Going back to the place I’d found only a few days earlier was much easier this time. The subtle bends in the trail, and the ever-more hidden track off to the right of the lake shore that led to my bridge was all but completely covered in dense tree roots, almost as if daring one to cross, and doing their best to prevent the discovery of the place that lies some 100 feet from this naturally occurring fence. A few steps farther and I’ve reached my weathered bridge that blends a little too well into the surrounding soil, but as I sit down, I find myself looking back the way that I had come.
The roots visible from the lakeside had been lined up parallel and on a slight incline to each other and the path, as if creating a border for the trail. However, they were also one of the minute details that had led me to my spot in the first place, because the increase in height as they grew farther and farther from the trail had resembled a staircase. It was as if the roots were piled high to block people from coming, but at the same time they were beckoning people to cross over to the other side.
From that other side, however, the same roots reached around trees like claws trying to rip through and escape to the lake below. From my perch I can also see precisely where the roots meet the ground, and it’s a lot less elegant than I would have expected. Thick and knotted, the wood seems to bubble up from the ground and divert the path of everything around it. However, I knew this was not the case.
Why the side by the lake grew straight and narrow and side facing the woods seemed tangled and angry, I have no clue. But I do know that trees grow lengthwise before they begin to get thicker, and roots burrow down into the ground from the surface, not the other way around. This meant that the destructive nature of these roots started at the very beginning, when the tree was still barely able to support itself. The knots in the wood were laid out like faulty foundation for a building – the more you build it up, and the longer you let things develop without fixing it, the more pronounced and destructive the problem will become.
I’m reminded of the city of Camden, New Jersey, which was initially a thriving city, beckoning people to live in this place with its booming shipbuilding industry, soup canning business and music production, as well as busy main street with its classic cars, movie theaters, and grandiose hotel, inviting people in just like the staircase of roots from the lakeside drew me to my spot on the bridge.
Once inside, however, where the city is allowed to grow and develop, the little knots that were nearly invisible in the roots now become glaringly obvious. World War II ended, and so did shipbuilding. Manufacturers left to find cheaper labor in the south and abroad, an inevitable issue as people’s standards of living increase when they live in a nice town and begin to demand more money for their work. The sad thing is that these things were doomed to fail from the start. No industry can continue working in the same place forever. Cities can’t evolve without changing some of their core infrastructure, and it just so happens that the sacrifices made in Camden were the very industries that kept the city afloat.
Imagine if I removed all the roots from the side of the tree where I sat – even if the side by the lake, the seemingly well structured and organized part of the tree, managed to stay intact, the whole thing would still topple over from lack of internal support. Despite all the efforts made to improve the city, the overarching problem lies much deeper than any local project can fix, within the very reason for the town’s foundation. Camden was built around its strategic location on the waters outside Philadelphia, and when the location lost its appeal in favor of other cities or the suburbs, there was nothing anyone could do to stop the tailspin.
It makes me wonder if this could happen to all cities one day. My own hometown, located about half an hour outside of New York City on the Long Island Sound, is pretty well off, but right next door sits what could be considered the Camden of Connecticut. The power structure of the area is complicated, because we’re surrounded by the infamous Gold Coast, with commemorated towns like New Canaan, Darien, Greenwich and Westport to the north, east and west, and yet right on the water is a town that even the crude comedy of Family Guy condemned.
Fairfield County ranks among the wealthiest in the nation, and yet Bridgeport sits right in the middle, a hub for those lacking an invitation from Gatsby. Poor and dilapidated in many areas, the town is an object of fear to many of my high school classmates. When I was little, however, I took swim lessons at the Bridgeport YMCA because we couldn’t afford the Fairfield prices, and then I went on to swim with the local club team for the next 10 years until I made my high school team. The people I met in those years, from coaches to fellow athletes and their families, remain to this day some of the hardest working and most down to Earth people I have ever known, and I continue to work as a lifeguard with some of my old teammates at the Y where I first learned to swim.
Because of my experience, I sometimes refuse to see how the town has deteriorated over the years. This past summer, when I was helping my best friend from kindergarten move out of her childhood home, finally escaping the run down house that had plagued her family for generations, we went back to our elementary school not far from the YMCA. The playground looked bleak on a sunny summer day, and all I could think of were the games of kickball in the now overgrown field, the knockoff Tamagotchis that we hid from the teachers on the now rusty and broken swings, and the countless games of Spud and Four Square on the badly cracked blacktop. I can’t recall one day as a kid that I had ever felt unsafe at the school, on the small enclosed grounds that now looked abandoned, and yet a high school friend of mine was too afraid to go to a restaurant right down the street, despite my reassurance. How times have changed.
