04/22/2011 09:50 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

My Father's Hankies and the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day

WTF do these two things have to do with each other, you ask? I'll explain.

I was sitting at the computer this morning and I went to clean my glasses. I've been using my father's hankies to clean them. My father died over 20 years ago, but I've only recently come into possession of his hankies. I found them stacked in a drawer in a closet as we were cleaning out after my mother's death. On impulse, I grabbed them and took them home. I have strong, and somewhat unpleasant, memories of ironing them when I was a kid. I think I burned myself once or twice on the iron, and sometimes there were weird stains that didn't come out. And yet, their soft cotton and cool, manly colors in rather sophisticated plaids called out to me. They are really, really good for cleaning glasses.

So as I was cleaning my glasses this morning, I remembered a picture I saw in Denver, Colorado, the other weekend. Benjamin Ross was giving a talk on his new book, The Polluters: The Making of Our Chemically Altered Environment, and he showed a picture of the first Earth Day. It was a picture I'd never seen before, of a place I've seen thousands of times: Fifth Avenue in New York City. It was PACKED with people. The whole avenue was blocked and filled. It was a powerful image, and one I never remember seeing in real life for any reason. Sure, there is the occasional parade. And once I stood in a crowd for hours in the cold to see Princess Diana. But that was only a block's worth of crowd, not a whole avenue's worth.

I had gone to Denver to speak at the Beyond Pesticides conference because Jay Feldman, the founder, had known my father, and had continued to do great, important work for people and the environment ever since then. I had felt that if my father were still alive, he would have gone, and urged me to go, too. And so I went.

I'm glad I did because it was a microcosm of all the interesting things going on in this world--from boundary-breaking research on the connection between pesticides and many of our diseases; to the overuse of pesticides and bedbug resistance; to the amazing cowgirl gypsy goat herder who has been using goats' natural tendencies to restore and heal landscapes all across the west; to the young woman who believed that organic was a dirty word and anything supported by the U.S. Government must be corrupt. But they were all there, on a weekend, engaged, questioning, and working hard to heal themselves and our Earth. I was glad to be there and see all the unique and dedicated people who are trying to make the world a better place.

So here is where it all comes together: People come and go--in our lives, on this earth. We are born, we live, we love, we die and who knows where we go. But often we are remembered by what we leave behind. My father was a simple man. He didn't leave behind much in terms of material things: some guns and belt buckles and bolo ties. A few VW bugs.  Those woolen cycling pants that I had already taken. Books. And hankies. Who uses hankies anymore? Not too many people. But they are useful and not wasteful, and every time I use one to clean my glasses, I see the world more clearly. And what I see is that we all need to be more mindful of what we leave behind us. We can leave behind us bad things: trash, plastic, toxic waste, toxic emotions, pain, too much junk and crap.... Or we can leave behind good things: more trees, organic landscapes, treasures of lasting quality and beauty, love, love, and more love, recipes! And, perhaps, a few useful hankies.

So this Earth Day, think about what you leave behind you as you travel through the universe. That's what I'll be thinking about, too.

Related Links:
In Memory of My Dad: Bob Rodale - Maria's Farm Country Kitchen
7 Key Trends That Will Affect Your Health, and the Health of the Planet -
Beyond Pesticides