As we head into our third … or is it our fourth? … week of pandemic social distancing, our local Big Stone Arts Council is challenging us to promote something so severely needed throughout our souls and communities: Hope. A church in town has those four letters prominently displayed in windows facing our main street of commerce.
Unfortunately, for some, fear has become an overriding mental hurdle that seemingly overshadows a sense of hope. Some cannot pull themselves away from the constant news and propaganda channels, hanging onto numbers, breakouts and disgruntlements of the political arena. Some feel locked in with few, if any, avenues of escape either physically or mentally. Some are virtually paralyzed by fear … that they might contact the coronavirus and die; that life as they knew it will never be the same; that there are family members they’ll never hug or touch again; that financial ruin and joblessness awaits each and every one of us, and perhaps even for mankind, world-wide.
All are valid concerns, and I have them as well. Yet I’m also feeling hopeful, and much of that hope has sprung from our artist community. Poets are posting themselves reading poetry. Painters are displaying some of their works since being sequestered. Many musicians are posting videos to cheer us up daily with free, online songs and music concerts. Away from the worldly touch provided by artists via social media, Spring is coming to life outside our windows and walls. That outside world is still vivid, valid and real, or as Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.”
Feathers and perches! Songs without words! Out past our windows a Wood Duck drake and hen returns to the grove. Goldfinches appear at the feeders in full mating plumage. Swans and geese continue to fly over, and out beyond us are reported sightings of Great Blue Herons and Sandhill Cranes. A single Pasque Flower was seen sprouting on a nearby hill. Ah, yes, beyond fear is a world of life continuing. A natural world showing us hope!
Fear and hope are both rather basic to our human spirit. And, yes, it’s natural to feel fear in such a time of uncertainty. Hopelessness didn’t limit the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, who penned a book after he was exiled in the early 1960s during the devastating war in his native Vietnam called “The Lotus in a Sea of Fire.” It’s theme? Hope.
Thich Nhat Hahn, known affectionately to his followers as “Tay,” led a remarkable life in exile. Shortly after leaving his birth country Tay taught Comparative Religion at Princeton University in 1961, then spent the following year teaching and researching Buddhism at Columbia University before heading to Paris. Eventually he formed the first Buddhist temple in the “Western World” in the Bordeaux region of France he called Plum Village, which still exists. Teachings continue today during this worldwide pandemic via social media, and, yes, “hope” is still the basic message.
Tay is also an artist, and was once a nominee for a Nobel Peace Prize. Martin Luther King was among his close friends. His life was full of both immense challenge and incredible success, surrounding his visions of peace and hope, starting in his youth at 16 entering the monastery to his eventual return after 39 years of exile to Vietnam following a massive stroke in 2014. And, yes, he was intimately aware of the perils of politics. “In order to rally people, governments need enemies … if they do not have a real enemy, they will invent one in order to mobilize us,” he wrote.
Yet, there was always that four letter word. “Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”
Our worldwide human society is now in uncertain times. We are both mandated and encouraged to practice social distancing in hopes of “lowering the curve” on a pandemic that may cost hundred of thousands of lives in the U.S. alone. We have been asked to remain homebound with prospects of having a completely different “normal” if and when the Covid-19 crisis is abated and/or controlled. We face this uncertainty with fear, for we have no model to look toward in searching for a future. Right now hope is a thread we must grasp.
Said Tay: “People sacrifice the present for the future. But life is available only in the present. That is why we should walk in such a way that every step can bring us to the here and the now.”
Here are a few more thoughts from Thich Nhat Hahn as we edge along in our quest for a hopeful future:
“We humans have lost the wisdom of genuinely resting and relaxing. We worry too much. We don’t allow our bodies to heal, and we don’t allow our minds and hearts to heal.”
“People deal too much with the negative, with what is wrong. Why not try and see positive things, to just touch those things and make them bloom?”
“Enlightenment is always there. Small enlightenment will bring great enlightenment. If you breathe in and are aware that you are alive – that you can touch the miracle of being alive – then that is a kind of enlightenment.”
“It is possible to live happily in the here and the now. So many conditions of happiness are available – more than enough for you to be happy right now. You don’t have to run into the future in order to get more.”
