When I was a lad, I loved few things more than roving abroad through forest and field. I liked to read, but I was no bookwork, and I could not imagine the crime for which I had been sentenced to sit, day after dolorous day, through the enforced ennui of the classroom. Although decently shod, I was in all other respects Whittier’s “barefoot boy.”
For, eschewing books and tasks,
Nature answers all he asks;
Hand in hand with her he walks,
Face to face with her he talks,
Part and parcel of her joy,—
Blessings on the barefoot boy!
Blessings, indeed; for I, like Whittier (and no doubt some of you), am now that barefoot boy mostly in memory.
I was once a barefoot boy!
Prince thou art,—the grown-up man
Only is republican . . . .
Made to tread the mills of toil,
Up and down in ceaseless moil . . .
Well, not quite ceaseless. I still from time to time creep out from my mill of toil, claim my princely crown, and take a walk with Nature. Not quite hand in hand, I grant, but still with the easy gratitude of an old friend.
* * * * *
In the spring of 1970, I was a lad of twelve and we were living on Fourth Section Road, just west of the village of Brockport, in western New York State. The Fourth Section Road runs along the Niagara Escarpment in the direction of the great cataract, sixty miles distant, and had only recently been built up on either side with houses, one of which my parents rented.
These modest ranches and duplexes had sprouted up beside the road because Brockport was growing, and Brockport was growing because it was 1970. What I mean is that the new houses along Fourth Section Road said something about those times and that place, although this barefoot boy was very, very far from being able to hear or understand what this was.
One things they said was that the state college in the village was being grown into a university by an ambitious President (Albert Brown) and his even more ambitious boss, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller. This was the sunny side of 1970, and of Nelson Rockefeller’s New York State. In 1970, we hadn’t yet heard of a Rust Belt; the steel mills of Buffalo were still spewing smoke and writing paychecks; and promising young men like my father were actually moving to upstate New York to take good jobs in the spanking new buildings of what had been, only ten years before, a sleepy teacher’s college.
Brockport State was growing, and those new students required professors to teach them, publicans to pour them drinks, and policemen to lock them up when the pubs shut down. Some of those little white houses along Fourth Section Road were built to house these professors, publicans, and policemen.
Most of the families on Fourth Section Road had not, however, moved to Brockport to manage the swelling mob of increasingly boisterous students. They had moved to Brockport to escape Rochester, or “the city” as it was generally known, which lay twenty miles to the east.
Almost all of the boys who roved with me through forest and field were the sons of factory hands, mostly employed by Kodak, which they called the Big Yellow Tit.”* And Kodak was indeed a tit in those days. Those sons of factory hands had mini-bikes, and snowmobiles, and above-ground swimming pools, and basement rec-rooms, that could rouse a green-eyed monster in this son of a junior professor.
The working class was living large in 1970, out on Fourth Section Road.
But it was not only the largesse of the Big Yellow Tit that brought these factory hands to Fourth Section Road. They were, as I said, escaping Rochester, and one had only to ask in order to learn the reason they had felt a need to escape.
They would tell you it was the riots.
The Rochester Race Riot occurred over three days in 1964, and ended only after Nelson Rockefeller ordered the New York National Guard to restore order in the city. This was the first deployment of military force in a northern city since the Civil War draft riots of a century before. According to my best friend, whose neighborhood (and house) was destroyed in the riot, and whose family escaped to a rural trailer park, the meaning of the riots was simple. The black workers of Rochester (whose numbers had tripled since 1955) had attacked the white workers, and the black workers had won.
As he saw it, it wasn’t so much a riot as a rout.
(We must, of course, be thankful for the sloppy sloganeering of sociologists, who could not resist the assonance of “white flight.” They thereby preserved in amber the knowledge that whites fled.)
This was, we might say, the sinister side of 1970, and of Nelson Rockefeller’s New York State. And this was another thing said by those little houses on either side of the Fourth Section Road. Not that this barefoot boy was able or inclined to listen.
