Another hiker died in the Catskills a few weeks ago. That brings the death toll to four in 2010 that I am aware of and deeply touched by. This doesn’t count those headlines that I missed, or saw and immediately erased, too numb to absorb any more.
Two mornings ago, I started my day as I always do, walking the dogs along the pond we share with our neighbors. On this walk, however, nothing was as usual. It took my eyes a while to report to my brain all that was awry: mailboxes missing, garbage bags floating in the pond, and street signs pulled up and chucked around. It was a mess. And now I’m going to have to buy a new mailbox.
Earlier this summer I finally saw Gasland, and wrapped my mind around what could well be headed for the western Catskills.
Problems beg for solutions, but often receive blame. On the hiking forums I frequent, hikers discuss signage and rules, including making certain areas off limits. Both of the most dangerous areas are untrailed and one of them is already “closed.” All agree that people will still go to places that are “closed” and that people will continue to fall and die. All agree that continuing to enjoy these beautiful but high-risk areas such as gorges and waterfalls from a safe distance is desirable.
Back in my neighborhood, I called the police. The deputy took a detailed report, but what, in reality, could he do? What could my neighbors and I reasonably expect the local police force to do? And more to the point, what should we expect of them?
I mean that at every level. What should I, or We, expect of Them? What, at a scaled-back-to-essence level is the individual’s responsibility, and what is the responsibility of some Other (the police, the DEC, the state or federal government, or your parents for that matter)?
The whole issue sifts into place much more clearly if one adopts the perspective that there is no Them. There is only Us. That subtle shift from childlike abdication of responsibility into taking ownership and accepting that I can, should or even must respond changes everything. I think mothers know this intimately (ok, I learned this shift from becoming a mom). After years of managing homework not getting completed on time, laundry not folded, dishes left out, etc. ad nauseum, moms often realize two things: 1) if we don’t do it, it doesn’t get done. 2) Others will learn to step in and step up if they feel invested and empowered to do so.
Don’t get me wrong, I am despairing and grieving over the people here in the Catskills who have left their families too soon. I am angry and feel violated and invaded by the idiotic (but admittedly insignificant) destruction in my tiny rural corner of the world. But I have to think in terms of solutions, not complaints. Once I take responsibility and challenge myself and my community to address problems (not fob them off onto someone or something else) it seems like possibilities open up.
Like what? At the major access points to the most dangerous areas, how about posting volunteers? Docents: those lovely people at the museum or at the zoo that help you get the most out of your visit by providing that little bit of extra information with a personal touch – they could help dissuade the dissuadable from entering the ecologically sensitive and high risk areas. They could suggest best spots for taking photos or discuss the relative merits of The Peekamoose versus Cave Mountain Brewery. For free. The fire towers in the Catskills already have this sort of system in place, with a volunteer presence to demonstrate care and concern for visitors and the forest. In my neighborhood, after calling the police, I called all my neighbors. We emailed, connected on FB, and left each other voicemails providing information and alerting each other to the events. My husband and I retrieved what we could from the pond, ensuring that at least some folks won’t have to purchase new mailboxes. I hauled “curve ahead” signs (they’re heavy, especially when lodged in pond-bottom-mud!) and stop signs out of the muck; another neighbor put them back in the ground where they belong. We’re borrowing a kayak to get the rest of the stuff. I don’t live in Woodstock or Ithaca, or some eco-chic co-housing development, where this sort of community-minded behavior might be expected. Nope – just an average “middle class” neighborhood out here in the sticks, where some people do destructive things, and some other people deal with it.
Once we start thinking that there is no Them – no outside agency, no Mom or Dad, no cop or priest to take care of the problems for us – then the way we approach an issue like natural gas drilling changes. This is my home, my land, my air, and my water, but it is also my responsibility to understand what would lead my neighbors to allow drilling. My neighbors are not an alien Them to be defeated. They are part of Us. If I care about my home, then it is my responsibility to become involved and take part in a real solution. Letting it be Their problem (regardless of whether the They in question is the state government, the EPA, the DEC, or the residents of a different county) is a type of ignorance I can ill afford.