Here on our little piece of the prairie we grasp threads of hope within our well of fear. We often find it in the little things. Prairie Smoke poking up through gray winter fallow in our small native prairie garden. Those Wood Ducks, that even just days before I’d given up hope of seeing in our woods this year, are seen perching on a heavy branch. Even two promising buds on the mum plant on the kitchen window sill. Waking each morning knowing we here for one another for another day.
“Why not try and see positive things, to just touch those things and make them bloom?” Thanks, Tay, I needed that. So now we spend unprecedented time with our families, sequestered in homes some of us return to only to escape corporatism. We are becoming acquainted with our children, schooling them in ways we hadn’t imagined, and rediscovering the whys and ways of our closest relationships. We are not spending what is really unnecessary cash in bars and restaurants. And collectively, worldwide, we are rarely driving anywhere so we’re giving the planet a bit of healing time. And, more than all of the above, we are finding within ourselves a stout resilience and a real sense of compassion and care. Adding hope to those simple traits are perhaps our “lotuses in this sea of fire.”
I must confess. I’m a lousy hermit. People have even accused me of being just the opposite. An extrovert. A social animal. Someone energized by crowds. A man who shivers with fear of being cast aside, of ever being alone!
Another confession: As I aged my life as a night-prowling animal has also changed significantly. Now I’m decidedly a morning person with sunrises as my goal rather than challenging myself to a Herculean effort of making “last call.” Loud music has given way to prairie winds; delicate Prairie Smoke looms above the glittering crowns of barroom goddesses.
All of which places me squarely in a yin/yang situation. Someone has suggested that this Stay at Home Order has the potential of making me seem a “caged animal!” However, the “yang” of my “yin” is the nearby prairies and woodlands where we’ve been given governmental license to go to ease the mood. The skies, too, have blessed us recently with a steady flow of geese flybys. Nature has come to my (our) rescue.
Nature has long been a refuge. I grew up fly fishing farm ponds for largemouth bass and bluegills, hiking through nearby woodlots and horseback riding over the hills on our farm. Nature excursions have never been too distant. Back in my young professional life friends wondered how I could fit it all in. Prowling the bars into the wee hours, yet being ready a few hours later for an outdoors adventure. Looking back, I also wonder. Maybe I began maturing. When I moved to a publishing position from Colorado to Minnesota, which caused some friends to also wonder, I rediscovered country living. First along the St. Croix River, then the Little Vermillion River across a highway from the Prairie Island wilderness with close access to that beautiful little river.
With time and further change, and not necessarily of my own calling, we ended up in the flat Minnesota prairie where I ran a small country weekly for twenty plus years. It was 23 years ago this month when fate introduced me to the ghosts of what Missouri author William Least Heat Moon called “PrairyErth” — a friend, then the chief of our small town’s volunteer fire department, asked if I wanted to take a short flight with him to assess the flood waters inundating our small towns. It was on this flight that I noticed hundreds of pockets of standing water as far as the eye could see that I hadn’t seen before … sometimes several in a single quarter section.
“Wetlands,” said the fire chief. “Those are all drained wetlands.”
That was the moment when I realized there was an ecosystem here that was no longer. Less than one percent of the native prairie remains, and much of that is replanted like mine here at Listening Stones Farm. Fewer of the “potholes” or wetlands the glaciers left behind remain due to ditching and drainage tile. These are the “ghosts” of “God’s” creation of earth you see here in the former prairie pothole region during a spring melt.
This is the back story of our rather secluded life here on a “pinpoint” patch of that glacial creation. This is where we reside now in our third week of pandemic shut down. Truthfully we have been basically homebound since Mary’s knee replacement, so, yes, we are maintaining the mandated social distancing.
Not much has changed going into this hopefully short period of self quarantine. Friends returning from their winter sojourns to the south are immediately going into self-quarantines themselves, so there are no man hugs (nor woman hugs, for that matter). Our few social moments find us standing a good distance apart. Which in this region of the prairie, settled mainly it seems by American-Norwegians, social distancing is a rather traditional sociological trait. Even in more typical times folks stood about ten feet apart looking up at the sky and discussing the weather.
