The stars were beautiful on my morning run today. Orion was particularly lovely. It reminded me of other beautiful skies I’ve seen over the years (my mind tends to wander with my feet). The stars up north are so much brighter than those down here in the cities, especially in the Boundary Waters where there are no lights for miles to compete. Without a doubt, however, the most amazing sky I’ve seen was in the Galapagos Islands on my honeymoon. From the deck of our tiny, ramshackle boat we would sit and gaze at an uninterrupted 360° panoramic view of the galaxy. It turns out that the night sky isn’t even black; it’s mottled purple, black and gray, and the Milky Way is a giant swath of stardust. You don’t realize that you’re missing out on something until you see how it could be.
During the heyday of the modern environmental movement in the 1960’s and 70’s, our country responded to environmental catastrophes with major legislation and reform. “Smog episodes” in New York City killed hundreds of people in 1953, 1962 and 1966. An oil well blowout spilled 200,000 gallons of oil into the ocean along California’s coastline on January 28, 1969. June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught on fire and flames reached five stories into the air. The bald eagle, our national symbol, almost went extinct. Over a span of twenty years, the U.S. Government passed the Clean Air, Clean Water, Endangered Species, Wilderness, and Wild and Scenic Rivers Acts, along with other revolutionary measures.
When it comes to air, water, and ecosystems, however, change happens slowly. To our advantage, this means that the earth’s environment is resilient enough to tolerate much of our poor behavior. By the same token, though, it can take years and years to nurse these systems back to good health once they become degraded. Furthermore, our shared vision of what a healthy ecosystem looks like tends to change over time as well. Children are born, people move to new places, and each new generation comes to see the way things are at that time as normal. Once upon a time, a night sky like the one I witnessed in the Galapagos was the norm. Now it is an exception.
When change happens slowly, there is a danger in becoming complacent. Thanks to the sweeping legislation of the modern environmental movement, rivers in the U.S. no longer catch on fire. Mats of raw sewage no longer float down the Mississippi River from Minneapolis and St. Paul. At the same time, many of our local lakes and streams have gradually degraded over the years due to development and urbanization. As a case in point, Lily Lake in Stillwater was one of the clearest and deepest lakes in the metro area in the 1960’s – so clear that people even scuba dove in it. Since then, years of stormwater pollution from area streets have gradually degraded the water quality with regular doses of sediment and nutrients; today the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency lists the lake as impaired for mercury in fish tissue and excess nutrients in the water. In recent years, the city, the Middle St. Croix Watershed Management Organization and local residents are working hard to reverse the damage by improving existing stormwater treatment ponds, retrofitting neighborhood roads with raingardens to catch stormwater, and stabilizing eroding shorelines as well. Water quality monitoring results from 2013 indicate that Lily Lake might be improving, but it will likely be years before we’re able to enjoy the benefits of our restoration efforts today.
How clean do we need our lakes and rivers to be before we’re satisfied we’ve accomplished our goals? Is it enough that they don’t catch on fire, or do we hold the bar a bit higher? Early in the morning, beneath a blanket of stars, it’s easy to dream big and imagine things as they could be.