Bridgeport may be dangerous, but the sad thing is that I’ve become so jaded as to expect it, and accept the violence with a grain of salt, and simply try and live my life despite it, just like the people of Camden but on a smaller scale. My friends that grew up in Fairfield, however, are like the rest of New Jersey is to Camden, ignoring the town’s existence the best they can, locking their car doors when driving through, if not bypassing it altogether on I-95, and diverting any and all state funding in favor of their own towns.
After reading about Camden, I was blown away by the number of similarities to my neighbor city, from the early settlers taking advantage of the large harbor not far from New York, and the 500 factories that once populated the area, to the industrial fall after World War II. While I know Bridgeport is in slightly better shape than Camden, with numerous development projects currently underway, it still shows how much the roots of initial development doomed the city from the start. In the early days, society is the tree itself – we lay the foundation to draw people in, but then neglect the actual substance itself, so as the city develops into a full grown tree, the knotted roots just get thicker and dig deeper, making them harder and harder to pull out with each passing year. Nowadays, I could be the metaphor for society – I saw a staircase and couldn’t help but climb to the other side, and then I just sat there on my bridge and watched helplessly, hoping against all hope that the tree could support itself and would not fall down and destroy my sanctuary, but unable to do anything of use since the damage has already been done.
This weekend I left the University to visit home as, in my household, there is much commotion due to the passing of my grandfather. In parallel to the commotion in my household, my mind feels scattered and amuck with crazy thoughts, ideas, goals, and desires. My experience with the environment this week deals with the walk I took from my house to girlfriend’s, through a trail in a forest and across a creek that I have traversed many times. This time was different though; I felt more keen and in tune with my surroundings.
I noticed an adolescent squirrel, frantically bounding up and down in all directions, searching for food, playmate or anything that would take his mind off of being alone (for what looked to be the first time). His/her tail was no more than just a stub, an insignificant ball-like mass that would serve no purpose. Was it still growing or was this squirrel cursed with a crippling abnormality? I wondered if this small squirrel would have a hard time balancing as the tail’s general function is to balance and level out the body. Or if it would have a harder time jumping from tree limb to tree limb? It seemed out of sync, making lightning fast darts in all directions but never really moving anywhere purposefully.
This made me think back to a page in my psychology book about Charles Darwin and natural selection. Although this may not correlate directly it would seem this little critter will be forced to adapt to its disfigurement or it may be moved down the food chain and swept into the circle of life quicker than its siblings. I have hope for this particular squirrel because in many ways, he/she symbolizes the struggle I have been dealing with in the last few weeks. The indecisive but impulsive plethora of movements from this creature mirrors my stream of contradicting emotions. One moment I feel able to accomplish any task and the next I’m hit with grief over the loss of a man I used to see every weekend. One class I feel ready, willing to participate and open enough to actively engage with my peers and mentors yet the clock strikes 2:15 and I find myself sleeping the next 4 hours away, trapped in my dorm room, scared to go out and socialize for fear of judgment and uncontrollable irritation of modern day neglect of organic verbal communication (anger due to everybody’s constant use of phones). I have just been wanting an end to the daily void I feel when walking class to class and the rush of paradoxical emotions that sporadically encompasses my mind, body, and soul.
The next aspect of my journey to my girlfriends house took me across a man-made, rusty, clunky, grotesque, bridge that, like the path, I had traveled across a ridiculous amount of times. This time instead of a bridge I saw an opportunity, I wanted to change the bridge, reinvent it organically. Jutting from the sides of the bridge that connected the two edges of the creek were small plants. Clovers, grass, weeds and more types of vegetation I was raised to hate and eliminate. Now, though, I loved seeing their presence; This bridge brought back memories of times at my mom-mom and pop-pop house where my uncle, brother and I would gather tons of small sticks and each create a tiny bridge by super gluing (now I know this contains some rather nasty chemicals) these sticks together. I always enjoyed my uncle’s company and found him easy to connect with (he’s an English teacher). We always seemed to be doing creative activities like making massive sand sculptures of sharks with seashell teeth or flying kites for hours at a time. Memories such as these seemed to be trapped in my mind, evoked only when I take a step from structured life.
During the reading and discussions of Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, one idea from class kept coming up in my thoughts: the concept of bearing witness, or seeing something for one’s self or hearing a first-hand story instead of just reading or hearing a secondary source, and how that can make all the difference in how we view things.
