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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

It's Only Natural

Waste Not, Want Not

By Tamia Nelson

February 26, 2008

A droning voice got my attention while I was grubbing about in the kitchen not long ago. The drone turned out to be a reporter. His voice reached me courtesy of my local National Public Radio franchise, and it seems he'd dragged an expert along to a derelict industrial site, where the two of them — reporter and expert — were having an earnest conversation. (NPR stopped doing interviews quite a while back, apparently. Interviews were too intimidating, I suppose. Now NPR only conducts "conversations.") And just what was this conversation about, exactly? Well, that was hard to say. The reporter certainly didn't have much of an idea, and the expert was none too sure, himself. I think the subject was supposed to be economic development. In any case, the expert was holding forth about the "wasteland" around him, bemoaning the fact that the site hadn't yet been transformed into a call center or a Bunker•Mart or a NASCAR track. Meanwhile, the reporter was doing his bit to move the conversation forward by bleating affirmatively at thirty-second intervals.

It was typical NPR fare, in other words. And about as memorable as a two-dollar TV dinner. Except for one thing. While the expert was going on and on about the "wasteland" — he used the word several times, as if repetition could substitute for cogent argument — his voice was repeatedly drowned out by birdsong. (The conversation must have been taped last summer; I can only guess that it was being rebroadcast to fill a hole in the barren interval between radio fund-raisers.) I could hear the buzz of insects and the burble of a small brook in the background, too.

"'Wasteland,' eh?" I muttered to myself as I scrubbed cheese off the grater. "It sounds like a pretty lively place to me. Not my idea of a wasteland, at any rate." So I started listening to the conversation more carefully.

It turned out that the expert was standing next to an abandoned factory. The buildings had been empty for years, and the property was now listed on the state's inventory of brownfield sites, one of many "underutilized" industrial properties scattered about New York. Judging from the expert's description, it certainly bore the hallmarks of neglect and decay: the walls were falling down, the roof leaked (in those places where there was any roof, that is), the window frames gaped open and empty, and the neighboring trees were adorned with a colorful garnish of windblown plastic bags. Even the parking lot was breaking up under the relentless, coordinated assaults of summer sun and winter ice. There was also the all-but-inevitable contamination of soil and water with (unidentified) toxins, the familiar legacy of past ignorance, compounded by the heedlessness that afflicts many industries once they're in decline. Hence the expert's considered conclusion that the site was now a wasteland, fit for nothing but a suitably dirty industry or a stock-car oval.

But I wasn't so sure. After all, birds and other wild things obviously called this wasteland home, and a river ran through it. (A small river, perhaps. But a river, all the same.) The expert's dismissive comments competed for my attention with the voices of sparrows, jays, robins, and crows, not to mention the ceaseless hum of myriad insects. In my mind's eye I also saw the wild turkeys and deer foraging in the neighboring fields, the green shoots pushing up through the crumbling asphalt in the parking lot, the butterflies and bees darting between the ubiquitous weeds and wildflowers, the swallows nesting under the crumbling factory cornices, the mice, chipmunks and squirrels going busily about their daily chores among the ruined buildings — and at the top of the food chain, the winged and four-footed predators who feast at their expense.

Not a "wasteland" at all, then, but a…

A Vibrant Community

This wasn't the first time I'd found myself at odds with expert opinion, as it happens. A good-sized stream flowed through the little farm town where I grew up. It was the same creek that ran wild and free through my grandfather's old farmstead about four miles upriver. Yet the villagers held their stream in contempt, a contempt made manifest by its local name: "Sewer Brook." The epithet was well-deserved, too. Not only was the stream a common repository for all sorts of unwanted trash, ranging from discarded baby carriages to cracked engine-blocks, but it also found itself on the receiving end of sewage from every house and business in the village. Wastewater treatment was for rich folks in big cities, after all. Rural folk could rely on flowing water to put a tolerable distance between themselves and their leavings. That was the unanimous opinion of all the local experts, at any rate. Sewer Brook was dead, they all opined. Broke beyond fixing. The name said it all. And that was that. In the meantime, we villagers held our noses and looked the other way.

Well, not quite all of us. I was one exception. Maybe I just had a stronger stomach than most of my neighbors, but I spent a lot of time exploring that malodorous stream, walking the banks when I could, wading when I had to. And what I found ran counter to the wisdom of the local sages. To be sure, Sewer Brook wasn't pristine — the experts got that right, anyway — but it supported a rich tapestry of life nonetheless. I could stand on the lip of the highway culvert where the brook entered the village, look upstream, and see dense copses of alder and willow crowding close to the banks. Warblers, and thrushes raised their broods in those thickets every summer, while chickadees and other year-round residents sought shelter from hawks and storms in the tangle of branches. Swallows carved graceful arcs over the nearby marshes and adjacent fields, chattering loudly whenever their swift trajectories brought them near to me. Now and then a mallard lifted noisily from a hidden pool at the far end of one forbidden field whose boundaries were marked by bullet-pocked signs proclaiming NO TRESPASSING! I obeyed. The bullet holes were warning enough for me.

