Thursday, June 19, 2008

Industrial Transformations
and the Hope of a Renewed Earth

--Feature: "Sustainable Soul w/Rebecca Hecking"--

Several years ago, I visited an open-pit iron mine while traveling. It was gorgeous.

The mine is located in southern England, near the town of Coleford, where my father was born and where I still have family. It is more than 2000 years old. The ancient mining operations left behind a labyrinth of rock formations, which have long since become overgrown with moss and vines. Combined with old growth trees, the effect is an almost otherworldly beauty worthy of any fantasy epic.

I am certain that, it its heyday, the mine was an ugly sight. I’m also reasonably sure that those who toiled there were not the happiest lot either. If not actual slaves, they were certainly exploited peasants doing the filthy work of digging. Even so, it’s easy to forget that unpleasant history when walking the magical paths in the elfin wood.

Fantasy aside, the place has stayed with me in my psyche for another reason. It tells the very hopeful tale of the earth healing itself. Over the centuries, the earth has reclaimed the mine and transformed it. If given half a chance, the earth can and will heal from the damage we humans have inflicted upon it. The earth recovered from the devastating asteroid hit that wiped out the dinosaurs with an explosion of evolutionary creativity that led to new forms of life, including ourselves. We are catastrophe’s children. In fact, every major extinction event the earth has ever suffered has been followed by an astounding evolutionary rebound. Life recreates itself. Finds new ways of doing things. Creates new beauty.

I have no doubt that earth will do so again, and that is profoundly comforting. But it will do so long after humanity has left the scene. We are a young species, and have a tendency to think of ourselves too highly. We weren’t present for much of earth’s history. And earth will continue long after we are gone.

For all our talk of “save the earth”, what we are really saying is “save ourselves” and “save the cute furry creatures who we like to see in zoos.” Sure, some talk of systemic collapse, or loss of biodiversity, but it’s usually in the context of saving an earth suitable for human habitation. I’m all for saving ourselves, and I count my voice among those calling for change. Absolutely. I have children, and I (selfishly perhaps) would like them to have a livable world. So, yes. Save the earth!! Save the humans!

In the context of trying to “save the earth”, it is incredibly easy to slip into despair and hopelessness. It seems that for all our efforts, the news keeps getting worse. It is at those agonizing moments that I find the ancient mine to be such a comfort. It forces me to step out of my small-scale perspective and see the big picture. It gives me glimpses of time-scales far beyond the individual human lifespan, or even all of humanity’s lifespan.

In my town, as in many former industrial towns in the U.S., there is an abandoned factory site complete with toxic waste. Various entities have been arguing for years over who will pay for the cleanup. So far, not much has been done. Meanwhile, the place sits. Every year the concrete cracks a little more, and a few more weeds grow. The fence rusts before my eyes. The healing process has begun. It will take millennia. I don’t know if it will ever be as beautiful as the English iron mine (Puzzle Wood is its touristy name today), but someday it will be a forest again. Life itself will go on, and the earth will heal.

Future primeval.

Rebecca Hecking is a contributing columnist for the Lohasian and a former chemist turned writer. Her family, on her father’s side, hails from the Forest of Dean region in southern England. Her grandfather immigrated to the U.S. in the 1920s to escape a life of working in the nearby Welsh coal mines.

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