Oh, but those skies! Look into those skies! Here we have seemingly constant waves of Canada Geese skeins. A bit further east we’ve seen huge flocks of Snow Geese in their multiple phases, along with the Greater White-Fronted Geese. In our efforts of social distancing we’ve been chasing a huge flock of both species several miles east of here.
For this confirmed extrovert, this safety in social distancing has been both satisfying and tolerable. We have not been isolated from one another, and indeed, I feel we may have even grown closer together in this shared intimacy of caregiving. Mary, the introvert, and me, the extrovert, along with our shared senses of nature and the bounties offered even in this strangest of times for mankind worldwide.
In his book, Blue Highways, Least-Heat Moon wrote: “With a nearly desperate sense of isolation and a growing suspicion that I lived in an alien land, I took to the road in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected.”
For us, down the road wasn’t all that distant. It was touchable in our isolation, and comfortable in its remoteness, offering to us a sense of nature that life continues without us … despite us. That we could share in that for even a few moments brought calm to souls now challenged with change we cannot fathom, an uncertainty for mankind health wise and otherwise in ways we cannot comprehend. We can only hope this change does not mean ruin, or even death, and that in time, man and deeds will once again connect.
In times like these it’s good to turn to Wendell Berry’s poem, “The Peace of Wild Things.” Please bear with me …
This week a close friend was forced to plea her case for an invasive cancer treatment after her insurance company suddenly and unexpectedly downgraded her necessary, if perhaps life altering, procedure to an “elective” treatment. She wasn’t alone, for others in similar situations also made similar comments. She didn’t take this too well, and who can blame her. In her angst she expressed her frustration by calling out those complaining of the overall shutdown of life as we’ve known it.
Here is her quote: “My patience for people posting how sad they are, that they are home bored, there will be no prom for their kid, you have not been drafted, called to war, or other first world problems, is completely exhausted! I’m so sorry you have been asked to sit home on your ass and watch Netflix.” Understandable.
Due to the pandemic our lives are in total flux. As this plays out many of us are wondering about our impending “new normal.” What our lives were last week will likely never be the same despite all those who are expressing “once this is behind us” … “when life goes back to normal” … and so forth. Yes, I aim to be positive and yearn to see the restaurants full, the street corners buzzing with activity and friends hugging in shared greetings. I want to see concerts and fans return to the high school courts and the big stadiums. I want to see my friend and others have the medical treatments they need to survive. These pandemic precautions are blatantly necessary, and for many life saving.
In my seven decades there have been many monumental changes and events, though nothing like this complete shutdown here and around the planet. I was born during World War II, yet I can’t recall a single time in my life when our country wasn’t involved in some military conflict or war. This was also all those years of the polio epidemic when I was a child and before the Salk vaccine, and I remember how my mother worried herself terribly over each and every hiccup and body pain. Much like we are now when someone sneezes, coughs or complains of a fever.
Meanwhile billions upon billions of dollars will be lost across the board both nationally and internationally. Lost wages will severely affect millions of workers who lived paycheck to paycheck. Small businesses and locally owned eateries will be challenged to survive. These are strange and difficult times for us all … with possible exception of the National Football League where multi-million dollar contracts have filled the sports pages the past few days. This is both sick and sad, and beyond rational comprehension.
Yet, if this worldwide pandemic brings all humanity to their senses of compassion and neighborliness, what a wonderful change that would be. If all humanity decided to care for our lonely planet rather than searching for ways of completely ravaging Mother Earth for profiteering and other forms of greed … from our neighbor’s farm fields to proposing mining the necessary wilderness areas; from discarding plastics and cigarette butts to deforesting and plowing up perennial grasslands; from neglecting the needs of the working poor to pushing corporate greed for Wall Street, insurance companies and major corporations; from devising more creative ways of suppressing the voting rights of minorities to providing risk free subsidies to the greedy “one percent”; to bullying the continued need of broadband communications technology in our mostly rural areas to relying on “entertainment” styled propaganda network views (not news) …. yes, there could be a lovely new normal, one more compassionate and understanding than we knew just a week ago … before the pandemic.
For an extrovert, and as one in the “at risk” age group, this pandemic is quite frightening. I would love to gather my sons around me and can’t. One is in a group home lock down, meaning that even if I could venture to visit with him, I can’t. The other is in a lock down in Norway. We have social media, real time “face to face” visits, which we’ve relied on for nearly a decade. Technology makes this is as handy as sitting in front of the computer.
