Jeremiah Lennox picked up a handful of soil Saturday morning at Vale Cemetery in Schenectady.
"This is our mother," Lennox said, as he helped transplant fruit trees in Vale's green section. "We all come from her and we all return to her."
Lennox and a small number of friends from the Assembly of Capital District Pagans observed Earth Day with rakes, shovels and small projects on the grounds of the historic cemetery.
Other people in the Capital Region did their parts for environmental protection, continuing a tradition that started with the first Earth Day in 1970.
- An Earth Day March for Science was held during the early afternoon on the West Lawn of the state Capitol in Albany.
- The University at Albany held its fifth annual Family Earth Day, with tips on ecology, climate change and geology for young people.
- Residents of Schenectady's Mont Pleasant neighborhood were invited to clean up their streets and properties.
Good deeds for the planet were also scheduled in Saratoga and Schoharie counties, among other places.
Lennox said Saturday's work in Vale was the pagan assembly's sixth Earth Day visit.
"Vale offers one of the very few green cemeteries in the area," said Lennox, who lives in Ballston Spa and founded the assembly. "One of our deepest held beliefs as pagans is that the earth and all her creatures are sacred.
"You, as a creature of earth, are sacred," Lennox added. "The tree over there, the grass in the ground, the microbes in the soil -- all of those things are sacred, they all have the dignity to life. We like to do our part in honoring that."
Vale Superintendent Clark Adams said there are always jobs in the cemetery after the winter months.
"This is an old cemetery, it has a lot of old trees," Adams said. "We lose a lot of limbs and branches over the course of a winter, due to snow and wind."
Earth Day in a cemetery can bring pagans -- and people of other beliefs -- closer to ancestors who have passed on.
"Areas like this, especially places that focus on taking care of the dead and honoring their memories in a green way, are few and far between," Lennox said. "That really speaks to us as a people."
The work crew moved fruit trees the group donated two years ago to higher ground, and was supervised by Cemetery Director Bernard McEvoy and volunteer Peter Rumora.
Liz Murray, a crone elder in the assembly, read prayers of awareness, sorrow and healing. She said there was respect and honor for ancestors and for the land.
"We are enchanted with the fact that the living also use the cemetery, in the urban garden and in the nature trails that are here," said Murray, who lives in Colonie. "That's what makes it more than just a cemetery."
For some members of the assembly, green work is better than construction work. Ann Horton, who also lives in Colonie, sees too much new pavement around the area.
"It's sad to see we're not leaving natural space for the animals and for the bees," Horton said. "We've disturbed too much. Today brings attention to that."
Horton also believes clean-up projects that help the earth also provide a lesson for young people. "It helps us educate our children so there is a world for them to use and for their children's children," she said.
Alijah Grimaldi, 5, of Philmont in Columbia County, helped Lennox put an apple tree into new ground. "I want to help," he said. "I like to help things grow."
At Woodlawn Park in Schenectady, about 30 people dressed in sweatshirts, ball caps and blue jeans for the 50-degree weather, prepped the park for spring, summer and fall activities.
Woodlawn residents Melissa Spangler and Jessy Taylor brushed royal blue paint on a picnic table. "We use the park, so I feel it's important to keep up the maintenance of it," Spangler said. "It's our park."
Taylor painted while her 2-year-old daughter, Emma, slept in a shoulder-and-back baby carrier. She believes it's important for children to learn lessons about the environment at a young age.
"They observe us and they learn from us," she said.
Spero Zoulas, chairman of the Woodlawn Park Redevelopment Committee, said improvements and additions to the park during the past three years have cost between $160,000 and $200,000. There are exercise machines, three swing sets, a sandy volleyball space, a recently paved basketball court and pavement games such as hopscotch.
"I think it's important for people to come out to give back to the community and give back to the earth and show they care about their community by investing their time and energy to make the park a much better, nicer place to visit," Zoulas said.
The park workers also received a little help -- the First Baptist Church of Schenectady dropped off a donation that will be used for future projects.
Workers were glad to donate some of their weekend hours.
"It's being part of the community," said Darryl Collins. "It's tops on my list. This is how I've met all my neighborhood friends."
Steve Harris of Ballston Lake was also happy to pitch in. "Somebody's got to do it," he said, smiling.
At Camp Saratoga in Wilton, people were outside for exercise and extra work.
