I took a hike with a couple of friends several years ago along Slippery Rock Creek here in Western Pennsylvania. He was a long time friend and a native-born American. She was a native of the former Soviet Union as one might have guessed from either her appearance or accent. She clearly loved to not only walk in the woods but to learn about the woods and she was paying particular attention to trees on this particular day, pulling out a pocket ID guide to distinguish beech from maple and fir from hemlock.
Still, she wasn’t too distracted to take in the chipmunk circus that played out across the logs and around our feet.
“They’re so wonderful. We don’t have any of these in Belarus.”
I questioned her on this and she went on to clarify that she meant not only chipmunks but all kinds of little critters. The environment was so terrible there and people had been so poor for so long that there was little left that could provide a little meat in the stew pot.
Pittsburgh and much of western Pennsylvania was once in a similar state. I really couldn’t say authoritatively how much mid-century Pittsburgh was like present day Belarus but the anecdotal first-hand accounts abound among long-time residents. Coal-mining was running full steam and waste from industry and sewers alike was simply pumped, unmitigated, into our streams and rivers. Old-time Pittsburgh photos reveal denuded hillsides, the result of strip mining and the simple need for home heating fuel wood. The old-timers tell of days when there were certainly no bear or bobcat in the area and not even deer within the city limits.
The Allegheny County of today, however, is not the Allegheny County of 1950. Some determined pessimists continue their unbroken focus on anything foul flowing into our waters or any loss of habitat, insensible to the century-long trend of western Pennsylvania’s reforestation. And along with reforestation comes wild creatures of all descriptions, many pushed to the brink of extinction but now flourishing alongside us in the communities that surround Pittsburgh. One doesn’t have to believe that there are more trees here now than there were a century ago – I didn’t count then and haven’t counted now – but the proliferation of chipmunks, waterfowl, beaver, otter, mink, fisher, bobcat, bear, eagle, hawks, frogs and myriad fishes is inescapable evidence of the positive environmental trend we’re enjoying.
Back to Belarus for a moment…
On April 26, 1986 a power generating station within the Ukraine, near the Belarus border overheated and spewed radioactive super-heated water for days into the atmosphere. This was, of course, Chernobyl, the worst nuclear accident in history. There were immediate and obvious environmental impacts across much of northern Ukraine, southern Belarus and western Russia. Across the globe, environmental organizations and environmentalists rushed to decry nuclear energy generation in apocalyptic terms, pointing to this worst-case scenario for sudden environmental degradation. I still have the 1986 National Geographic that deals with the disaster. Within, readers find prognostications of near-eternal death and disfigurement for all living things within the 19 mile exclusion zone surrounding the reactor. This was a worst-case scenario for environmental degradation.
Today, this zone exists as one of eastern Europe’s premiere wildlife sanctuaries. Mutation levels in newborn mammals are near normal. Wolves and musk ox abound in a place that was never meant to be a sanctuary but rather a disaster area. I’d like to get in on one of the tours that now shuttles through from time to time, sneaking in a rod and reel to chase the massive wels catfish that have proliferated. In short, nature healed the worst we could do with seeming ease. I suspect there are chipmunks there again or at least the eastern European equivalent (“grinnys”?).
The animals we enjoy in places like Allegheny County today should help us keep things in perspective as we think about the environment. They’re something to be thankful for.