So, how are you spending these nervous times? There are ways of not pushing the patience of my hospitalized friend fighting cancer, who fought and won her treatment. For me I have the outdoors, and a wood shop I can reach once I cross the rivulet of melt water between the two high points of my lawn. Above us geese are moving, and the redwing blackbirds are clutching cattails in the wetlands. Every day more birds are migrating into the area. Life goes on without us in the broader world!
Which brings me to Wendell Berry and the “The Peace of Wild Things”:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Being diligent and creative, and following the guidelines offered to lower the crush curve of Covid-19 by maintaining a six foot space might help us navigate through these challenging times. Meanwhile I’ll grab my Nikon and find a peaceful piece of prairie or wood to escape our necessary isolation and worry not of what our new normal might be for just a bit. For a moment I will rest in the grace of the world and feel free. That will be the gist of my personal survival technique!
Sometimes I wonder about certain words. “Countless” comes to mind, for as I was crossing the prairie yesterday my eyes caught a distant skein of geese v-ing across the windshield. My thoughts at the time had nothing to do about spring, yet there it was.
A brief glance at the rearview mirror told me I had missed seeing a few skeins behind me, and looking to the south on the horizon it seemed there were countless others. There is that word again … which can be taken in various ways. Such as, too numerous to count, or perhaps, not counted at all. Both work in this instance.
As my car neared the pothole region of the prairie, and in both winter fallowed grain fields and restored prairies, and in the potholes themselves, all were alive with either feeding or resting geese. In a few of the more remote potholes, also known around here as wetlands or sloughs, paired geese were walking on failing remnants of ice checking the mounds as nesting possibilities. A few knobs of mud or muskrat mounds even had a goose nestled on top.
So joyous is springtime in the flyway, for the geese seemed excited and noisy in their rest. Once home we could hear them over the hum of the wind on the wetland over the hill. A near constant drone of “honking.” They were in their element, completely unconcerned of anything other than the promise that comes with eons of migration activities across continents that still continues.
For mankind, this isn’t a spring of much promise. Across the world the untamed coronavirus is closing borders in forced quarantines. My son and daughter-in-law in Bergen are in a two week “forced’ protocol because they have just returned from a trip to Budapest. Indeed, the entire country has “closed down” as have others in the EU. The sports leagues, from high schools to international soccer leagues, are either cancelling events or postponing seasons. A nearby senior care center has closed itself off from all visitors, family members included, until the threat has passed or is under control.
When I noticed the skein of geese I was actually thinking of Alvin Toffler, who wrote a short essay in the early 1970s called “Ecospasm,” where an incompetent leader was completely unprepared for a perfect storm of catastrophic issues from a stock market collapse to a pandemic, all great forces of economic collapse. I was thinking of just how close we are to the “whack-a-mole” hysteria of Toffler’s “ecospasm” right now.
Initially we sort of smirked away any seriousness of Covid19 for it was perhaps a far and distant threat that might cause a mere ripple in society if it occurred here at all. Now, though, it is real, and as a country we’re completely unprepared. Who can imagine the personal impact, let alone the economic impact this may have on each of us as individuals. Let alone the stress on our medical resources, and especially for the working poor who are receiving no help whatsoever from either our incompetent President and a Senate that is without an ounce of compassion for common man … as we each fear a common sneeze, a cough, if this shortness of breath is from uncommon exertion, too much weight, or a true symptom of an exotic and potentially deadly virus.
And another skein of geese crosses the sky, high against a lightly lit cloudy prairie sky …
We have entertained thoughts of once again of returning to Nebraska for the Sandhill Crane migration, for this is one of epic numbers and significance. Fully two thirds of the world’s Sandhill population funnels through a small stretch of the North Platte River. Juggling calendar dates and figuring a three-day hole for the trip down and back has sprinkled our thoughts. Then came an email from Crane Trust. All visitor activities have been closed down. All along the shallow river, not just in Wood River. Yet, like the Canada geese, the Cranes are coming. They have for eons, just like the geese. Nature flies on without us.
