Dog River

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(HOST) Tom Slayton still visits the Vermont river near where he grew up. Here are some of his recent observations.

(SLAYTON) These are some of the best days of the year to be outdoors. Hunting, fishing, hiking all just seem better in the brisk fall sunshine. One of my favorite fall places is the Dog River, which carves an S-curve through the farm where I grew up. I go there these days looking for migrating warblers and ducks.

But forty years ago, when I was a boy, the river was heavily polluted with sewage. We didn’t want to spend any time in or even near the river in those days. On the hottest days of mid-summer, the water would be low and warm and would smell even worse than usual. Occasionally, we’d see toilet paper swirling downstream.

Then, in 1970, Act 252 was passed by the Vermont Legislature, and suddenly Vermont had the toughest clean-water law in the nation. Sewage plants were built, and the straight-pipes that poured sewage into the river were shut down. The cleanup took several years, but every year the river got cleaner.

It turned out there was a nice deep swimming hole in that stretch of river, and it became an important part of our summers. On hot July and August days, we’d go down there to swim after work. The high, brushy bank sheltered us and made the river into a green, sun-dappled world apart from the hot meadow and busy highway.

The river was no longer an eyesore, an open sewer. It was, in fact, a delight. We were proud of it. We liked it and bragged about it. The river had cleaned itself up, we said. “Isn’t that wonderful?”

It was a tale that I told and retold, making the point that natural systems could return to ecological health if only we humans would give them the chance. The river had affirmed my basic optimism: things can be fixed. Nature can heal itself. We can make the world better.

It was a hopeful parable, but probably a bit too sun-shiny, a little too predictably upbeat.

One night, I got into a political discussion with a young Catholic priest who was working for social justice in Central America. “There’s always hope,” I said fatuously. And I told the story of how the river gurgling beside us had been filthy and had cleaned itself up naturally.

“Yes,” said the young priest. “But first, you had to take the (sewage) out.”

True enough. Every tiny improvement in social reform, environmental conservation – or whatever – requires something from us, some commitment and human action, if change is really going to happen.

The environmental problems the world faces today are not small. They are much, much larger than a single river, or a single watershed. We can now witness the sad and ironic triumph of human technology as it overwhelms the natural systems of the planet itself.

The river still gives me hope, but its message has become a bit more complex. A river can return to health. A watershed, a country, a planet can return to health, because natural systems are forgiving.

But we still have to take action: and the sewage has to come out first.

Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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