Last week, Lou spoke at the opening of Reflections: Homage to Dunkard Creek, an art exhibit at Chatham. In 2009, Dunkard Creek in West Virginia was the site of an enormous fish - creek kill when the 43 mile long creek and its wildlife were poisoned and killed by golden algae. The algae bloom was reportedly related to high chloride levels associated with discharges from a Consol Energy mine treatment facility (PGH Post-Gazette, 3-16-12). Google "Dunkard Creek fish kill" for photos of the disaster.
The Reflections art exhibit, sponsored by the Mountain Institute, consists of artwork depicting 90 species of life decimated in the Dunkard Creek fish kill. If you are in Pittsburgh, I encourage you to check out this exhibit, live through May 25. In any case, browse through the slide show on the Reflections web-site.
So back to Lou -- he offered some very thoughtful remarks at the art show opening last week, and generously agreed that I could share these with you. We are fortunate to have him at Chatham - West Virginia is fortunate to have him in its corner. I so appreciate his wisdom.
Comments for the Dunkard Creek Exhibit, May 10, 2012, by Lou Martin
Dunkard Creek winds along the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border, not too far from Morgantown. In grad school, I used to commute from Washington County down to Morgantown, and I would cross over Dunkard Creek near where is empties into the Mon River.
In the process of driving an hour to school nearly every day, I became less and less aware of the environment as I drove. After a while, I scarcely paid attention to the built environment, driving past houses, stores, and old factories without paying any attention to them, let alone the natural environment hidden from sight, like Dunkard Creek.
It is cliché to say that we have been divorced from the natural world in the so-called modern era. Along with this is a belief that we have mastered nature such that we no longer need to think about it. But I am reminded of something my friend Larry Gibson says: “People misunderstand their relationship to the environment. Our mothers gave us birth, but it is the land that gives us life.”
As we become less aware of our environment and all that gives us life, we run the risk of destroying it and ourselves. Who among us knows where all the articles and items they have with them today came from? Not me. Who knows where their clothing was assembled, let alone where the cotton, dyes, and bleach came from. I submit to you that the less we know about the origins of the things we consume, the greater the risk that harm is coming to those places as a result of production.
Electricity is perhaps the product we as a society consume the most but whose origins we know the least about. Electricity itself is ethereal and fleeting. It does not carry labels that tell us where it comes from. Yet, it is central to most of our lives and about half of it—as most of you probably know—comes from burning coal. That coal comes from the Rocky Mountain states of Wyoming, Montana, and Utah, and from the Appalachian Mountain Range, where we live. Our mountains have been exploited for their coal for 120 years. As a society we have never questioned whether those resources should be used, only how best to use them and sometimes how best to extract them.
One thing that as a nation we decided forty years ago was that our waterways could no longer be used as wastewater dump sites. At that time in 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act and President Nixon signed it into law. A confluence of factors produced that law: fear of chemicals that humans could then create but whose effects on the human body were unknown; a sense that humans were despoiling the natural world; and a confidence that we could have jobs and a clean environment. At that time, General Motors and U.S. Steel—two of the nation’s biggest polluters—were also two of the most profitable companies in the world.
That law was designed to prevent the kind of events like the 2009 release of wastewater from Consol’s mine into Dunkard Creek that resulted in a massive loss of wildlife as golden algae took over the stream. But how is this law typically enforced? Often it depends on residents’ complaints. Yes, those complaints are then filtered through distant bureaucracies in Harrisburg or Washington DC, but it is the people themselves who must often sound the alarm. This system then demands that we remain engaged in our environment and know what it is like on most days and know what it is like when the health of the ecosystem is threatened.
I recently talked to a lawyer about the 2000-2001 floods in southern West Virginia. They sued the coal companies for improperly reclaiming the land, arguing that the flooding was caused by too little topsoil and vegetation. The companies responded that the floods were an “act of God” because those two years had seen much more than the normal rainfall. Luckily for the residents, one family living at the top of a holler had recorded the daily rainfall on their farm…for over 100 years and could testify that the rainfall was not out of the ordinary. It was the changes to the land that had resulted in the flooding.
This art exhibit is one way—and a very dramatic way—for me and maybe some of you to learn more about our environment in western Pennsylvania. It is both a reminder of the damage that we in part cause as consumers of coal as well as a reminder of the life that surrounds us—the life that the environment gives us. Let’s not let these species be the harbinger of our own destruction but a reminder of the importance of maintaining a close connection to world around us to ensure a healthy, happy future for all. Thank you.
Thank you, Lou, for reminding us to be more aware of our world - the natural world - and of the decisions and choices we make each day that can have an impact, positive or negative, on this beautiful world, our source of life.