Although my chosen highway had no shoulders for safe parking alongside the pavement, I simply couldn’t help myself. There seemed a compelling need to witness this phenomenon of nature, to see these countless skeins painting the clouds above, the communal goose talk in the prairie grasses and corn stalks, the strutting and rest on the icy surfaces of the wetlands, the poetry of flight as they eased down from the sky to alight so softly.
It’s day 72 in China for the virus, and it spreads ever so quickly from country to country, with at least a two week incubation before the symptoms arise. Here we are in our second week. As life as we know it comes crashing down at least temporarily, spring arrives on the wings of countless skeins of geese. For me, at least, they have rarely been such a welcomed sight!
When the cell phone alarm sounded around midnight, Mary rolled from bed and said she would check to see if the Northern Lights had mysteriously appeared. We were what Minnesotans call “Way Up North” at the Gunflint Lodge on a Northern Lights package, securely warm in a “cabin” as large as my house with a north facing window. For the third straight night my camera was set up for the show. An appropriate extreme wide angle lens. Tripod. The camera securely set on the “bulb” setting, with a shutter cord dangling to the side. When she didn’t return for several minutes I thought perhaps we were finally in luck.
Then she suddenly came into the bedroom whispering just loud enough for me to hear: “There’s a wolf right outside our window!”
Allow me to briefly describe my fiancée. Mary adds little meat and no fat to the bones of her observations, be it political, of the arts or what she sees in nature. Typically her observations are, well, true to the bone! I rolled from bed and tiptoed behind her around the hot tub and sauna to the curtained living room window.
Mary has this dream of actually seeing a wild, dancing display of Northern Lights. In a couple of weeks she is scheduled for a knee replacement surgery which will tie her up with both pain and therapy, so this package seemed to fit our schedules. Gunflint Lodge is located on a north facing lake, and wide open to the northern skies without the horrid light pollution from farmstead security lights and roving pickups of lonely prairie boys. We were told if we wished for an even more “pure” view to head to the nearby lake access. We were geared and ready.
We had brought books along to occupy our lazy days as we rested from the anticipated light shows from the heavens, an exercise broken up by meals and outings. Rick the chef would come through at lunch and hint on what he was preparing for the evening offerings. He also knew of Ortonville, and of the gastronomical offerings of our prairie region. Our Lakewood Lodge on the shore of Big Stone Lake was a favorite, and he even mentioned a “greasy spoon” serving the “best breakfast in Western Minnesota” in nearby Odessa. Since 2013, when I moved to this area of the prairie, this is the very first reference to anything in Odessa! He also spoke of fishing Big Stone Lake, and knew the approximate location of my little farm.
Then there was Charlie the barkeeper, a friendly fellow who grew up in the northeastern corner of South Dakota and knew the lakes around here intimately. He knew the “where to goes” for huge bluegill on both Big Stone and Lake Travis, and like Rick the chef, had dined at Lakewood Lodge just down the road. “The waitress actually met our boat at the dock with a menu,” he said, smiling in remembrance.
At the front desk, and sometimes a wait person, was Dani, a heavily-tressed refugee from NYC, who spends her summers in the wilds of Alaska and the winters in the Minnesota wilderness. Like Charlie, who had seen enough neon and losers of Vegas, Dani found an opening at the lodge through the internet. She spoke of her dreams, of finding a man and a spot of unspoiled wilderness where “we will build a cabin and have some babies.” She said of New York City, “How can you find room to breathe when you’re surrounded by eight million people?”
Who led the wolf to us, though, was John the naturalist. On Tuesday morning John guided a “bird walk” up through the hills above the lodge. He was an engaging soul who knew his birds. We saw a chickadee and a nuthatch, and the good-of-hearing heard several other birds. Later that afternoon he offered a fascinating lesson on the Northern Lights, mixing science with mythology. Apparently John is a bit of a Renaissance man for besides his lectures and guided nature trips, he hosted the craft lessons.
On Wednesday he and I were the only two on a “Photo Hike” again up the hill to “Lookout Point” where the view was interrupted by a cable installed for a zip line. Before our walk he brought out some guidebooks, including one from National Geographic, where I found a picture of Jodi Cobb, who I had worked with at the Denver Post, and another of David Alan Harvey, who was in my graduating class of photojournalists at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. We then spent the hour-plus hike sharing our digital views of our wilderness hike. It was as fun as it was fascinating, for John had a good eye.
