may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.
For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea
In Montana, I had a job teaching kids about the Clark Fork River and the Milltown Dam. Milltown is the western terminus of the largest Superfund complex in the country. For a hundred years, the dam of Milltown held back the free flow of the Clark Fork River, which flows out of Butte, which is as boom and bust a town as anyone will ever need to see. Butte was built by copper mining. The tailings of the mining operations were thrown away, flushed downstream.
A lot of the tailings got stuck in and as sludge, building up a pretty solid toxic load behind the Milltown Dam. In the 1980s, the town tested its water and found poisonous levels of arsenic—so much had built up behind the damn that it was seeping into the water supply.
By the time I got to Montana and began teaching the local youth about their backyards, history and rivers as fast as I could learn it all myself, the Dam itself had already come down and the river clean up was well underway. Toxic sludge was removed daily from the land that had been the bottom of the reservoir, and the water was beginning to flush away the residue of a century of pent up toxins.
I am wary of claiming anything as a success. And yet, I uselessly carry a small chunk of pavement with me that I hauled out of the Clark Fork while looking at macroinvertebrates with fifth-graders. The pavement—clearly a human construct of geology with various colors and makes of rocks poking through blacktop—is almost heart-shaped. It is not as quite as smooth or even as a riverstone, but the edges are rounded off—the river tried its best, just doing as it does, to reform the alien invaders of paving stones and concrete.
Once, I found one of these river-refurbished stones covered in tiles, like a chunk of a bathroom floor had fallen into the river and been churned smooth.
Recently, feeling that I have been spending too much time and energy trying to change the world and not enough having a hell of a good time, I went to the beach. While mountains have a more familiar claim on my heart, the ocean in not far behind in its pull. There was a time when I could have gone either way, but the paths that opened first led me to mountains. However, as a friend says often, “I am a polygamist of place.”
It is very early April. The sunlight seems thin still, but so full of summery promises that it is hard to realize how lovely it is now, as the world wakes up from winter. The dogs ran up and down the beaches, climbing on the rocks and chasing driftwood and each other into the cold waves.
I sat, and tried to absorb the dynamic peace. One of my most favorite sounds in the entire world is the cobbling rattle of round stones pulled in and out by crashing and ebbing waves. Ceramic burble? Billards? Frozen blueberries in a china bowl? John Irving’s Undertoad gargling marbles?
All and none of this, it is enough to be the sound of exactly what it is.
And so I watched the rocks. The red ones stuck out amid the shades of gray that are New England in earliest spring.
Bricks. Tumbled round like sea glass and the pavement and lavatory river stones of Montana.
We know sins have been and are still intentionally and unintentionally committed in this world. Against each other, against the natural world we forget we are part of. Where from and why man-made bricks have fallen into the sea, I do not know. It is not the point source of this sort of naturalized pollution that is important in this instance.
What I do find is the incredible ability of these systems to forgive and heal from what we’ve done, to as much as naturally possible, ignore, absorb, and move forward. As with any gift of forgiveness, it is crucial to not ask too much, to recognize and respect the boundaries of what may be recoverable.
There are things that we humans have done to each other and the rest of the world that are permanent, past the point of return. In taking inspiration and hope from—essentially—industrial waste as represented by sea-smoothed brick in the Atlantic, I do not forget the Texas-sized island of trash floating in the Pacific, or that the ocean temperatures are rising and salinity changing or that migratory birds are flying into oil spills or any of the host of other changes that underpin our present reality.
Yet I am reminded by the bricks of the power of change. Healing of a sort can and will and does occur. That the natural world itself is fully on board with survival, with creative resistance and adaptations, that it abhors vacuums and imbalance. Nature flushes and washes and cleanses and dilutes and will do what it can to return to a balanced functioning, dynamic stasis. The ocean rounds off sharp corners, birds line their nests with discarded ribbons and ropes. It is not enough—toxins pour into the ocean, the air, our bodies and species beyond us are struggling entirely unfairly to recover from our actions and errors. We know all this, too well. What we lose and forget is that the world we want to help is rising up and doing what it can.
So can we. By the healing, morphing forgiveness that is possible, is demonstrated, in these forces larger than ourselves, we may do better. By it’s immense beauty, we must.