude. I’ve begun reading more poetry. I’ve started painting again. Life has, in the midst of a pandemic, begun to feel more healthy. It’s Earth Day. Normally I’d be looking for an opportunity to join a community cleaning event, or even to go out and pick up trash on my own. Since these are ill-advised, I stand before my bookshelf and reach for Walden instead.