Afterwards, Mary and I headed to the bark framing class where once again it was John the naturalist teaching the class … to just Mary and I. We glued bark and shared a chummy discussion about nature, art and life in general. As we were zipping our parkas to leave, John said, “Hang on a moment. I’ll give you some seeds to spread around.” He then filled two small paper sacks with sunflower seeds.
As we neared the cabin we spread the seeds on the unmarred mound of snow outside of our cabin window with hopes of enticing bluejays and skittish pine siskins closer to the window. Which is where Mary found the wolf a little past midnight. We stood at the window watching it in silhouette as it licked the snow for the small morsels as it closely kept wary eyes on the walkway for threats. We didn’t attempt to change the camera setup for fear any sudden light would scare it away. So we watched. It was much bigger than any of the dogs the guests were seen walking, and the sled dogs were tightly secured in their pens. Mary, though, was more convinced than me. “I’ll tap the window to see what happens,” I said, after several moments.
With the single tap the wolf instantly broke into a fast lope past the low lamp on the walkway into the parking lot and off toward the ice covered lake. When it passed by the lamp we both could see the grayish brown coat, and his run was perfectly “wolf like” and so much different than that of a dog. We also convinced ourselves that had it been a dog it wouldn’t have suddenly burst away so quickly, nor veered toward the ice instead of the lodge and nearby cabins.
At breakfast a few hours later we told of our chanced viewing, and no one involved with the Lodge disputed our claim of seeing the wolf. “Those things happen up here,” said Charlie as he took our breakfast order.
While Mary didn’t get to experience the wavy dance of the greenish surround of the Northern Lights, she was more than pleased having seen the wolf … even one that dipped down from more exotic offerings of deer and moose to snack on lowly black sunflower seeds from John’s small sack. We were fully assured of our treasured encounter when we saw where its weight had broken through the heavy crust of the icy snowbank next to the scattered seeds. The huge footprints, one on top of another, made it difficult to make an absolute identification had we needed one. Which we didn’t.
Volker Nobbe, an old friend from Switzerland, came to mind on our recent trip through the SE quadrant of the country, for years ago on one of his trips to the States he continually shook his head in disgust at the amount of roadside trash he found here. He then surprised us on a road trip through Switzerland when he suddenly pulled off onto the shoulder somewhere between Basel and Bern to exclaim: “Look! No trash!” His arms were raised as if encompassing the breadth of the small country. “Our highways are clean! We Swiss have pride for our country!”
Classic Volker! He would have lost his voice on our recent trip along the “plastic trail” through Iowa and Kansas, down to Texas, across to Savanna, and eventually up to Richmond and back, for we hardly drove a single mile in the 5,500 without seeing some form of plastic trash. So many single use grocery carryouts caught in weeds and branches that the possibility of counting them was useless. Drink containers flipped from cars and trucks. Occasionally there were even garbage bags with refuge laying in the median or along the shoulder. It was such a mess that we had to ask: “Can we ever do away with our dependence on plastics?” And I’m not even talking about plastic straws.
Sometimes I wonder. This morning at the local supermarket there were rolls upon rolls of pull-off single-use thinly manufactured bags throughout the produce section to conveniently use for tomatoes, grapefruit, avocados and other unpackaged fruits and vegetables. Further along the produce aisle were prepackaged leafy greens and salad mixes in plastic tubs or bags. In the coolers across the way all the cheeses and other dairy-based products were in plastic containers. Skin tight, shrink-wrapped or in tubs and cartons. All the meats were nestled flat in Styrofoam trays covered with tightly sealed plastic wrap. Breads and spices? Same thing.
Check out the convenience stores, bait shops and the big box stores. Several weeks ago some of us volunteered to package take home goods for needy students at school. Using what? Single use plastic bags donated to the cause.
You can’t get away from plastic, it seems. Or, can you?
