Happy Earth Day . . . to Cleveland

And so this is Earth Day — and what have you done?

The push to establish Earth Day as a national day of paying attention to the environment was spearheaded in the late ’60s by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson. As activists tried to gather support in June of 1969, something happened in Cleveland, Ohio that was so ecologically repulsive that it provided timely visual evidence of the need for the effort.

The polluted Cuyhoga River caught fire, as it had several times over the years.

In his 2002 book, “Beyond Earth Day”, Senator Nelson wrote about the significance of that event.

“In June of 1969, the Cuyahoga River — slick with oil and grease and littered with debris — caught fire and shot flames high into the air in Cleveland,” he wrote. “That image, widely circulated in the popular press, burned its way into the nation’s collective memory as the poster child for environmental atrocities of the time.”

Former Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson in 2001 (Wilderness.net)

Here is an article with videos about the fire and what’s happened to the river in the past forty years.

Randy Newman wrote a catchy song called “Burn On”, about the blazing river and about “Cleveland, city of lights, city of magic”. I doubt if the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce features it on their website, but it’s a wonderful little song. Newman released the song on his 1972 album called “Sail Away” — one of my top 10 albums of all time. There’s only one YouTube perfomance of that song, and it was recorded 22 years later in a live performance in Berlin.

Needless to say, Cleveland has cleaned up its act (as have most of us of a certain age) in the past 40 years and the water quality of the river has also greatly improved. Clevelandites would probably rather not have us remember when the world was watching them in the summer of 1969, but the Cuyahoga River still “goes smokin’ through my dreams.”

“Burn on, big river . . . burn on.”

I love Randy Newman.