I woke up this morning feeling more peaceful than usual, with some words going through my head: The sun still rises every morning, no matter what is going on in your life or in the world. It rises whether the sky is clear or covered with a blanket of clouds. It still rises at the darkest time of year and on days that carry an emotionally charged significance. The sun still rises every morning, no matter what is going on. Attune to that as you discern what to do about everything else.
The words kept spinning in my mind like horses on a merry-go-round, and I watched them go around and around again until it finally occurred to me that there might be a reason why they came to me at that moment, like a morning alarm, with such persistence. So I opened my eyes and looked out my bedroom window, and sure enough: The sunrise looked more compelling than I had seen it in quite some time, although I was catching the tail end of what I knew had been deep, fuchsia clouds becoming lighter by the moment. Had I opened my eyes the first time the words spun through my head, the colors would have been much more dazzling.
It feels great to wake up on the river again every morning, after spending so much time away tending to my parents’ house. But I return home with greater clarity and a better idea of what I ultimately want and am considering moving this year due to changing circumstances and certainly not because of the view. I have become accustomed to a fabulous sunrise view of the river and love being able to store the kayaks on the dock and simply walk across the street to paddle during the warmer months. I would miss that view and the easy kayak access so much.
Then I remembered that, for a few years, I wasn’t even able to enjoy kayaking on the river because of the massive General Electric PCB dredging project that one year took place literally right in front of our house. Other years, it happened so close that the constant boat traffic made it unsafe to venture onto the water.
It was anguishing to live on the river and not be able to do the thing that made it so worthwhile to be here in the first place – the activity I looked forward to during the cold months. Kayaking was the way I released my energy after a rough day at work and how I restored my peace of mind. I called it “paddling for peace.” Many summer evenings, I’d float close to our dock, taking in the sunset sky canvas and wishing I could bottle the feeling and share it with everyone. That’s why I started this blog four and a half years ago.
The dredging years were long ones, but now they are in the past. We got through them. Now we can kayak again and enjoy the peace of this quiet stretch of the Hudson, without any dredging traffic barreling past us, only the occasional pleasure boat.
I remember the day we went kayaking on the river and paddled around the bend only to discover a fleet of dredging equipment anchored there. So that was the source of the increased boat traffic! The feeling that, “This is really happening, and right in our own neighborhood!” was sad, infuriating, surreal. It felt like an army had invaded, and there was no escaping it.
It wasn’t the only time there was tension and danger around the Hudson River that flows by my house. My next-door neighbors still have the remnants of a Revolutionary War field hospital on their property. This is where the Battles of Saratoga took place, the Turning Point of the Revolutionary War. And predating that, there were conflicts between Native American inhabitants and French, Dutch, and English settlers. Some quiet evenings, I would go paddling after sunset and think about how dangerous it would be to navigate the river alone throughout history, and yet, there I was. I could almost feel the spirits of former inhabitants and soldiers around me. Even though the dredging project was a big deal, the river has known worse. Despite all the struggles and strife it has been witness to, it still flows.
The year when the dredging project was scheduled to take place right in front of our house, we considered finding alternate housing because we were concerned about safety issues such as airborne PCBs. So I did lots of research and had informal, off-the-record conversations with scientists who did not have a personal or professional bias or vested interest in perpetuating any kind of propaganda. I monitored the data recorded online daily and contacted the media when I noticed airborne PCB levels were elevated for a number of days in a row. I also found a more inviting body of water for kayaking, where there was a kayak available to me. I made the best of a challenging situation.
Aside from having limited or no access to kayaking on the river, the greatest challenge during the dredging years was discerning fact from fiction between the two opposing camps. Simply stated, pro-dredging environmental groups asserted that removing as much of the PCBs as possible from the river was integral to the long-term health of the river ecosystem, whereas local, anti-dredging groups countered that the PCBs had sunk deep down below the river and that wildlife was returning to the river because the river was taking care of itself naturally. The anti-dredging camp believed the PCBs were less of a problem if you just let them be and that dredging would stir them up again and create a “toxic soup” that would set the health of the river ecosystem back decades. So one side was saying to leave it alone – let the PCBs stay way down below the river – and the other insisted they must be removed and that G.E. must be held accountable for its actions and make it right. Yes, dredging would be a massive, messy, disruptive undertaking, and the PCB levels in the water would increase for a while, but conditions would improve over time, and the river would be much healthier. The conversation was about maintaining status quo vs. literally stirring up a huge, toxic mess.
Not a scientist myself, I listened to the arguments coming from both sides. Once, I sat quietly on the riverside, asked the river what it wanted, and listened deeply. It seemed the river preferred to have the toxins removed. My personal preference was to be able to continue enjoying the river – my little paradise – but ultimately I wanted whatever was best in the long run, for the greater good. If dredging would produce widespread, long-term benefits, then it was worth some personal sacrifice and temporary disruption. Believe me, there was nothing fun or beautiful about dredging up suspected carcinogens that had been put into the river decades ago. It was disturbing to watch the sloppy process up close, and we had front row seats for a time.
Meanwhile, I watched great blue herons gulp down fish that were swimming in PCB infested water, only to migrate in the fall and bring traces of PCBs with them, contaminating other parts of the earth. It is impossible to separate a river from the rest of the world. It flows to the ocean, which covers the whole planet, and has a whole ecosystem of its own that attracts wildlife that comes and goes. It’s also part of the water cycle that involves vapors rising in one place and falling in another.
You see where I’m going, right? This isn’t “really” about PCB dredging any more than the movie, Field of Dreams, is “really” about baseball. Though the dredging metaphor may not be perfect, I have been getting that feeling again.
Whether the massive, ambitious, and expensive Hudson River PCB dredging project will be viewed in the long-term as a success, a catastrophe, or something in between has yet to be seen. All I know is that we got through the dredging. It didn’t last forever, even though it felt like it would at the time. And from experiencing it, I learned there are times when we must defer our personal interests and preferences to pave the way for more widespread, long-term benefits and perceive the process from a far greater perspective…or we will make ourselves crazy. We must have patience. To do this is a radical act of faith that hopefully is neither ignorant nor complacent. Sometimes short-term disruptions produce long-term benefits and greater awareness because they motivate us to do our research and inspire us to take action. To come together and be more involved. To speak up and communicate from the depths of our hearts. To look out for one another. Sometimes situations that seem dire and threatening serve to raise our personal and collective consciousness and show us what we are really capable of.
Although the dredging years were challenging and sometimes scary (especially when PCB levels seemed to spike), we finally made it through to the other side.
And we will do it again, one sunrise at a time.
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