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: