A simple trail runs along the Yahara River (which really looks more like a creek most of the time), and at that bend in the river, you're far enough into the woods that the sound of rippling water and the honking of geese blocks out the sound of civilization nearby. Despite its proximity to a large subdivision, this spot seems fairly untouched, except for one thing. Discarded bottles, cans, building materials, and more flow downstream and become lodged in the branches and tree trunks that have also accumulated in the river bend. By the time spring rolls around, it becomes a brightly-colored mess---a reminder of how a few careless people can leave an unsightly footprint on nature.
Each year in honor of Earth Day, my daughter and I head out to remove the debris from the river bend. She holds large trash bags open, while I wade through the shallow currents and collect the trash from the water. Among the dozens of empty pop and water bottles we've found in past years, was a Pepsi can bearing what looked like the old 1980's-era Pepsi logo. A can that had been tossed into the river in a matter of seconds was still in the river many years later. When all is said and done, in just one hour we can collect as many as three 33 gallon trash bags full of garbage from a very small area of the Yahara. We recycle much of what we find. What's encouraging is we've noticed the amount of trash has been steadily decreasing over the years. Not only has our Earth Day "ritual" become a bonding experience for my daughter and me, it has been a reminder to both of us how even our simplest actions "upstream" impact nature "downstream". I'd like to think our little project to clean up our little bend in the river, is exactly the kind of thing Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson had in mind when he founded Earth Day back in 1970. The idea of Earth Day, as I see it, is to not only clean up the mess we've made, but to understand how our actions made that mess in the first place. It's a lot easier to keep a river clean when someone understands WHY a clean river is a good thing.
Perhaps long after I'm gone, my daughter's children and their children will have an Earth Day project of their own. I sure hope so. Because today, even if only for a short while, the little bend in the river looks more like it did before man and the Pepsi can came along.
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