Happy Earth Day 

The gathering brings together environmental and New Age activists of every stripe.

From a blanket outside the gates of the Raoul Wallenberg Shell in Overton Park, Christina Campbell watches the spectacle that was Memphis' Earth Day celebration last weekend.

Environmental and social activists, midwives, neo-hippies, Buddhists, pagans, artists, and craftsmen gathered among families, food, Frisbees, and music in a two-day celebration of the planet and grassroots efforts to prevent its destruction by neglect and greed.

Campbell attends every year to spend time with her family, enjoy the weather, and listen to some of Memphis' best bands. Looking out over a park full of people, she wonders why this type of gathering doesn't happen every weekend.

"This could be the best thing that has happened to Memphis," Campbell says, "if we all came and hung out with our dogs and kids and had a good time."

The reason every weekend can't be Earth Day is simple, organizers say. Just as with the environmental movement, where everyone enjoys the benefits of clean air and water, only a small group of people are willing to put in the time and effort to make it happen.

Conceived in the 1970s, Earth Day celebrations were staged across the country as Americans began to realize the harmful effects of industrial pollution. Federal clean-air and water laws resulted -- this country's best example of how hard-working, organized citizens can demand legislation, according to festival organizer Scott Banbury.

"People don't realize how bad it was," Banbury says. "You could wake up and find a layer of soot on your car from coal-burning power plants. Fish couldn't survive in the rivers. We've come a long way, but loopholes and grandfathering clauses keep us out of full [regulatory] compliance."

Under a tree at the back of the shell grounds, Melissa Stallings gives out information about her career as a "birthing" assistant and on the presence of dangerous chemicals in everything from cleaning products to fruits. She's one of many people who set up a booth to inform the public about their chosen battle in the war to save the planet.

Advocating natural births isn't going to make much money for Stallings or hospitals, but she believes the traditional practice of midwifery is healthier than the technology used in the majority of American births.

"If you can change the world one baby at a time and make it more healthy and connected to its mother, it will in turn be more connected to its planet and community and be more likely to give something back," Stallings says.

Between the music, ranging from Native-American chanting to pseudo-German robotic techno, was a demonstration of a Chinese exercise system called falun dafa. Similar to the gentle, flowing movements of tai chi, falun dafa is a self-improvement program that in seven years has, according to practitioner Annie Wu, attracted 100 million Chinese followers.

"When I was younger I was weak, got sick easily, and always had constipation, stomach ache," says Wu. "But when I started the practice, it was gone like a miracle."

Wu says that the new-found health benefits have saved the Chinese government on medical expenses but that 400 people have been tortured to death and many others oppressed by the Chinese government. She blames the crackdown on the government's fear that healthy people won't be as easily controlled by the state.

Among the others present at Earth Day were a reproductive clinic, the Midtown Food Cooperative, and craftspeople selling handmade furniture, soaps, salves, and candles. The most ironic coupling was the pagan sword salesman set up next to the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center.

Even the shell itself is run according to grassroots principles these days. John Larkin has put on shows at the shell since 1985, largely from donations from events such as Earth Day. The 66-year-old shell won't reach its potential, he says, until the city gives its nonprofit group a management contract so they can get capital-improvement loans for the historic structure. Other nonprofits have contracts with the city, Larkin says. He contends the shell could be one of Memphis' greatest attractions if the city would give his group the authority to get loans and make improvements.

"We put out sound 40 times a year for 40,000 people on a budget of less than $15,000," Larkin says. "What did Mud Island [amphitheater] do last year and how much money did the city spend on that?"

While organizer Banbury is proud of the work done to fight toxic pollution in Memphis neighborhoods, he says the environmental movement hasn't caught on here like it has around the country. He suspects Memphians aren't involved because they think their drinking water is safe and don't realize the value of resources like the Wolf River and nearby forests.

Audubon Society and Sierra Club memberships are growing, he says, but there are only two paid environmentalists and a handful of committed volunteers working in the city.

A candidate for county commission, Banbury is a custom woodworker and active environmentalist. He says he'd like to see Earth Day happen every weekend, but there would have to be many more volunteers to help carry the work load.

I volunteered to help with Earth Day again this year and was assigned garbage duty. A nearby trashcan filled quickly, and I had trouble extracting the bag.

Several people flung garbage in my direction and kept walking, while another told me not to worry about it. As I struggled, a fellow from a local Vietnamese Buddhist temple came over to help. Though we didn't speak the same language, we shared a common goal and took out the trash together.


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