Photo by Daniel Lincoln
man standing near hole
Photo by Daniel Lincoln via Unsplash

Burying the Engine

My First Earth Day

On April 22, 1970, I helped bury an internal combustion engine. At the time I was a sophomore at Interlake High School in Bellevue, Washington. The administration had called on the students to ride their bikes that day, or walk — modes of transportation I used much of the time anyway. Upon arriving at school the students participated in an Earth Day assembly; Dr. Earl Bell, of the Department of Urban Planning at the University of Washington, was the keynote speaker. Rounding out the program was a series of movies with earnest titles: Conserving Our Soil Today, Year of Disaster, Heritage of the Plains, and the straightforward Mud. At the end of school, we buried the engine, accompanied by cheers and rousing speeches. The details are a bit hazy, to tell the truth — indeed, my account is based more on a story I dug up in the local paper than on my actual memory of events. But in talking to fellow Interlake graduates about that first Earth Day, we all remember burying the engine.

Did our act of mechanicide make the world, or even just Interlake High School, a better place? I don’t think anyone ever bothered to check. We certainly never considered the effects that rusting steel and motor oil might have on the subterranean neighborhood. Nor did any of us volunteer our own car, if we had one, for burial.

Our act was symbolic, pure and simple. We felt good burying the engine and doing those other things to celebrate Earth Day — wasn’t that enough?

Over the past twenty-five years, environmental policy in this country has buried scores of engines, in a manner of speaking. We have made real progress in many areas, of course, as demonstrated by the steady improvements in the quality of our air and water. But too often we measure success not by the state of the environment, but by the state of environmental law. Passing these laws and periodically rushing to their defense become acts of great symbolism. Of secondary importance, it seems, is whether the laws actually work — and without a doubt, many of them do — or whether they find an appropriate balance between protecting the environment and pursuing other worthy but sometimes conflicting endeavors. More importantly, we seldom look to our own lives for actions, small or large, that can make a difference. Instead, we feel good because those laws show how much we care about the environment — and that seems to be enough.

I stopped by my old high school a few weeks ago. A call to my brother, also an Interlake alumnus, had revealed the engine’s grave site: near the north entrance, he said, on the left. Arriving with my two children in the late afternoon, we couldn’t tell how many students came and went by bicycle, foot, bus, or auto. The office was closed, but a knock on the door brought the principal out to greet us. An internal combustion engine? he said, with a slight smile. No, he didn’t know if it was still there.

We walked toward the entrance, past the baseball diamond where the Interlake women’s softball team was playing the Bellevue squad. A dozen yards north of the field, my children and I wandered through a small grassy area, looking for evidence of buried steel. Here, my daughter said, pointing to a small, engine-sized area mostly barren of vegetation. What about there, I countered, pointing to another bare spot, or there, or there? She shrugged. It was cool to be at Dad’s old school, but the significance of this patch of earth was lost on her.

I wouldn’t have it any other way. When my children are grown, I hope they think of themselves as environmentalists, if that means they are filled with wonder at the sight of a bald eagle and the workings of a wetland. And I hope they think of themselves as humanists, if that means they are equally filled with wonder at the sight of a Van Gogh painting and the workings of the New York Stock Exchange or even an internal combustion engine. My greatest hopes, though, are that they find a way to embrace each set of wonders without crowding out the other, avoiding a monoculture of values; and they accept that the ultimate solution for our environmental problems lies in their actions, not in rousing speeches or symbolic laws. Finally, I try to teach them these lessons through my own actions, but hope my children will also learn that we all sometimes fail, because actions are so much harder than words.

We eventually gave up our search, looking instead at a tree that had toppled over at the edge of the grassy area. My daughter picked up a piece of bark, dropping it with a screech when a bug appeared unexpectedly, then bending down to find out what had taken her by surprise. My son and I looked at the ragged stump for clues behind the tree’s demise. Termites, he said. Perhaps aided by a windstorm, I added. Walking back to the car past the baseball diamond, we stopped behind the left-field fence to watch the game for a moment. The children climbed up on a small, wooden storage box to get a better view. The home team’s shortstop snared a two-hopper and retired the side with a sharp throw to first, accompanied by the cheers from my son and daughter. We went on, and slowly made our way across the I-90 bridge through rush hour traffic, back to our home — not by bicycle, not by foot, but by internal combustion engine.