I personally felt the power of bearing witness when I attended the protest rally against how the University of Delaware mishandled the recent sexual harassment incident and how they have been unable or neglected to bring justice to others who have committed sexual abuse on the UD campus. Before going to the event I knew sexual assault was a problem, but I was still shocked and saddened by hearing first-hand the numerous stories of the survivors who were assaulted on (and off) campus. I was then even further enraged and inspired to take action when I heard how few of their assaulters had been punished, even after the survivors had reported to the school and local police. Though I certainly had already felt that UD needed to do better and reform its policies, bearing witness to the accounts of the professor who help report the case and the survivors of other sexual abuse made the need for transparency and action exponentially more clear. So, as my friend and I once again set out for White Clay Creek with my mind on bearing witness and social justice, I thought about how directly experiencing nature is impacting how I view the environment.
When we went got the creek, I immediately noticed how the water level had seemed to have risen and was now rushing over the top of the dam much faster than it had before. Some of rocks that were there in our past visits seemed to have disappeared or been covered up, and the water was flowing places it hadn’t before. These factors seemed to have displaced the water bugs, who were congregating in a more shallow and slow moving spot off to the side. My attempt to put my feet in the water was short-lived, as, despite the fact that we came on a warm day, the water had become considerably colder. It is interesting how after only a few visits to place, one can notice so many differences about something seemingly so simple as water in a creek.
Once I got settled and down to observing, what really caught my attention was a small but noticeable group of small blue skimmer dragonflies with a few black stripes known as blue dashers. Perhaps these insects had been around on my other visits, but I had never really noticed them before. After at first admiring them for there color and unique shape and wings and the fact that they eat mosquitoes (I have always liked bugs, in elementary school I would often check out a book called All About Bugs that had lots of cool pictures), I noticed something weird was going with two of them. It looked like one of them was maybe attacking the other one that had a different color? … then I slowly realized … Ew! … They were mating! However, this process started to not go so well. The pair at some point fell into the water, and started to get pulled away by the current. The male one then abandoned his mate, who due her wings being soaked, could not fly away! Luckily, my friend scooped her out of the water and she managed to survive. However, the male dasher had the nerve to come back and try to forcefully mate with her again! This poor lady dasher needed some social justice of her own.
So, sitting next to my thicket of pickerelweed and aster having experienced something that I never would have found if I didn’t have to go into the woods, I thought about what effect being in nature has on how one views the environment. I remembered the quote from Aldo Leopold in The Sand County Almanac that “it is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect and admiration for land, and a high regard for its value… value in the philosophical sense” (223). To me, it seems the most effective way to for one to gain this respect and love of land and nature is to bear witness to it, to actually experience it. Hopefully if more people were to go out and be with nature instead of watching on the Discovery channel, they would be more inspired to make a difference and help the environment. I know it has had that effect on me.
For the first time this season I get the opportunity to observe the woods in a later time frame, arriving in the afternoon and not leaving until sunset. The chance came when some after class plans on Monday had been canceled so once I got home around 2:30; I changed into my gear and headed out.
As I settle into the stand I cannot get one thing out of my mind that carried over from class discussion. We are covering a book Days of Destruction Days of Revolt, by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, which is a firsthand observatory piece where the authors visit “sacrifice zones” around the country to see what exactly has happened to cause these areas of decline and what they are currently going through.
One such area that struck close to me was a chapter on the expired West Virginia mining towns. I don’t personally have any experience working directly in a mine shaft but I do have experience working in the second leg of the coal process. Working in the summer and winters as an industrial painter for my dad, I have been inside fly ash silos and coal shoot buildings in coal fired plants. I have seen how dirty the stuff can be and how just after one days of work, everything you brought into that area is now black. I have also seen the gruesome images of what it looks like for someone to be trapped inside a coal shoot and have their body cavity filled with coal as it piles over and suffocates them. There was one section in particular in the chapter that struck on a more personal level. Being from and still having family that live in the central Pennsylvania mountains, there are only two ways to make a living there: work at the local Leyos Supermarket, or in the mine shaft.
Every year we go up for the family reunion and each year my grandfather shows me Baughman Ave. which runs across Baughman Mountain and eventually leads into Baughman Cemetery. The overwhelming pride and history lessons that come from these visits are invaluable. It is something that I one day wish to be able to show the next generation of the family that came before them. In a similar geographical region in West Virginia, a witness in the book describes the demolition of family cemetery similar to the one I visit. I know just like the witness in the book, if anything threatened the existence of our cemetery I would fight with everything in my power to preserve it.
