I can look around the forest and field of Westmoreland County and I can see environmental devastation. I can see fragmented forest that’s a dim reflection of the primeval Seventeenth Century canopy. I can see bright orange streams, tainted for decades by the arteries of acidic water ruptured during the heyday of deep bituminous coal mining. I can see roads with noisy machines racing back and forth, blowing noxious exhaust into the atmosphere. I can see new well pads being placed to tap into the Marcellus Shale and I can imagine infinite evils that come with this sin against the earth. And I can see myself as an enabler of all of it – bearing responsibility for the environmental degradation that is Twenty-first Century American society.
But then also,
I can look around Westmoreland County and see resurgent and resilient flora and fauna. I can see acres of forest that were not there 100 years ago, acres that were in monocultural cultivation or acres of strip mine. I can see the still bright orange streams but I can know that we’ve moved on to varieties of fossil fuel extraction that don’t forever poison our waterways (and the acid mine drainage impacted streams aren’t really poisoned forever either.) I don’t know the purposes and needs of the people who race back and forth on the roadways but they don’t have to hook up horses to wagons and buggies anymore, tend horses, deal with the blight of horse waste or keep acres in cultivation for livestock feed. They can get in a car and go – enjoying a level of freedom our forebears couldn’t have dreamt of. I can know as I look around at the ongoing Marcellus development that we’ve found the cleanest form of fossil fuel extraction ever known, to produce the cleanest-burning fuel. And I can choose to think about the small forms of conservation and environmentalism I can carry on myself, under my own power and at my own discretion without needing a cloud of guilt forcing environmental piety upon me.
Which of these is the more accurate perspective? Who should decide which is, you or someone telling you which is more credible? Which of these perspectives is better for you? Which for the environment?
This isn’t really about Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania though, it’s about our perspective on the world around us. The libertarian economist Thomas Sowell is famous for (among other things) noting that economists always ask “as compared to what?” when confronted with assertions. This seems often lost as media figures launch into diatribes about the desperate state of our environment. Or else it’s implicit that we’re speaking in comparison to “pre-Columbian perfection,” in which case, yes, the environment is severely degraded by man in almost every way.
The pre-Columbian reference point is not, however, the only way to address this question and there are, I feel, more pertinent and meaningful ways to come at this if we’re going to assume that people are here to stay (it’s pretty much what I do here on this blog). First, we can ask about the state of the Pennsylvania forest in reference to that of other states (we’re doing very well). Then maybe we could ask about water quality compared to other states and here too, we’re doing well though the mining legacy still keeps the waters of PA from being all they could be. I think it’s more meaningful and expansive though to look at the environment of our whole nation as compared to that of other countries. The United States and its people often bear the brunt of enviro. activist assaults due to our relative wealth, consumerism and capitalism. But the more one learns about the environmental problems of most other countries, the more one understands that we are, overall, green and clean in spite of our 330 million inhabitants. The most important measure to me though is to compare the time of now to times past. I often make reference to the 100 – year time scale when discussing environmental problems and here, especially within my home state, we see enormous re-forestation, attenuation of destructive coal mining, cleaning of our waterways and enhanced species richness and abundance. You have to ask, “as compared to what?” and “what” cannot be a utopian state of perfection if your answers are to be useful.
I was on a long walk of several weeks in central Pennsylvania years ago when I bedded down in a rainstorm next to an unfamiliar woodland stream in a hemlock grove. After a full day of hiding in my tent, I ventured out across the moss carpet to see if there might be a fish dinner available. I found the water cold, the rocks of the streambed clean but for algae and caddis construction, and the watercourse full of old woody debris – all indicators of fine habitat. I went back up to camp before dark with three fat wild brown trout. I listened to the owls that night and the other creatures that investigated my camp. There were no human noises here at – let’s call it Pristine Creek – all was verdant, quiet and healthy.
In the years to follow, I returned many times to this long, meandering flowage and was impressed by its qualities on every visit.
A few years ago, I biked along a rail trail in the same county as Pristine Creek and stopped to fish at a bridge over another cold brook that held trout. While fishing, a family walked by and I talked for several minutes with the father, asking some questions about the local geography and history. As it turned out, he was not from the immediate vicinity but rather had grown up in a town along the lower reaches of Pristine Creek. He told me that they’d never fished in it growing up. It had been bright orange in the 1950’s and 60’s – poison as far as anyone new. The mines had been operating 24 hours a day and coal production was in full swing. There were no trout – this fellow was certain.
There’s almost no indication of the industrial history of the place today, removed in time only a few decades from its mining era. And I give this as just a single example of a story that I’ve heard repeated and can verify across western Pennsylvania from one watershed to the next. Some waters are still more tainted than others but in aggregate, there’s no doubt that we enjoy immensely cleaner waterways today than we did in the early or mid 1900’s
Today I walked along a rail trail (a former rail line that’s now a bike trail) on the fringes of Pittsburgh. I looked carefully at the fungi still thriving on newly fallen dead wood even though it’s late December. Clouds of tiny migratory birds flushed from the thickets surrounding the trail, lofting into the canopy to better observe our passing. I looked over the creek alongside us to see the new scour holes and other stream architecture left behind by this year’s floods. I looked at the ice trying to overtake the pond across the trail. I saw the faint trails between dead vegetation showing which way the deer, raccoons and foxes have gone. There’s so much to be intrigued and captivated by – so much to celebrate in the rich dendrosphere of the Turtle Creek watershed.
And a historian would tell you of the manufacturing waste that poured in from all sides not so many years back and the denuded, eroding hillsides sending constant infusions of sediment into the stream’s mainstem. There wouldn’t have been any deer then and certainly no fox.
But someone could have walked the same trail as Susan and I today and pointed to the places where rail remnant eyesores could still be seen. They could have pointed to the knotweed monoculture overtaking the floodplain. They might have mentioned the low aquatic insect diversity in Turtle’s tributaries or they might have pointed to the roads and businesses within sight that make the place less than Edenic. They might even venture that I was still able to see live mushrooms at this late date due to global warming.
Which perspective is more realistic? Which is more productive? Which derives from the reality of nature and which from our mental and societal constructs? Do we delude ourselves when we choose to see the good? Do we play into the hands of a political movement when we see only the blight? Who gets to decide for you?
I think I’d like to end the year with a simple encouragement to make the wild a part of your life – daily if possible. And this doesn’t mean a drive of hundreds of miles to a national park somewhere; it may just mean a walk down the street and into an abandoned lot to look for choice mushrooms. It may mean a foray to the very nearest bit of flowing water to drop a hook and line in hope of whatever’s migrating up from the river, miles below. Maybe just a covert trip with the sleeping bag into a bit of woods to a place that no-one’s designated as a camp site, just to remain close to the earth for a night, nurtured by cool night air, soothed by the quiet of the resting forest.
When we separate ourselves from nature, we leave ourselves exposed and gullible to purveyors of incipient environmental doom. When we open our eyes, eat the wild things and sleep in wild places it’s easier maintain the outlook of a naturalist and realist.
You’re allowed to notice the omnipresent flourishing, the vitality of the wild, the resilience of creatures, the cleansing of water, the purifying of cycles, the unstopableness of the biome, the evolution of the ecosphere, the beauty of the unplanned and the wisdom of the organic.