People interested in fitness could choose a one-mile fitness run or 5K road race. Later on, they helped out the endangered Karner blue butterfly.
"We always do something on Earth Day," said Margo Olson, executive director of the Wilton Wildlife Preserve & Park, which runs the camp. "We're an environmental organization and so people like to get out on Earth Day and do things they feel are helping the environment. We always do some kind of volunteer project."
In past years, people have cleaned up grounds. They've planted lupine seeds to encourage growth of wild blue lupine flowers, the flowers Karner larvae need to survive.
To ensure plenty of blue flowers in the camp meadow, volunteers on Saturday pulled small trees -- mostly white pines -- from the grounds.
"Nature wants to fill that meadow with other things," Olson said. "Over time, what happens is the seeds from birch trees and white pines and other tree species that do well also in bright light get blown into the meadow and these trees start to grow up in time."
The trees become a young forest, and then old forest growth. That's bad for the meadow, and for the Karner blue.
"We have to keep turning back the clock to keep that young forest from moving into the meadow," Olson said, joking that while many people plant trees to observe Earth Day, her group removes trees -- but for a good cause.
The most famous witches ever – Glinda, the good, and Elphaba, the bad – are returning to town in the musical "Wicked." The touring show opens Wednesday at Proctors in Schenectady and runs for 15 more performances through March 12.
But even without the girls from the land of Oz, the Capital Region has its own supply of witches. Several members of the Assembly of Capital District Pagans were happy to step "out of the broom closet" and discuss their religion and how it's depicted in the hit show and in the original novel by Albany native Gregory Maguire.
"I practice witchcraft, and that can mean something different for everybody," says Veronica Rising, 33. "What's important for me is understanding the sacredness of this world. Everything in the natural world has a spark of divinity in it, and the world is all connected by that spark."
According to Rising, most pagans use rituals to honor the cycles of the sun and the moon. "Any observation is a pagan ritual," she says, "if it brings you closer to the Earth."
"The Wizard of Oz" is part of Rising's earliest memories from childhood. After reading the novel "Wicked," she became a big fan of the show.
"I love the way they took that wicked witch character and showed her from another angle," she says. "It's interesting to look behind the curtain and see a woman doing her own thing."
In the realms of comedy, fairy tale and horror, there's no shortage of witches in popular culture. "But it's always a woman with a lot of power," says Rising.
Lauren Nami Ouellette-Bruchez, 34, is a priest with a pagan group known as Nemeton of the Ways. She sees pagan principals on display in the development of the two central characters in "Wicked."
"What is your goal as a pagan? The way I often explain it is to seek balance and harmony, not to make people always happy nor to be self-serving," explains Ouellette-Bruchez. "Everybody has to respond, just like nature responds. The rain comes as a result of humidity. It's a matter of cause and effect."
When they are named as roommates at Shiz University, Glinda and Elphaba become the catalysts of growth for one another.
"You see Elphaba introverted and studious and not very tolerant of society. Then there's Glinda who thrives in society, adores the attention, knows how to present and publicize herself," says Ouellette-Bruchez. "We all have the ability to respond and change, and the show is about how these woman change one another to make different decisions than they would have."
Matthew Smyth, 34, started perusing books on Wicca (another term for paganism) as a teen, and he's also read all four volumes in Maguire's series "The Wicked Years."
"I usually just call myself a pagan, it's easily identifiable," he says. "I'm probably an omnist because I take all religions as valid."
In recent years, there's been greater acceptance of alternative religions, Smyth observes, but people still ask ''what kind of witch are you?'' questions.
"That gets touched on in the book and the musical, where there are these extremes. Are you a good witch or a bad witch? Do you practice white magic or black magic?" says Smyth. "If you have a someone who is a terrible person who practices magic, they're probably practicing what's called black magic. Then there are what we call the fluffy bunny witches who want everything to be happy and bubbly."
Smyth says that magic or spell work is common in his community.
"I've described spells as prayer with props. We get some herbs and the right colored candle and say something in the right direction at the correct phase of the moon," he explains. "But, as with everything, it depends on who you talk to."
"Wicked" appealed to Smyth because it provided the back story for that angry green witch who came from the north.
"I wanted to learn who was this maligned creature that seemed absolutely terrible," he says. "Now to see it from the other side, I can't watch the 'Wizard of Oz' so much anymore."