“I thought it was bad only in the oceans,” I said at one point, recalling images of a huge “island” of floating plastics floating somewhere in the vast Pacific. Estimates say that every single day approximately eight million pieces of plastic pollution find its way into our oceans. There may now be around 5.25 trillion macro and micro-plastic pieces floating in the open ocean. Weighing up to 269,000 tons. The United Nations Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Pollution (GESAMP) estimates that land-based sources account for up to 80 percent of the world’s marine pollution … with 60 to 95 percent of the waste being plastics debris.
Its no better on terra firma. In Ohio, state employees, inmates and Adopt A Highway volunteers took more than 157,000 hours to collect 396,000 bags of roadside trash, including plastics in 2018. That’s 19,723 full work days that cost Ohio taxpayers $4.1 million. Alabama litter crews gathered more than 113 tons of roadside litter in the Tuscaloosa area in 2019, according to reports. If the litter were measured in plastic bottles, it would stretch from Tuscaloosa to Dallas “with a few miles to spare,” said John McWilliams, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Transportation’s West Central Region. The state’s costs to clean up roadside litter reached $200,000 in Tuscaloosa County alone, and $6.8 million statewide.
And in Washington state, a two-year study by the state’s DOT disposed of 6,075 tons of litter and debris from major roadsides across the state. The Department of Ecology estimates another 4,400 tons were collected on state and county roads at the same time.
Sea or land. We’re making a damned mess of it. In fact, we might be choking our existence with plastic debris.
What is being done about it? Not much. Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New York and Vermont have passed laws banning disposable bags that are set to go into effect in 2020 or 2021. Interestingly, more state legislatures, including Minnesota, have passed laws “banning the ban” of single-use plastic bags than those that have regulated against using them. South Dakota just narrowly defeated a bill that would have banned the one-use plastics before reconsidering. Rather than a narrow vote the “ban on the ban” overwhelming passed the second time through from both parties and it is now in front of the SD governor, Kristi Noem, for her signature.
It seems rather apparent that if we humans want to live in a world unchoked by single use plastics we’ll have to do it ourselves. One person at a time. And this isn’t the seemingly silly plastic straw brigade. We won’t wean ourselves totally off plastics, but we can significantly reduce our dependence. That said, I’ll admit to not being perfect for, yes, although I typically carry cloth or nylon bags to the grocery when I shop, there are times I forget and leave them in the car. My bags came from a promotion to join the Sierra Club a few years back, and they’re much roomier than the cloth bags I had previously used and much easier to stuff in a pocket going into the store.
My use of cloth or nylon bags dates back several years, and follows a trip I had made to Sweden. And, later to Germany. In both countries I found most shoppers were bringing their own reusable cloth and woven plastic bags to carry home their groceries. Indeed, our local food co-op installed pegs for extra cloth bags volunteered by members for those who didn’t have them. Recently I asked a former exchange student who now lives and works in Berlin if the use of “carry in” bags was still in practice. Apparently it is. “Either we place groceries in our backpacks or use cloth bags we bring to the store. For vegetables we use the mesh bags that used to be used in former East Germany,” she said.
This prompted me to order mesh bags for that very purpose since I’m still pulling single-use bags off the roll for my grapefruit and avocados. To discard that convenient plastic, though, I use a trick taught to me by a South Korean exchange student, Jenyoung Hwang, who told me that in her country plastic bags were knotted to prevent them from blowing.
Beyond the single-use plastic, there are other excellent ideas. A friend carries a reusable square of aluminum foil in her purse for take home from restaurants, while a woman I know in Colorado actually carries a sandwich-sized, lid-locking Tupperware container in her purse for the same purpose. Both are great ideas. If only I had a purse!
Water and coffee drinkers can use refillable containers. The ideas and lists of alternatives to plastic use continue to grow. And, this is what it will take … one person, one step at a time. The plastic problem is all around us; single use, lightweight bags blowing free in the wind, water and juice containers being flipped from cars and trucks, a random garbage bag that has perhaps fallen en route to the dump or dumpster, cigarette butts and yes, perhaps even straws. It would be ridiculous to suggest we can ever live plastic free, and that isn’t my point.
We can certainly reduce our dependence on plastics, especially single use bags. For what we observed along the highways on our trip was mostly avoidable — beyond just being sloppy. It takes some initiative, and certainly some perseverance, to change to more earth friendly habits. I’m game, and hope you are as well. For I would love to calm ol’ Volker down!