The Petaluma artist recalls “Survival Faire,” a forerunner of Earth Day at San Jose State University
The very first Earth Day took place 51 years ago on April 22, 1970.
But four weeks before this global environmental call, Catherine Alden of Petaluma, now a retired artist and upholsterer, stood in front of a large hole in the ground and attended a truly unique funeral service.
That was February 20, 1970 at San Jose State University, where she graduated with a degree in ceramics, and the ritual was the main event of a massive environmental gathering known as the Survival Faire.
“It was a four or five day extravaganza that ended up buying, pushing, and burying a car, a Ford Maverick,” recalled Alden, who was sitting on the porch of her West Petaluma home. “The whole thing, the fair, was developed by a spiritual teacher named John Sperling, who was very charismatic and founded Phoenix University. He now lives in Marin. He’s the guy who clones cats. “
This is a reference to Sterling’s Sausalito-based cloning operation known as Genetic Savings and Clone.
But this is another story.
“He was a teacher in San Jose state when I was there, and he got his entire humanities class to organize and attract this thing, which was pretty impressive,” Alden said. “We had to collect the money to buy the car. There were all kinds of activities and thousands of people came to attend on the day of the funeral. I got involved originally because some of us young women were being recruited to sew Mother Earth clothes – and then we were all Mother Earth. “
Among the many activities of the Survival Faire was the Mother Earth Beauty Contest, which was attended by seven women from the state of San Jose. According to an article in the school newspaper, the “pageant” lasted every 10 minutes and was immediately followed by a panel discussion entitled “The Rape of Mother Earth”, in which all seven “candidates” took part.
“At the end of the Mother Earth Contest, we all talked about why Mother Earth is beautiful and that it doesn’t matter who won because we were all as beautiful as her,” she recalled. “And we all won. We all wore the same dress with some kind of green burlap fabric. We sewed pine cones everywhere and had flowers in our hair, the whole thing. “
And then they buried a car.
Alden, who keeps a folder of newspaper clippings and other documentary memorabilia from the event, described this class of humanities 160’s decision to buy a brand new vehicle, give it a funeral procession and final rites (by actual ordained ministers), and then treat it up with earth, as an act of inspired political theater.
“Some people were very angry about it,” she said. “They couldn’t believe that we would do that with a perfectly good car. I think they more or less thought it was un-American. “
Among the artifacts in Alden’s folder is a copy of the special Survival Faire supplement that appeared in the Spartan Daily News this week. On the back is an uncredited article entitled “Why The Great Car Burial?” In response to this question, the article says, “So that each of you can pause to think about your own relationship with the automobile and what you want to give up, what work you are ready to make, what changes you want to make, your own lifestyle, which new visions of your own future ready to entertain, to give your species a chance to survive. “
It was, as Alden recalls, a life changing experience.
It was fun too.
“There are pictures of me marching in front of the car and actually sitting in the driver’s seat, even though we all pushed it,” she said. “We never turned it on because the point was that the car shouldn’t be driven after we bought it. The plan was to move it from the dealership to campus and we pushed it a long way, but the police came and had us towed the rest of the way. We stopped the traffic. “
Thousands of students and others came to take part, on foot or on bicycles, all of whom marched in solidarity.
“It was pretty exciting,” said Alden. “It catches up with you, the excitement of it. For me, that was the beginning of recycling, long before many people did. Paul Erlich had just written The Population Bomb, and that was a big problem too. People talked about not having children and what we would do to save the planet. It was very emotional. It really felt like a turning point. And in all honesty, the progress we’ve made since then has been pretty astonishing – although there hasn’t been nearly enough of it. “
She points to the rise of electric cars, statistics showing that people don’t smoke cigarettes as much, people who are committed to cleaning highways and dismantling bulletin boards, all as steps in the right direction that have been taken since 1970.