Monday, June 07, 2010

Unnatural Places

I'm grateful to have the children to distract me from the real world these days.

For the past several weeks, I find myself spending most of my time outside the classroom depressed, seething or mulling over some aspect of the gigantic oil volcano that is spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. I want to be pissed off at BP, and I am, and I want to scream at our federal government for letting these modern day pirates cut corners on safety, then naively expecting that pirates will behave like anything other than pirates. I want to look away from the stomach churning pictures of pelicans drenched in oil and dead dolphins on beaches. I want to hear good news, but none of it is good.

I want to blame and punish and rant and rave at the other people, but those pelicans and dolphins are my fault.

I drive a car, I buy things made of plastic, I eat mangos from Mexico and oranges from Chile, I go on vacations in places far away. This disaster is mine.

Yes, I recycle, reuse and compost. I carry my groceries in canvas bags. I walk a lot and take mass transit when it's convenient, but this horrible thing has changed something inside me and it's let me see how pathetic and essentially symbolic my efforts have been. Since it's overwhelming to think of the kind of wholesale changes I need to make in my life, the way I'm going to approach it is that every day I'll do just one more thing to reduce my use of oil. It might just be choosing the ketchup in the glass bottle over the one in the plastic. It might be taking the bus one more day this week. It might be buying produce at my local farmer's market. And some days it might be a big thing like installing solar panels. Something. Every day. That's the plan. And maybe I'll kill one less pelican this year. That would, at least, be something and maybe someday, one step at a time, I won't be killing any. That's the plan.

I was coming to this conclusion yesterday while walking the dogs in Seattle's 350-acre Warren G. Magnusen Park on the site of the old Sandpoint Naval Air Station. It's a quirky, odd-ball park, a mishmash of old hangers, offices and quarters, the city's largest playground, a beach, a boat ramp, sports fields, a hill set aside for flying kites, a large off-leash dog area, art installations, and the crumbling remnants of a military installation that was once home to hundreds of aircraft and as many as 5,600 Naval personnel, as well as 2,400 civilian employees.

There's something about this park, about the way the line is blurred between man and nature, that gives me the sense that I'm simultaneously seeing into the past and future.

It's as if we have, on the one hand, freed our artifices, allowing them to rejoin nature through the slow but sure processes of erosion and the lusty miracle of growth. It's in places like this we see that nature will, in sweeps of time too vast for us to regularly contemplate, reclaim what we take from it. Here I see that nature's long term survival is guaranteed. At the same time we're creating new human edifices, ones of hope and peace, mere symbols at this point, but perhaps representing the beginning of the beginning of a plan for survival of our species. Because if nature's survival is guaranteed, ours is not.

My favorite part of the park these days is the 10-acre educational wetlands, an attempt to recreate a tiny piece of the habitat that once existed all along the shores of Lake Washington, officially opened in late 2009. It reminds me the the small woods that our home backed up to when we lived in north-central Germany. As with all the remaining wooded areas in Germany, it is a heavily managed affair, with forest rangers keeping precise counts of both flora and fauna, thinning or adding as deemed necessary for a properly balanced habitat. Sure, sometimes you walk amongst trees that are growing in suspiciously straight lines, but at least they're big healthy trees. And yes the woods did sometimes feel like a large park more than forests, but we would occasionally scare up some wild boar, freezing us in our tracks and reminding us of natural places. It was something.

As the Germans must manage what's left of what were once expansive forests, we'll likewise always have to manage these wetlands.
Someday these marsh ponds will take on more organic shapes

We'll probably always need to fence delicate areas.

Erosion control

We'll sometimes need to direct water flow

It may even one day come to resemble nature the way it must have existed in this spot a century ago before the Lake Washington Ship Canal lowered the water level by 9 feet, then decades later graded it flat to accommodate runways.

But there will always be reminders of the unnatural.

That's a baseball field across this pond.

I see little boxes on the hillside

The paths are here to remind me to keep my dogs from messing with the ducks.

These large drains are there, I suppose, to make sure the
ponds don't get any deeper than the proper 18". That's a
water level guage in the background.

The wood chips laid down by volunteers seem to provide a
nice mulch in which mushrooms can grow, but I have no
idea if they belong here or not.

If these ponds don't dry out on their own during the summer, we'll have 
to help them because seasonal mudflats provide breeding grounds for the
insects that provide food for birds and amphibians. These mudflats are also
essential for discouraging breeding by the non-native bullfrogs that are
predators of some native species.

There are real wild places not terribly far from here, large swaths of the mature rain forest that once covered the entire Pacific Northwest and within them are extensive natural wetlands and other habitats, but all too often what we think are real forests are just greenbelt left along the roadways as a sort of disguise for the clear cut logging that has taken place here for the last several decades. Our own slow motion version of the Gulf of Mexico disaster.

It's clear to me that even we who live in the one part of the world that was once so naturally lush and fertile, according to Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs and Steel, that its indigenous people never had to develop any form of agricultural in order to feed itself, is now at the stage that it will have to be managed, not for nature's survival, but for our own. We need to create places like these tiny educational wetlands because it's just not sustainable to load our children up into cars and kill more pelicans in order to learn about nature. 

It makes me sad to think that my grandchildren may never walk in woods in which the trees aren't planted in straight lines, just as a part of me is sad to be amongst rectangular marsh ponds, but I'm afraid that is the future of nature if humans are going to continue to be a part of it. Just as we must judge all the "solutions" in the Gulf on a scale of "badness," this seems like the least bad of all the possible futures.

And if we do it right, maybe our grandchildren's grandchildren's grandchildren will once more walk in nature as something more than the rapacious cancer that I have become. At least, that's the plan.

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Kelly said...

Couldn't have said it better myself:

Unknown said...

The oil spill deeply saddens me.

Zoe @ Playing by the book said...

Hi Tom
If you don't know it already, No Impact Man ( ) might be an interesting read for you to help you keep inspired and positive about making the changes in your life you talk about here. I found it a stimulating read and with a positive message, that we can make a difference.

SurprisedMom said...

Thought provoking post.

But the majority of the blame still lies with BP and the government that allowed them to skip safety corners and set up the disaster that was inevitable.

A Magical Childhood said...

What a depressing and absolutely true post! I've been thinking similar things. I do all these small things to help the environment (and I do MANY!) but in the end I drive a gas-powered mini-van because that's what we could afford (we buy used from my in-laws) and we heat our rural Minnesota home with fuel oil. In the end, my hundreds of little sacrifices cannot balance that out. BP is a psychopathic corporation that is behaving criminally, but WE keep them in business. We have created these monsters because we keep on buying the gas.

I like your idea. I'll join in. One thing a day, sometimes small and hopefully some big ones too.

Leigh @ Toasted said...

One thing a day - reckon I'll give that a go too. For me, it's gonna have to include small things and also, saying things to people that might get them thinking on the same path (I rarely do this, but I've seen others do it and it's great - and it doesn't take much time.)

Ms. Erin's HeartRoom said...

what profound juxtapositions, thank you for sharing!