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A Lesson in Pollution

February 11, 2015

           it was all shining – Dylan Thomas, “Fern Hill”

This was a day of death and dying.

As Thoreau advised, raise your kids to have rich imaginations, and send them into the woods, where they will grow in consciousness and thereby in conscience.

In the years just after the war, beginning when I was 8, my parents and my mother’s parents did a wonderful thing for me. They managed somehow, in those years of unemployment and inflation, to buy and clear a plot of land and build a house, and then another beside it, with the city of Fort Wayne IN out the front and a countryside of woods and stream and farmers’ fields out the back. The houses sat at the street, on high ground, with three or so acres of grass with small fruit trees and a garden sloping down to a creek with wooded banks. The creek actually “meandered” through the countryside and eventually into town. And I meandered along its banks.

Here are some things a kid could do. You could practice being very quiet as you walked, looking sharply, stopping suddenly and standing like a statue, so that some creature would not notice a human presence, and would be itself. Or you could run pell mell along the paths, to stop by jumping down a bank into a mound of dry, warm sand. You could chase leopard frogs; and in the summer shallows you could pick up, carefully, the female crawdads and see the rows of growing eggs, protected under their tails. You could skip stones (my record, a line of 18 splashes). You could perfect your balance by walking (or even running) the trunks of fallen trees, one of them high over the stream. Or you could climb a tree, and inch out over the clear water, filled with sunshine, to sit and watch things live.

And a few times, when I was very thirsty and didn’t want to go home, I went to a spot where the water ran especially clear and lively over a bed of pebbles, where, reasoning that the pebbles filtered any germs, I drank. Wrong, of course; but I never got sick.

All of us in that woods, the trees and everybody else, all those plants and birds and beasties, grew along that creek, through the seasons, green and brown, red and yellow, white, when the water nearly disappeared, and when it rushed through the woods and the farmers’ fields and even into my back yard.

I was lucky then to have had five years for growing consciousness, up to the summer when I turned 12 and soon would leave the woods for the world of teens.

One sunny morning, I did what I had always done. I got up fairly early, had my cereal and eggs, and headed (as if it were Fern Hill) down to the creek, stopping only to check a wondrous new web in the garden—new every morning—with its weaver spread unmoving in the middle of its beads of dew; and maybe I would eat a carrot or tomato, or maybe let them grow for lunch.

Then I would walk on down cross the creek on the low damn of boulders that my dad and I had had built, rolling the boulders down the bank and into the water, which supported part of their weight and helped us push them into place. Our little dam provided a pool above, and a shallow fall of melody around me as I crossed.

And so into the woods.

Okay, so you can see that this is not going to turn out well. This was not going to be a good day for me. When I got to the creek, it was like it was flowing with every kind of water creature that I knew, some I hadn’t known existed, and some I had suspected were dwelling in the deep pools of backwater, but had never seen, like the very long, black, writhing leeches. And larger fish than I had ever guessed, but their mouths gasping as they floated on their sides or upside down, covered with red sores. I sat on the bank all day, all day, watching the dead and dying flowing by.   Minnows and chubs, carp, suckers, sunfish, turtles, frogs, crawdads, snakes, snails, water striders, dragonflies and mayfly larvae. And heavy in their beds, like living stones, the clams were dying. Say, it’s actually hard to type this. It’s a catastrophe, an apocalypse, an end of a living world.

I loved all those creatures. There isn’t enough space here, but I feel like I should name every one of them, to honor them for what they gave my life. Maybe that’s what Adam and Eve felt, as they walked about, reciting the names of friends. If you wish, dear reader, fill in a few more names.

For years after that day, if you looked into the water of that creek, you saw nothing living, except a few plants and grasses, and they looked coated with something, and wrong.

One of my uncles, a chemist, took a jar of water and got it analyzed. He, and all the adults, probably guessed what might be happening, but at that time and place it was still rare (I’ve since read, in studying the work and life of the poet, E. A. Robinson, who grew up in Maine in the 1870s to 90s, about the pollution of the Kennebec River by the logging companies and paper mills).

My uncle could identify the waste materials from manufacturing; and in a few days we read that a company that made refrigerators had started up its brand new plant beside the creek, some miles upstream, the day before my lesson in public morality began.

Thoreau said that we should send our kids, with their empathic imaginations growing, into the woods, where they will learn respect for life, in its births and deaths, as they learn to respect themselves, and that when they inevitably, being children, in their innocence violate a life, they will know its pain (that “the deer, in its extremity, cries like a child”), and falling a little in their respect for themselves, they will realize the higher law, that we all hold our lives “by the same tenure.” Respect for self, respect for life.

One wonders.

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