MADISON (WKOW) -- It's a day where we plant a tree, maybe even hug one.
We can thank Gaylord Nelson for Earth Day, slated again this year on Wednesday. Wisconsin called him 'Governor' and 'Senator.' Tia Nelson calls him 'Papa.'
"He used to follow me around the house, and turn off light switches and lecture me on why that was important, long before people were worrying about energy independence and climate change," she said during an interview earlier this month at her Madison area home.
Gaylord Nelson did worry about environmental issues decades ago. In the early 1960's, he worried about air and water pollution, endangered species, and any isssue that pertained to sustainability.
Early that decade he convinced President John F. Kennedy to take tours across the country to highlight conservation. "He made a compelling case to the press that it was an important issue, and that it required leadership and that the President could provide that leadership," recounted Tia Nelson.
The idea, however, flopped. Then came 1969. There was an oil spill off the coast of California. Around the same time, teach-in's protesting the Vietnam War were taking place at colleges across the country. Nelson combined the ideas. "He though, that's a good idea, I'll try that."
On April 22, 1970, the country recognised the first Earth Day. It was a largely academic exercise, and largely succesful.
"Over 20 million people participated on that first Earth Day, the largest public demonstration in American history at the time."
Tia Nelson remembers those days fondly. Earth Day's founding triggered what she calls an environmental decade. A number of congressional bills, like the country's first Clean Air Act, was passed then.
This all leads to how we act today, on those days when it's not April 22. One has to wonder, would we be screwing in CFL's into light fixtures nowadays, or opting for these re-usable bags, or considering buying a hybrid car, if Gaylord Nelson hadn't started Earth Day?
It's a question perhaps best left to historians.
"Earth Day changed the course of American history in many significant ways, and in ways that Papa could have never anticipated," said Tia Nelson. "It certainly was successful wildly beyond his dreams."
Now in 2009, Tia Nelson believes we are still focusing on the same issues as her father. She said the current climate change discussion touches upon much of her fathers' concerns, from energy independence to clean water.
One issue, however, she said both people and politicians have collectively ignored was overpopulation. "It was brave of him, I think, to talk about that issue."
While Gaylord Nelson concerned about the available resources on a planet that saw its population double every generation or two, Tia Nelson said the issue was "perceived to be so controversial by the general public and by politicians that we've really failed to have a national dialogue about what that really means."
Gaylord Nelson passed away in 2005 at the age of 89. As we head into the 40th Earth Day celebration on Wednesday, his daughter is still proud of her Papa, who taught her, and us, valuable lessons.
"The real wealth of a nation is the quality of its soils, and its air, and its water," said Tia Nelson, quoting her father.
After all, Gaylord Nelson is the reason so many people will be in the parks picking up litter, or flat out hugging trees on Wednesday.
As for why Earth Day is held on April 22 every year, Tia Nelson said her father selected a day that fell roughly between schools' spring break vacations and final exams. The date has stuck ever since.
Email Carl Agnelly at email@example.com
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