* * * * *
I suppose it was a teacher who first mentioned Earth Day, thus stirring the leaden ennui of our classroom one bleak afternoon in the winter of 1970. And to my sullen and stupefied mind it sounded like just the sort of thing a restless barefoot boy could get behind, like a holiday made for boys who loved to rove abroad through forest and field.
That is why, with the watery January light seeping through the windows of the Brockport Middle School, I decided I would “do something” for Earth Day.
Before I tell you what I did, I must return to Fourth Section Road. As I said, this runs along the Niagara Escarpment, in those parts a gentle north-facing versant. Our house was on the north side of the road and our back yard ran down to the foot of the slope. There lay a small marsh or slough, hedged round by a thicket of brush and towered over by a mighty willow tree.
Needless to say, this slough, thicket and willow were an important part of my playground.
All the world I saw or knew
Seemed a complex Chinese toy,
Fashioned for a barefoot boy.
But, as it happened, not everyone living along Fourth Section Road saw them in just this light. My Chinese toy was, for some, a convenient dump.
And this is why I resolved to mark Earth Day, 1970, by picking the trash out of the slough, hauling it to the side of the road, and erecting a small, hand-painted sign that enjoined whoever might read it to show more consideration in future. And this is precisely what I did (although as the first Earth Day fell on a weekday, and therefore found me crushed by the ennui of the classroom, my marking of it must have been a few days off).
* * * * *
Not long after doing what I could to spruce up the slough, I found two goodly sacks of stinking garbage leaned against the post of my hand-painted sign. I didn’t (and don’t) believe this was a defiant gesture on the part of some libertarian litterbug determined to defend his right to disfigure the landscape, for the sign was not vandalized. I do (and did) believe that whoever had disburdened himself of this garbage had actually mistaken my sign for the beginnings of a new trash pile
And it turned out he was right.
* * * * *
I knew there was something emblematic in those two sacks of garbage leaning against that miserable sign, two sacks of garbage calling out for a third, and then a fourth. I could not have begun to articulate the meaning of that emblem, but that it was meaningful I knew in my bones.
I now see that it was emblematic of Earth Day, 1970, for that had a decent if rather naïve core, but had already begun to attract a mountain of antithetic trash. As with any stunt, it appealed to genuine, and in this case honorable, human interests. It wasn’t just hippies who objected to living in a stinking dump, or who wished to walk along a beach without hearing the crunch of dead fish beneath their feet. And this particular stunt did some good. One really had to squint while singing America the Beautiful in 1970.
But it was still a stunt.
To call it a stunt is to say that it was done to attract people’s attention, and then to use that attention for some other purpose. That is the nature of a stunt. For instance, if I were to strip naked in public, I would attract a crowd. If I did this so I could then harangue that crowd with a political speech, my stripping naked would be a stunt. The word may well be related to the German stunde, or hour, the connection being that I buy your stunde (more likely your sekunde) with my stunt of stripping naked.
This is why a juggler at a fair gathers a crowd with the stunt of tossing balls and cracking jokes. Then, before they disperse, he tries to sell them a patent medicine or improved potato peeler. Everyone understands that the programs on network television are nothing but elaborate stunts that attract public attention for the commercials. They are just juggling for an electronic age.
And this is precisely what we will see this coming Sunday in the hijinks in Washington, D.C. There will be talk of the earth, and of science, and the of environment, but this will be nothing but fancy juggling to grab public attention for another purpose.
And that is too bad, because the earth, science and the environment are all worthy of talk. Perhaps as worthy as that slough was worthy of greater consideration. But it seems to be in the way of things that worthy things are taken, like my sign beside the slough, as invitations to heap around them enormous mountains of trash.
I’m glad I could not read that emblem back in 1970, for as Whittier tells us:
Ah! that thou couldst know thy joy,
Ere it passes, barefoot boy!
*) For those too young to remember, Kodak film came packaged in a yellow box, so the color yellow became what rhetoricians call a synecdoche for the company. Most sons of Kodak workers aspired to lay hold of the Big Yellow Tit when they graduated high school; and not a few succeeded, since the Kodak was famously skillful in using nepotism to ensure loyalty. Of course this all went smash in 1997.