Further downstream, right in the heart of the village, a footbridge crossed the brook near the seed plant. From this vantage point, I could see the shadows of suckers and perch shimmering over the cobbles. And I didn't always watch alone. Small boys from the town's poorest families often kept vigil beside me on the bridge, hoping to land a string of fish for dinner. More often than not, they succeeded. The boys weren't the only animals who got their meals along the little river, either. Later in the day, as the heat of the summer sun abated, I'd spot bats swooping low over the bridge in tireless pursuit of mosquitoes, while frogs and crickets provided musical accompaniment from their toeholds in the weedy margins of the sluggish stream.

All things considered, Sewer Brook had a lot to teach anyone with ears to hear and eyes to see. Provided, of course, that they were paying attention. I was. That little stream taught me my earliest lessons in recognizing…

The Wildness in Our Midst

Wildness is everywhere. Yes, even on the grittiest urban brownfield site and in the middle of vast parking lots. The wild gives ground reluctantly, and it's quick to reclaim anything it loses. The Roman poet Horace summed this up about as neatly as anyone has: Naturam expellas furca, he wrote, tamen usque recurret. "Chase nature out with a garden fork if you will, but don't be surprised when she comes charging back." (That's not an exact translation, I'm afraid, but I think it captures the sense of the Latin.) Of course, we've moved on a bit from Horace's country garden. Even the Roman engineers — and they weren't slouches; some of their roads and aqueducts do good service even today — would probably be amazed at the scope of our planetary tinkering. Still, Horace had been a soldier before he took up poetry. He understood turf wars, and he knew that nature is a patient adversary. Cracks appear on newly paved parking lots within weeks, and weeds spring up through those selfsame cracks soon afterward. These first green shoots may not look like much, but they're the advance guard of nature's army. And nature can afford a long campaign.

I got a further education in the resilience of the wild when I worked in the stones-and-bones trade, as an archaeological geologist documenting the remains of old homes, abandoned mills and crumbling factories, as well as the alignments of disused roads. America's recent past, I learned, is often hidden just below the surface. This wasn't a complete surprise. "I am the grass," wrote Carl Sandburg in one of his most-quoted poems, "I cover all." Given time, whole cities — whole civilizations — can been swallowed up by forest. Just ask any archaeologist who's ever worked in Mesoamerica.

My conclusion? Man-made "wastelands" aren't forever, and nature's campaign to retake the ground she's lost begins even as the concrete cures and the asphalt cools. The same thing is also true when nature herself redraws the map. Some of Europe's most fertile soils are found on the slopes of Vesuvius, the volcano that destroyed the Roman city of Pompeii. And closer to home, the landscape devastated by the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 is already showing signs of vigorous recovery. Not even clouds of superheated steam, torrents of acid fog, and moving walls of abrasive ash can sterilize living earth past all hope of recovery. What remains will be a graveyard, to be sure, but no matter how absolute the devastation…

Life Comes Charging Back

And that brings me back to the drone on the radio. I never did find out what the derelict factory produced in the years when it was a going concern. Nor did I learn the nature of the toxic legacy that the plant's owners bequeathed to the rest of us when the factory laid off its employees, shut down its lines, and locked its gates. But I know this much: Right now, before a single taxpayer dollar has been spent to remediate or reclaim the site, life has already come charging back. This "wasteland" is a wasteland no more, and it's not alone. Wherever you are when you read this, take a look around you. Chances are pretty good that you'll find the seeds of a wilderness near at hand, even if it's no more than a single anthill in a crack in the sidewalk, or a spider spinning its web in a dark corner of your cubicle. However humble this outpost may be, it's the vanguard of an invading army. A living army, bent on retaking lost territory. An army that's waiting, patiently, for our species to move on and make room.

Wildlife-rich Underutilized Land

This picture is a case in point. It could have been taken on almost any urban fringe anywhere in the country. In the foreground is an example of the sort of "wasteland" described by the radio expert. What you can't see is as important as what you can, however. There's a tiny stream meandering through this scrubby plain. I saw half a dozen snowy egrets hunting along that stream, and there were probably others hidden in the scrub. (That shred of white in the left foreground is an egret in flight.) And you can't hear the chorus of birdsong that I heard as I snapped the shutter, either. Or smell the perfume of the numberless tiny blooms which scented the air that day.

Wasteland? Not to my way of thinking. No way.

Wildness is where you find it. You can seek it in vast undeveloped tracts, or you can discover it right on your doorstep. But large or small, all wild areas are important. "Underdeveloped land" might be an affront to the sensibilities of land speculators, suburban developers, and highway planners, but to anyone who cares about the fragile fabric that supports life on this planet — and that includes more than six billion human beings — all of this "wasted" land is plenty valuable just the way it is.

To my mind, therefore, there's simply no such thing as a wasteland. There are only opportunities for life to flourish anew. And that's only natural.

Copyright 2008 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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