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Brooks Lamb

Brooks Lamb is the author of "Overton Park: A People’s History" (University of Tennessee Press, 2019). A 2016 Truman Scholar and 2017 graduate of Rhodes College, he currently works with The Land Trust for Tennessee and will begin his graduate studies at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies in the fall.

On Earth Day, nurture affection for Overton Park and points beyond

By Updated: April 22, 2019 4:47 PM CT | Published: April 22, 2019 4:12 PM CT
<span><strong>One place in Memphis where people can get acquainted with and nurture affection for the natural world is Overton Park.</strong> (Photo courtesy of Melissa McMasters)</span>

One place in Memphis where people can get acquainted with and nurture affection for the natural world is Overton Park. (Photo courtesy of Melissa McMasters)

The first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970. A bipartisan idea championed by the late U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin, and former U.S. Rep. Pete McCloskey, a Republican from California, the day encouraged people to organize and advocate for better environmental stewardship. Millions of Americans spoke out against industrial pollution, species extinction and deforestation. Many felt that their voices were being heard for the first time.  

<strong>Brooks Lamb</strong>

Brooks Lamb

Almost 50 years later, we still observe Earth Day. And despite the progress we’ve made, we still face daunting challenges. Climate change, urban sprawl and over-development, among many other issues, are enormous environmental threats.

These challenges can sometimes feel overwhelming. But localizing our efforts is one way to sustain our hope for a better planet. While backing large-scale policies and actions to fight things like climate change and pollution is critical, we need to connect with and care for the earth on a local level, too.

Several prominent environmentalists and conservationists promote this idea. Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson reasoned that a close-knit relationship with a forest or a farm, a pond or a park makes us better environmental stewards. Similarly, Wendell Berry writes about immersing ourselves in a place so that we can cultivate affection for it. This hard-earned affection, he argues, isn’t a touchy-feely emotion. It’s a practical virtue that leads to positive action. In nurturing affection for a small plot of earth, we feel an obligation to care for it.

One place in Memphis where people can get acquainted with and nurture affection for the natural world is Overton Park. After taking dozens of walks through the Old Forest or spending countless afternoons on the Greensward, we start to become familiar with the park. We begin to recognize trees along the limestone loop, and we grow familiar with the wildlife that call this place home. When we know the park that well, we grow to love it. And because of this love, we care for it.

On my own walks through the park, I’ve watched strangers pick up litter that’s not their own. I’ve seen scores of Memphians volunteer on Saturday mornings to spread mulch in the dog park. I’ve known experienced runners who introduced new patrons to the trail system so that more people can connect with the park. More than any other virtue, it’s affection that drives these actions.


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We see this same pattern of affection yielding care throughout Overton Park’s history. And while there are a variety of moments that demonstrate this phenomenon, the most revealing is the story of the interstate controversy. In the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, and even into the ’80s, citizens banded together to defend Overton Park from being destroyed by Interstate 40. Facing off against state and federal governments, the transportation industry and other citizens – and taking their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court – they defied the odds and protected the park from near-certain destruction. Having spent years nurturing a love for this place, these citizens were determined to preserve Overton Park, teaching us a valuable lesson about the power of affection-based stewardship.

When we begin to feel overwhelmed by the endless challenges the planet faces, we should reflect on how affection has served and still serves a place like Overton Park. While we reflect, we can visit the Old Forest and maybe even pick up a few plastic bags and bottles. And in reflecting on, connecting with and caring for the park, we can enable an affection that transcends the boundaries of Poplar and the Parkways. If taken seriously, our affection for the park can evolve into affection for the entire earth.

<span><strong>The path for Interstate 40 ran right up to the edge of Overton Park.</strong>&nbsp;(Photo courtesy of William Bearden, author of "</span>Images of America: Overton Park")

The path for Interstate 40 ran right up to the edge of Overton Park. (Photo courtesy of William Bearden, author of "Images of America: Overton Park")

Overton Park reminds us that even in the face of tremendous environmental adversity, we can find grounds for hope. On Earth Day and every day, affection can sustain us.

Want to find more natural places in the Memphis area to connect with? Try Meeman-Shelby Forest, T.O. Fuller State Park, Tom Lee Park, Martin Luther King Jr. Riverside Park, Shelby Farms Park, Eagle Lake Refuge and Lucius Burch State Natural Area.

The Daily Memphian welcomes a diverse range of views and invites readers to submit guest columns by contacting Peggy Burch, community engagement editor, at pburch@dailymemphian.com.

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Earth Day Overton Park

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