Soggy, mud-caked jeans and a formerly white T-shirt were my youngest son’s summertime uniform, as a kid.
He, his buddy next doorand his older brother would disappear for hours, fishing, hunting mushrooms and relaxing in the shade at the creek nearby. The briars, poison ivy and mosquitoes never stopped him. He loved hanging out with Mother Nature in that spot, just as his dad did a generation earlier. He always came home with a dusty grin.
As he grew older, my son began noticing the amount of debris caught in logjams, stuck in the creekbed and mired on the banks. Tires, appliances, rugs, whole bags of trash.
The disappointment was apparent in his voice, as he described the rubbish tossed into the creek by people. Something he and most other folks considered a thing of beauty was seen as a convenient, free dumping ground by others.
Those two conflicting outlooks summarize Earth Day, which arrives this Sunday.
The nationwide observance each April 22 began in 1970 to increase awareness and appreciation of the natural environment. Ideally, Earth Day is a reminder for all of us to treat the land, air and water with respect, and to pick up our own messes. Too often, it boils down to some people cleaning up after other people.
You’ve got to appreciate the spirit of volunteers who scoured the Wabashiki Fish and Wildlife Area last Sunday. The area is now set aside as a wetlands preserve on the banks of the Wabash River. Two years ago, Wabashiki opened to the public, allowing visitors to hike or bird watch. In decades past, people took advantage of its secluded levee and waterfront to discard stuff they didn’t want to keep at their own homes.
Those volunteers didn’t want that junk, either. In fact, many of the people choosing to gather up garbage heaved into the watershed probably weren’t even living around Terre Haute when those pieces of litter got tossed. Instead, the energetic members of organizations such as the St. Mary-of-the-Woods College Sustainability Club, the Indiana State University Students Athletics Council, the ISU men’s and women’s running teams, and the ISU Environmental Club just wanted Wabashiki to be clean enough to enjoy.
Strangely enough, many of those college students will work and raise families elsewhere in a few years.
By contrast, much of the 20 bags of trash and recyclables, nearly two dozen tires, five mattresses, a couple of couches, meth lab components, food wrappers, cups and bottles was deposited by, yes, longtime residents of this community. Don’t misunderstand — plenty of lifelong Vigo Countians handle the river with care, and spruce it up regularly, including conservation and civic groups, county and city crews, and teams of supervised inmates from the Federal Correctional Complex. Nonetheless, most of eyesores found along the Wabash are left by locals who know where to dump when nobody’s looking.
The situation isn’t limited to Wabashiki, or the river itself. It extends to the tributaries flowing into the Wabash — Honey Creek, Otter Creek, Prairie Creek, Lost Creek, Coal Creek, Sugar Creek and other smaller streams. A bridge on a remote country road can become a routine venue for dumping TVs and broken lawn chairs into the creek below.
Earth Day 2012 coincides with this year’s 40th anniversary of the federal Clean Water Act, a landmark 1972 law intended to curtail the variety of contaminants sent into U.S. rivers, creeks, lakes, oceans and groundwater. With that in mind, this might be a good year for this community to sweat the smaller stuff — the entire Wabash River watershed, from the river to all of those creeks that feed it.
In an interview last month, Purdue University agronomy professor Ron Turco emphasized that the Wabash is basically a reflection of the water quality of its tributaries. “So all those little ditches and streams that come in, the attention should really be on them,” he said.
A mattress hurled over a bridge and into a creekbed illustrates the problem. That single item of litter can disrupt the stream’s path, cause a logjam, trigger sediment buildup and flood nearby crops, and clog bridge supports, said Eddy Adams, Vigo County district conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Keeping the creeks and brooks clear is “just as important, if not more so” than tending to the Wabash, said Rob Jean, assistant professor of ecology at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College. “A lot of those are the immediate contact points that are encountered by kids. People get more exposure to those places than the river itself.”
Jean was among the volunteers at Wabashiki last Sunday, and he’s helped with similar cleanups there in past years. The crews find less trash each time, “but there’s still plenty,” Jean said.
Groups began hauling trash from the area several years ago, when the wetlands project was still in the planning stages. Randy Millar, a veteran of 33 years with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, served as property manager at the Wabashiki site back then. The levee, south of the village of Dresser, now serves as a hiking and running path, often tread on by the ISU cross country teams.
It wasn’t always pedestrian-friendly, so to speak.
“The first time I went down that levee, it was like, ‘Oh, boy. We’ve got a job in front of us,’” recalled Millar, who is now the DNR District 9 biologist, covering Vigo, Clay, Owen, Greene and Sullivan counties.
The volume of trash was immense.
“Before we started, there was something every square foot,” Millar said.
Three-hundred tires were pulled out on the first sweep. Used-up meth equipment, such as plastic buckets, tubes, bottles, fire extinguisher tanks, propane tanks, scuba tanks and syringes. Bedding. Any garbage that would float from the tributaries to the river, and through flooding. Over the years, volunteers have found burned furniture, dog skeletons, soiled underwear, bullet-ridden “No Dumping” signs (how ironic) and burned out cars.
Some people dump into streams because of laziness. Some simply do it because their parents, siblings or neighbors did it. Others can’t afford to (or refuse to budget money) to pay for weekly trash pickup or to pay $34.45 to dump a pickup truck load of garbage at Sycamore Ridge Landfill. The majority don’t use creeks or the Wabash as a disposal. “Ninety-nine percent of the people are doing it right,” Millar said, “but one person can do a lot of damage.”
Though Millar suspects the waterways get trashed less often than 25 years ago, this community can still improve.
Maybe more people need to look at the streams in the same ways as those college students and volunteers … or a kid with a fishing rod.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Soggy, mud-caked jeans and a formerly white T-shirt were my youngest son’s summertime uniform, as a kid.