A red fox zigzagging through the soybean field brings me out of my day dream. If you have never seen a fox or coyote scamper through the woods, it is interesting, they never run in a straight line, instead they constantly dart left to right every four to five yards. Just as this fox did until he eventually reached a fallen long that he balanced onto and ran across to get the creek. I think he ran across the log to avoid stepping on the leaves and sticks that harmonically revealed his presence. As the fox laps water, green frogs dive from the shore into the creek one by one, at least six or seven of them. To the right of the main trail are some young pine saplings that are rubbed of bark and branches from one complete side, a sign of male deer activity that have used the tree to rub off the velvet that had previously covered their freshly grown antlers. Now I can only hope that the deer returns to same area.
Crows fly and squaw overhead followed by cackling geese that seem to be miles in the air gliding over in their v pattern in the purple and orange stained sunset sky. A small group of deer appear into sight just as shooting light begins to fade. A doe with a fawn and what looks to be a yearling doe cautiously take step by step, repeatedly dropping their noses to the ground eating at patches of green vegetation. As I get together and climb down in late dusk darkness I can hear the leaves turn as the deer run away.
I’ve been thinking a lot about power. It began as I ran through White Clay toward my spot, and I really noticed the sun’s heat as it beamed on my forehead. Its continuous exertion on my body seemed to draw out all of my strength with every step. But was it really the sun that made my legs want to give in and call it quits? Or was it my mind? Mind over matter, right? But the matter in this case is my body itself. Think about what a powerhouse machine that is! So who has the most power?
These were my thoughts until I reached the river, rocks, and trees with a familiar face now. Except there were three strangers swimming in the river. My first reaction was frustration and annoyance because they were interrupting my quiet time for contemplation. However, they were merely enjoying nature just as much as I was. Again, what great influence they had over my thoughts and emotions, as well as the serenity of my spot compared to last week.
Each person, body, and mind holds so much power and energy, but its application is different based on the individual, as we discussed in class last week. Unfortunately in our society, money is equivalent to power. This is especially true in cases with big businesses and politicians, clearly portrayed in Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. Power seems to trickle its way down from money machines through politicians to the people, which leaves individuals feeling powerless. One person can’t make a difference, right?
Wrong. Think Mahatma Gandhi. According to Michael Red Cloud, Gandhi was “one of the most powerful men in this world, but he was one of the most humble men that we ever met” (55). Michael goes on to talk about how some people see humbleness as a weakness in today’s society, that we must be loud and outspoken in order to impact the lives of others.
This is something I struggle with. I’ve never thought of myself as a powerful person. I’m definitely more shy and quiet, the epitome of an introvert. However, this doesn’t mean I am not an influential person. I have been fortunate enough to travel around the world to better lives and the environment, something I am very passionate about. This is why the section referring to Gandhi spoke to me. You can be both humble and powerful. Our society just assumes the opposite.
So this “society” everyone speaks of that needs an attitude adjustment – if power comes from money, where does the money come from? Most of the time, natural resources are the source of revenue. For example, oil, coal, natural gas, rare minerals, and water! Don’t even get me started on bottled water. Based on this logic, nature should be the almighty power we all should protect and cherish rather than deplete and destroy. Why don’t we (the general population) recognize this?
As I sat on my fallen tree over the stream, thinking about all of the above, I never once felt (or ever feel) powerful over nature. I feel small, but not insignificant. I feel encompassed, but not overwhelmed. I feel calm and at peace.
For some reason, I needed to touch the water. As I bent down, I noticed all the little tadpoles swimming by the shallow edge. It’s amazing how much life is dependent on something as molecularly simple as water. In such a complex world, our power system has never been simple. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but the natural world is dropping hints that it’s strength should not be tampered with. So, who has the most power? I think we should start to listen.
Today is a beautiful day, it’s not too hot and it’s not cold, which is saying a lot because I’m always cold. As I walk to my spot I’m almost hit by at least two bikers and was given a few nasty looks as the runners had to go around me because I was in the middle of the path, whoops.
I wish I could run like that, it looks like such a great exercise. I wish I could wake up, look outside and think it’s a great day for a run and then actually go out and run. Instead I have bad lungs that fight me on good choices like that. I don’t have asthma, from what I know of, I have never been tested for it, but for some reason when I attempt to exercise and my heart rate goes up, I have a very difficult time finding air.
I’ve always had this problem, and its mostly just running and stairs that provoke it. It feels as if my lungs are working overtime but no air is actually being breathed in. Then after I finish the very short work out that I am able to do, it takes about 15-30 minutes for my normal breathing to return. This limits my exercise options by a lot, making it hard to stay in shape. My cousin, who I am very close to, has always made fun of me for my breathing. She’s a swimmer so her lungs don’t mind being without air for a minute or two, where I can’t hold my breath underwater for even 10 seconds.
