Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Day Tears Fell on Alabama

On a stunning and blustery day we decided to paddle up the backwater embayment despite it being the coldest day of the year. Deserted by mankind, the lake was silent but for the occasional swish of wind and the tinkling cries of birds. Unimpeded those small sounds gathered and rolled like thunder over the water demanding notice in the otherwise still day. The cold had stripped the air of haze rendering it to a basic clearness through which all the colors to be found in light bolted and teased the eye with a beauty usually hidden from view.

Joe and I sat in the heated car trying to screw up our courage for the better of a half hour before braving the lake. To avoid the inevitable, we first ate lunch, and then watched a brown creeper spiraling up a large pine delicately prying at bark with his curved beak. The graceful bird disappeared and the day outside could no longer be denied, we awkwardly emerged encased in a half inch of manufactured blubber and prepared the kayaks for launch. Despite the neoprene cocoon, my hands and feet stiffened in the cold, but I wanted to prove that the advantage of living in Alabama is the southern climate allows you to join in outdoor pursuits year round, and today was my test. Little did I know the day would illustrate more than that for me.

Once in the water, the forty-degree lake warmed the kayak, and with the cold taking leave of my bones I looked about. A dark shadow swept across the horizon. I paddled after it tossing across the chop on Minky Creek’s embayment all the while watching the fleeting shadow resolve into a young eagle. The pitiable youngster came away from the lake time after time without a fish in its grasping talons. Behind the eagle’s path the land rose up, and the farm field beyond the lake’s edge was golden and capped by a blue sky. Tall, delicately, wind-sculpted pines studded the shore. Yellow marsh grass and cattail tops swayed in the breeze, but below they were held fast by the thin ice rimming the shore.

Leaving the eagle to its uncertain fate we paddled on up Minky creek. Blackbirds and hardy little kinglets congregated on the thin ice retrieving wind-scattered seeds. My kayak silent, passed unnoticed and within inches of the chattering, banqueting birds. Up stream the cattails thickened and spilled far out into the shallows, and where the cattails met open water, their feet were festooned by green and red baubles reeling about on the choppy waves. Like a grotesque string of Christmas ornaments caught in the bulrushes, hundreds of shotgun shells, left to flounder by duck hunters, floated at the margins of the cattail bed. As I looked about me, I noticed more than bobbing shells, there were landscape pots, old coolers and toys, not to mention the flock of flailing plastic bags caught up in the trees. The trash along the lake was so ubiquitous that I hadn’t even noticed it until the “Christmas ornaments” caught my eye. I hadn’t noticed the trash defacing the landscape because it had become normal seemed so abnormal! A memory flashed through my mind of Chief Iron Eyes Cody crying as he looked out over the littered and polluted land. Clearly, the “People start pollution. People can stop it” seventies ad campaign could not have run on television in Alabama otherwise there wouldn’t be so much garbage! How was this so?

Another memory flashed back to earlier when I took my brother-in-law kayaking up Crow Creek. He was horrified by the refuse in the stream, and the only explanation he could think up was that people where hauling trash to the creek and dumping it. I tried to explain the why and how of the trash to him. I told him some of it was blown out of pickup truck beds, and some washed down the mountain, it simply got away from people there was no malicious dumping involved. None of my assurances satisfied him so I didn’t tell him about the old washing machine sitting out on Bellefonte Island in the main Tennessee River channel-that sucker didn’t wash down from anywhere and it took more than a wee bit of effort to get it out there. That bit of information I let slide. More memories flood by to months later to when I was visiting family in Michigan. The small towns that dot the Kalamazoo River had nature trails beside the river, and as I hiked those trails, I was struck by how clean it was. No plastic grocery bags stuck on branches, no plastic pots floating downstream just plain nature au naturel. I realized then how trashy Alabama must have appeared to my brother-in-law that day on Crow Creek.

Why do people in Alabama litter? Alabamans claim a special connection to the land so why don’t they see the trash they leave behind, and does a TV ad really have to tell us to clean up? We need to do what we do best: No one takes care of their own better than Alabamans. We take care of our families, our friends, and anyone in distress. We need to take care of that which is most fundamentally “our own”… the land, only we can keep tears from falling on Alabama.

Pam Croom © 2010

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