Earth Day: In Praise of Wise Women

Still life with robin egg and Spanish moss. Josephine Ensign/2020

Happy 50th Earth Day. Happy what would have been my mother’s 97th birthday. Today, although stymied by the current coronavirus pandemic from going to hear Elizabeth Kolbert talk about her work on books such as The Sixth Extinction, I am grateful for all the wise women (and men, but especially the women) scientists and artists and writers and activists who have helped improve at least some aspects of environmental—planetary—health.

I was almost ten years old on the first Earth Day in 1970 and I remember quite vividly the day I saw my first bald eagle, soaring above a high mountain pass in West Virginia where my oldest sister lived. Bald eagles, of course, had been decimated by the use of DDT, the use of which was not banned in the US until 1972. Now, the bald eagle population has rebounded and they soar over my house here in Seattle almost every day. There is so much more work to be done, but for this, I am grateful.

One local wise woman who was an environmental and social activist and whose life and work I have been researching (and appreciating) is Hazel Wolf who died January 19, 2000 at 101 years of age. She worked on housing and health insurance earlier in her life (especially during the Great Depression) and then on environmental justice issues all the way up until the end of her life. She was a woman of action and an appreciator of life. She asked for a cookie right before she died. Here is something she said in an oral history interview with Susan Starbuck, author of Hazel Wolf: Fighting the Establishment:

“I look out my kitchen window. Every morning the pigeons, and sometimes crows, get on the wire across the street and just sit there. When I’ve been out camping, I’ve noticed that very early the birds will get someplace and sit, enjoying the morning. It’s quiet. They have to spend all the rest of the day finding food. So when they get up in the morning, they just relax and enjoy the sun. I don’t know what they’re thinking about. I, too, like to site, look at things. This is the side of animal life that Darwin overlooked. He didn’t understand that birds have souls.” (p. xv)

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