Amanda, my cousin, loves to run and swim, along with other exercises I have trouble with. Freshman year of high school she joined the swim team and loved it. She would swim laps upon laps every day. She lost a lot of weight, she was in shape, and she was finally feeling comfortable in her own body. Little did she know that all these body changes were actually caused by her thyroid over working itself, not her new workout routine. No one noticed until a few months later that her neck was immensely swollen. Her grandma, who is a nurse, forced her to go to the doctor where they discovered, through a thousand and one tests, that Amanda has Graves’ disease and if they didn’t get her thyroid back to normal she could die.
Amanda was quickly put on a lot of different medication, all of which made her gain weight, vomit, and physically tired. She was told to drink only water, at least six liters a day, along with plenty of food. She couldn’t keep anything down though and could barely get out of bed. She would go to school late and leave early because she couldn’t focus and would vomit regularly. She wasn’t allowed to swim anymore, but that wasn’t really at the top of her list of complaints, because the stairs were enough of a challenge for her. Amanda felt even worse than she did when her body was self-destructing. All this medication was supposed to make her better but the only noticeable effect was the pain that it was causing her.
Watching her go through all of this I couldn’t help but worry about myself as well. The cause of Graves’ is unknown but it does seem to have genetic connections. I’m related to her so we share some of the same genes. But we grew up together as well, eating the same foods, playing with the same toys, swimming in the same pools, lakes, and oceans. I could have developed a similar disease without knowing it. My neighbor had thyroid cancer just a few years ago, again the cause unknown. She had to have her thyroid removed to save her life after going through a lot of the similar symptoms Amanda experienced. Even if thyroid diseases aren’t genetic, that means they can be developed from the products we consume, which are toxic. The thyroid controls hormones within the body and a lot of the foods, for instance, that I eat are added hormone. Chickens for example, are injected with hormones so that there is more meat on their breasts to eat. I then eat that chicken and where are those hormones going?
Like the amphibians in toxic waterways, the hormones that are consumed mess up our bodies, humans may not have their sex changed by these toxins just yet but our bodies are reacting in other ways due to the hormone imbalances. Amanda’s Graves’ disease may be genetic, or it may not be, but my neighbor’s cancer was most likely not. We may think that products released are safe, because if they weren’t they wouldn’t be allowed, but some aren’t. We have to be careful of what we consume because the effect can be greater than expected.
I am stressed out. School stinks. I have too much going on. All I want to do is watch Netflix. I ate a whole carton of ice cream and I’m not ashamed. I too am feeling a lot of those college blues at the moment because the seasons are beginning to change, my first series of exams are nearing, and I am coming down with a pre-winter runny nose. How can it be 50° in the morning and 70° by noontime? I might as well wear two outfits. I needed an escape from my hectic schedule, so on the brisk Thursday morning, I began my journey yet again.
I have mentioned before that I have a fascination with branches. But as I approached my spot in White Clay, I began to notice the trees themselves. I wish I embodied the power of a tree during finals week. I wish that I could stand tall and mighty as forces blew me left to right and rattled my sides. I wish that I could be as dependable as a tree—knowing when to let its leaves off and grow anew. Why would anyone want to cut down a thing that personifies strength, glory, and fecundity?
I am in between a rock and a hard place because I am surely not a conserver, but I adore and appreciate forestry because I live in a place of monoculture. So really, what can I do? I do not have the power, money, or time to allot to project as massive as planting across the New York City boroughs. My eyes began to tear up in one of our English classes because I felt empowered. I felt as the people did written about in, “Days of Destruction; Days of Revolt.” Here I am, getting piles and piles of information thrown at me and then going home and printing my homework, using toxic shampoo in my hair, and eating processed turkey burgers. For the first two weeks of the course, I simply ignored my impact but now I have no choice but to feel that I owe it back to the Earth to at least try to help out in the fight to conserve and protect.
Back to the trees—they are able to collaborate with their fellow trees and create an organized chaos of branches, vines, and leaves. A tree is not a tree without its base and its roots. Here is where my problem lies: I did not grow up around parents who were conscious of the environment. My mother, a nurse, focused her attention on heavy duty cleaning products to ensure our safety against harmful germs. My dad, being a lover of crappy food, fed us bags of chips, candy, and other snacks that crunched to perfection. I did not live a life that Albert Donnay would have been proud of. I did not choose that lifestyle but those circumstances form my base and my roots just like a tree has hers.
Does a tree’s bark grow bare and frail like its branches when winter comes? Will a tree look as mighty as it does during the winter? These questions will soon have answers as the months move along and my runny nose turns into a full-blown head cold. Until then, I enjoy the fruitful maples and the overgrown elms that crowd my sights of White Clay.