- Mark Bennett B-Sides
MARK BENNETT: After running for 28 hours straight, what’s another 5 miles?
Some phrases can only be uttered by a few people, or none at all.
MARK BENNETT: Glitches show limitations of high-stakes testing concept
The dog ate my homework. That age-old excuse — based on a shockingly unforeseen complication — rarely works for a kid who didn’t finish yesterday’s math assignment. Yet, in a role reversal, Indiana school children, along with their teachers and administrators, are left to accept an explanation for a disruption best described as the mother of all ironies.
MARK BENNETT: One step at a time to save lives
Remember that name.
MARK BENNETT: Sometimes, the mere posing of questions is significant
The era seems quaint now, almost like a fable. When people left their house doors unlocked. When the sight of a police officer in a school meant it was Career Day.
MARK BENNETT: New reality steers Nashville singer to Crossroads for Historical Society concert
People pass through the Crossroads of America for lots of reasons.
Business trips. College campus events. Federal prison sentences. Visits with relatives. Gas pitstops.
Or maybe a career change and a twist of fate.
Ty Brown makes his first stop in downtown Terre Haute as the headliner of a multi-band Sweet Sensations Country Jam concert May 4 in the Ohio Building — a fundraiser for the Vigo County Historical Society.
MARK BENNETT: Terre Haute barber ‘sharpens up’ customers for 50 years
People streamed through this section of downtown Terre Haute in those days.
“You could hardly walk by here,” John Hochhalter said, pointing toward the sidewalk outside the window.
The bustle has faded since the early 1960s. Hochhalter remains. He’s still barbering in the same shop he and late business partner Kenny Thomas opened a half-century ago this week.
MARK BENNETT: Memories, emotions rush back with announcement of new pope
I saw a pope once.Read quickly, that sentence sounds too casual, almost as if we’d crossed paths at Home Depot. Say it slowly, though, and the significance comes through.
MARK BENNETT: Reflections of grid success stir with Brent Anderson’s passing
A few hundred miles away, and nearly 40 years gone by, a special game ball still occupies a fond place in Rudy Bohinc’s memories.
Lent meets ‘The Bucket List’ in Terre Haute
Initially, the concept might conjure images of Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman jumping out of an airplane or sitting atop the Pyramids. Instead, think “Lent Meets ‘The Bucket List’ in Terre Haute.”
MARK BENNETT: Never truer: Knowledge vital to narrowing ‘skills gap’
The pillar at the gates of Faber College in the movie “Animal House” bore a wise motto, despite its tongue-in-cheek intent …
MARK BENNETT: Great-niece to re-enact Paul Dresser’s musical legacy in Terre Haute show
People can be forgotten. Their lives end, time passes and memories fade.
Often, the only keepers of their legacies are family and friends, who tell and retell their stories, generation to generation.
For Paul Dresser, his fame burned strong enough as a turn-of-the-century, million-seller songwriter to preserve bits of his public notoriety.
MARK BENNETT: An Olympic takedown
Imagine an iconic image of American sports history erased.
MARK BENNETT: Indiana’s ‘skills gap’
A problem lasting decades ceases to be a “problem.” By then, the situation becomes “part of the culture.”
MARK BENNETT: America’s best quality of life? Indiana must address flaws, set priorities
Just as the job interview seems smooth, the interviewer drops the question.
“So, where do you see yourself in five years?”
MARK BENNETT: Pondering what is meant by ‘quality of life’ to Hoosiers
Sometimes it’s sincere. Other times, it’s sarcasm.
You cross paths with a friend, ask how they’re doing, and they say, “Ah, just livin’ the dream.”
Livin’ the dream. What exactly does that involve? Can it be defined?
MARK BENNETT: By whatever name, stomach virus still a sick story
It’s the ugly side of the cold-and-flu season.
MARK BENNETT: Living on the banks
We are the Wabash.
MARK BENNETT: Rising young producer lands spot in Sundance Film Festival
When a project clicks, the moment is clear.
MARK BENNETT: Remember the 20 children lost
Their names were listed on the screen at the front of the church on Sunday.
Our pastor asked us to choose one and pray for their family. I selected Noah Pozner, just by chance.
MARK BENNETT: Tasting panel to help find Champagne Velvet’s ‘million-dollar flavor’
Rounding up enough volunteers to serve on a committee can be a struggle.
MARK BENNETT: Thanksgiving’s feast can be defined by either the presence of family or the family’s quest for presents
The best gift deals will be gone by 12:01 a.m. Nov. 23.
MARK BENNETT: Salvation Army touches many lives
Sometimes, the unexpected happens.
MARK BENNETT: Election excellence: 30 out of 32 is pretty darn good
Detroit car makers unveil the latest Mustangs and Corvettes on Wabash Avenue.
MARK BENNETT: Climbing the rungs of Lincoln’s Ladder
One crucial quality helped Abraham Lincoln become America’s greatest president.
Courage? Political savvy? Wisdom? Moral character?
MARK BENNETT: Drop the needle
Over time, excellence and nostalgia inappropriately merge in our minds.
No matter the age, voting’s a part of American fabric
The electoral karma seemed, well, unfair.
MARK BENNETT: A moment on the brink
Ominous, but distant.
MARK BENNETT: Valley-born filmmaker influenced by roots
Real-life stories inspire Laura Brownson.
Even those vastly unlike her own.
MARK BENNETT: No debating it: Candidates have it easier than ‘forensics’ specialists
Nightmares can jolt us awake, just before we fall off a cliff or show up for work or school unprepared.
MARK BENNETT: Landmark win propels Sycamores to Hall
There’s a thin line between the possible and the impossible.
- More Mark Bennett B-Sides Headlines
- MARK BENNETT: After running for 28 hours straight, what’s another 5 miles?