Treading lightly the path to enlightenment.

To Hell And Back

Flames and thick, acrid smoke. Putrid stench, fear, agony and death. A desolate place, inhospitable to life.

No, it’s not Hell. It is the Cuyahoga River in the middle of the United States, in Cleveland, Ohio.

It’s a hundred and one years after the first fire on the river was reported in The Plain Dealer, in 1868.

We think of Pittsburgh and Detroit when we think of our Industrial Revolution cities, but Cleveland ranks right up there with a healthy population of steel mills.

Rivers had been natural sewers as long as humankind has lived in densely populated communities. Ancient Rome is praised for its advanced civil engineering and the first public sewer system. (Perhaps premonition of humankind’s future, they also had indoor plumbing and running water. Unfortunately, the public water supply was delivered through lead pipes.)

As time marched on, the numbers of people using the waterways for waste increased a million fold. Add now the poisonous elements of our burgeoning “Chemical Revolution”; DDT, PCBs, waste oil, asbestos, mercury, household cleaners and industrial ones.

In 1969, TIME magazine featured the story of the June 22nd fire on the river that “oozes rather than flows”. River Of Fire.

That’s what it takes to convince people that things are really bad.

This is not far from the publication date of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”, where numbers and facts were needed to convince people that all the dead fish are really dead and you won’t be seeing any bald eagles anymore.

If I was an adult writing this in 1969 (I was 10), I would be declaring the end of the world as we know it. Actually, that statement would not have been far from the truth. When finally we had trashed the planet so badly that the water burned, folks began to wake up.

Maybe they didn’t care about the bald eagle, the official emblem of our country. Maybe they were unconcerned that no fish or water bird existed or could exist in that canal of contaminants. Maybe no one cared that the same things killing eagles and fish, waterfowl and mussels would do the same for us. Maybe they just wanted the fires on the river to stop.

We can fix these things, given time, effort and commitment to them, a concept I have often doubted.

We are unlikely to see again the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker or the Carrier Pigeon. We can, however, now see bald eagles. And ospreys, who were right behind the eagles heading for extinction. We have returned Trumpeter Swans and the native Yellowstone Trout to that preserve for which it is named.

And that filthy river in Cleveland, Ohio?

In 2019, the ban was lifted on consumption of fish taken from the Cuyahoga. One hundred fifty one years from the first reported fire. Fifty years since “Silent Spring”.

So don’t give up on our hopes for our planet’s future and that of its living occupants. Patience will be required.

I don’t have another fifty years ahead of me. I won’t know what progress we’ll have made by then.

With habitat loss. With carbon emissions. With lead and plastics.

But my hopes and dreams for my grandchildren and theirs are renewed and reinvigorated with the reclamation of the Cuyahoga River.

Humans have proven they can do many amazing things; learn to fly, wipe out polio, split the atom, land people on the moon.

With some perseverance, some devoted labor, given another hundred years, perhaps we can add one more amazing achievement:

Earth restored.

Max at West Creek

Seek peace,



Comments on: "To Hell And Back" (6)

  1. A significant post, Paz. Just a few weeks ago on fb I posted an article on the Cuyahoga fire in response to someone who stated that past pollution wasn’t that bad. I sure hope you are right and humans can turn environmental damage around.


    • Keep the faith, Leah.
      I saw a piece recently that described a pair of young entrepreneurs starting a business that reclaims waste plastics from the ocean and makes products of them. Simple genius.
      Perhaps the ocean gyres will be the new Sutter’s Mill, the new Yukon Gold Rush, and there will be fierce competition for permits to extract the plastic gold from the liquid one.
      And that’s just one new idea born of a very old problem.
      I remarked to myself just this morning how much cleaner my world is now, compared to my childhood. Even in the country, the roadsides were likely to contain clutter and trash and non-returnable bottles and cans. In urban environs, even worse.
      Nowadays it’s normal for every citizen to choose a recycle bin for that plastic bottle, to bring reusable shopping bags with them into the store, to sort cans and bottles from their household trash, to “adopt” roadsides and keep them clean. If I saw folks do that in a movie at the age of ten, I’d think “how futuristic!” All these things were foreign to the 1969 that brought us our highest achievement as humans, the lunar landing, and some of our lowest points as a country, including public protests, racial tensions, international arms races and rampant pollution.
      We’ve come a long way in 50 years.
      Let’s keep up that momentum.

      Best regards,



  2. Hi Paz. Have you heard Randy Newman’s song about that river? In case you haven’t here it is:


    • Wow! Great piece, Neal. Thanks for sharing, I had not heard it before.
      Here’s hoping someone will find a way to do a song about a River Of Fire that was once lost to us, and the All-American tale of the blood, sweat and tears required to return her to her former Glory.

      Here’s a quote for you, tangentially related to the topic:

      “I’m just like everybody else around.
      I like to sing my songs of change like a crooner.
      But if we all lived another mile down,
      I think we’d like to get it changed a whole lot sooner.”

      – Todd Rundgren

      Take care and keep in touch,


      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh, how i hope so . . .Every person on the planet ought to be on this mission. I know there are some big issues out there, but if everyone of us worked to make sure our habits weren’t harmful to the earth-what a difference just that could make. Merry Winter! and thank you!


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