Yunmen said to the assembly, “Medicine and sickness heal each other. The whole of the Earth is medicine. What are you?”

~ Blue Cliff Record, case 87

In the flood of daily news reports on the Covid-19 crisis, it was probably not surprising that the mainstream press gave the 50th anniversary of Earth Day barely a nod last Wednesday. The environment is in classic crisis; the human population is now in novel crisis. How is it possible that Yunmen can claim that the whole Earth is medicine? What are we, anyway?

The original Earth Day, a national celebration of fairs, teach-ins, marches and protests, attracted more than 20 million people in 1970; 10% of the country. Its activist spirit is credited with the passage of landmark environmental legislation, including the Clean Air and Endangered Species Acts, and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency; all of which, of course, are now under siege. The issues then were preservation and conservation; today the Earth issue has become survival.

I was one of those celebrants a half century ago. In my sophomore year of high school, I took a week over Easter vacation to join my older sister in a long protest hike of 50 to 125 people, depending on the week, of mostly young and long-haired folk. The trek, organized by Ecology Action, in Berkeley, and called the Survival Walk, started in Sacramento, and was to finish two months later, in Los Angeles, on Earth Day. Somehow, after that first week, I was able to convince my parents to let me take a month from school to finish the walk down the San Joaquin Valley, across the Tehachapi Mountains, into L.A. We put in about 20 miles a day, walking through Grapes-of-Wrath farmland, breaking down our tent camp in the morning and setting it up again every night. We would often visit and give talks at local schools, meet with farmers about organic treatments, and host Ecology Action fairs the major valley towns: Stockton, Modesto, Merced, Visalia, Delano, Bakersfield, and finally, Newhall, just north of the City. It was a commune on the move, and with a mission of healing.

I was the youngest member of the commune, and everyone looked after me: a professor helped me with my math homework, I was taught by a kind woman how to make granola (a new super-food at the time), and my sister woke me very late one night and brought me outside our tent to watch Comet Bennet in the star-filled eastern sky. In our own way, we were trying to bring medicine to the Earth, which we all knew was sickening; we did not know at the time how rapidly the globe was beginning to warm. That community is still among us, bringing medicine to the Earth. Yesterday, laying down recycled cardboard as mulch, I dug into the soft, rich soil, and knew with my fingers I was stroking the fine skin of a dark and rich planet. The crows were out, clucking to each other in the Monterey pines, as the blood-orange blossoms bloomed, throwing off a luxurious scent.

Elizabeth Kolbert, in her book The Sixth Extinction, writes that the record of all human civilization in some millions of years will be squashed no thicker than a piece of paper between two rock strata. The Earth will surely survive: look how quickly the water clears for the fish in the Venice canals, or a view of the Himalayas returns to the Punjab for the first time in 30 years. As a species, we may do less well. But then, that is who we are.