Earth Day, an annual event held on April 22 in honor of environmental protection, almost didn’t happen this year.
That would have marked the third year that Santa Cruzans missed the event—the first two due to pandemic restrictions.
In prior years, Earth Day has been celebrated in San Lorenzo Park. Because the former Benchlands encampment was situated in that area—which the city cleared out in November of last year—Earth Day organizers were at a loss for where the event would take place until the county, city and local organizations teamed together to create an event unlike anything that came before.
“Originally, we had heard that wasn’t going to happen, we were like, how can we share this work that we’re doing?” says Nikki Patterson, director of communications for the Museum of Art & History (MAH).
Patterson is part of a county environmental committee that discusses initiatives to help achieve a county-wide carbon-neutral status in 30 years. To realize that goal and continue the tradition of Earth Day, Patterson offered the MAH and Abbott Square as spaces to host the event.
“At Earth Day, we can share information, give action items to citizens and guests—the realistic hands-on action items that they can do to make a difference,” Patterson says.
EARTH DAY HISTORY
2023 isn’t the first time Earth Day almost didn’t happen in Santa Cruz, only to be saved last minute by the community and organizers.
Santa Cruz held an Earth Day event the same year the day was officially established nationwide in 1970. The original organizers were a student group at UCSC. When that group dissipated in the early 2000s, Ecology Action, a nonprofit committed to a low-carbon economy, helped take up the reins.
“Everybody was upset that Earth Day wasn’t happening,” says Kirsten Liske, Vice President of Community Programs at Ecology Action. “We hosted a convening of a lot of different environmental groups to look at how we might collaborate, and one of the projects that came out of that was a revival of Earth Day.”
This year, the event is happening during a time when climate change is a reality that has touched most, if not all, of the residents in the county. Santa Cruz County has experienced devastating wildfires in the past few years that destroyed 911 homes and, most recently, incredible storms and flooding that displaced hundreds of people.
Liske hopes we collectively start to call these events what they are: direct results of climate change, not just disasters.
“I hope we can start naming things as climate change,” Liske says. “People call them natural disasters–they are–but they’re kind of unnatural disasters. They’re made worse by climate change and then societal conditions like inequity. And that’s not a natural disaster. But when we don’t name them like that, it kind of lets us off the hook of trying to do more and step up as quickly and as much as we need to.”
This year, she thinks people will be more inspired to take action than in previous years, especially in light of the recent events the county has experienced.
“With the recent fires and extreme storm events and the drought and the hot weather, people are really starting to become more concerned and activated around climate change,” Liske says. “Earth Day is such a great way to think about that and feel like you’re at least sparking awareness and an opportunity to connect on what’s possible.”
BIG BASIN AND CZU DISCUSSIONS
Traci Bliss, author and member of the Santa Cruz Historic Preservation Commission, says that the CZU fires that tore through Santa Cruz over two years ago and burned around 90 percent of the Big Basin state park can tell us something about how to prepare for climate change.
“One of the huge lessons from 2020 is making changes because of climate change, but also making sure state parks have all the resources they need to manage these changes in climate,” Bliss says. “In 1904, Big Basin had a fire similar to the 2020 fire. But they could put out that fire in a very short period. That was because there was this huge outpouring from all these lumbermen and railroad men who rushed to Big Basin to put out the fire.”
But not just the recent fires can show us how to confront climate change. Big Basin has a complex and inspiring history that serves as a lesson for what can happen when the community is activated around a cause.
“Creating the park and what it took for the statewide movement to get to the legislation was a heroic effort,” Bliss says. “But nobody knew that for the next decade, it was going to be one huge challenge after another.”
Bliss is one of the presenters at the MAH on Earth Day, discussing how Santa Cruz came together to establish and save Big Basin. Her talk precedes a panel discussion about the park’s future after the CZU fires.
A former education professor advising teachers, Bliss often encouraged history teachers to “make history come alive” for their students.
“There was this moment in class, and I can remember it so well,” Bliss says. “This story has been passed down in my family my whole life. And if I really believe in making history come alive, I need to pursue this story.”
Throughout her life, Bliss’ family retold a story about how their ancestors helped save Big Basin. What started as an inquiry into the validity of a passed down family fable unearthed a bigger story of how Big Basin came to be and the women instrumental in establishing the state park at the turn of the 19th century.
“Of all the publicity statewide that went into the creation of Big Basin, more than 90 percent was produced by women,” Bliss says. “The newspaper articles, the pamphlets, the journal articles, all done by women. Just the idea in 1900 that women would have equal roles in any kind of an organization was extraordinarily uncommon.”
The common denominator among these women was their commitment to equality: almost all of them, Bliss says, were abolitionists and activists.
Bliss plans on diving deeper into how these women mobilized to declare Big Basin a state park at her upcoming talk on Earth Day. She has given lectures on the history of Big Basin around the Bay Area, but she loves talking about it in Santa Cruz because of the local community’s role in preserving the state park.
“I get to show these old, historic photographs of 123 years ago of how Santa Cruz brought people to Big Basin in these buggies to be able to experience the forest,” Bliss says. “Because Santa Cruzains were saying this is our home, but this forest should belong to everyone.”
The other discussions will touch on the future of Big Basin now that nearly all the structures that once stood around the park are gone; Bliss is curious how the fires might have changed how the park operates.
She hopes the message the audience takes away from the history of the park is that it took dedication and perseverance, but ultimately the community was flourishing.
“They had no idea when they started up the kind of unwavering stewardship that would be required, and yet they stepped up and never gave up,” Bliss says. “I think that’s the biggest message. The idea of just unwavering commitment.”
In addition to the discussions on Big Basin, the MAH has the Bay of Life, and History of Santa Cruz County exhibits on display for Earth Day attendees, free of charge.
Peterson says that art and history are powerful tools to inspire reflection and action. The gallery on the history of Santa Cruz touches on everything from the exploitation of the Amah Mutsun, Santa Cruz County’s indigenous tribe, to the timber and fishing industry that has historically played a massive role in Santa Cruz’s economy.
The Bay of Life exhibit by local photographer Frans Lanting also features intense photographs of the CZU fires and damaged ecosystems.
“It’s basic, looking at where we’ve been to inform our current states and how we can move forward,” Peterson says. “Art is a great vehicle for that, especially our exhibitions on view right now.”
The festival will also have live music from the local band Coffee Zombie Collective, which has headlined many previous Earth Day events.
Nate Lieby, a longtime band member, says that eventgoers can expect to hear an amalgamation of songs across genres: everything from punk rock to pop to classic oldies.
“People can expect a high energy, exuberant, joyous occasion of all your favorites and a bunch of stuff you don’t know,” Lieby says.
He says the band loves playing at Earth Day events because of how the community comes together.
“Climate change is something that, regardless of where you come from, affects you,” Lieby says. “Music is something that helps bring people together; it’s something that we can all share. Similarly, climate change is going to be something that we’re all going to have to come together and figure out together.”