There I was, pondering the future of the republic while lying on the mossy bank of a stream, staring into still waters from which nearly all life had been extinguished by toxic pesticides half a century earlier.
Once there were millions of live things in there, ravenous little wretches running others down and eating them alive. They were everywhere, as inescapable as bad ideas on Sunset Boulevard. Then they were gone, obliterated, forgotten, squashed by the arrival of civilization in the form of a massive DDT spraying, and leaving nary a fossil. But now they’re back, I saw them yesterday afternoon, all teeth and mandibles and whatever other arrangements that aquatic critters use in dining on one another.
I live, off and on, in a small house in a patch of woods adjoining protected wetlands. On most days during the growing season you can’t see the neighbors. Or their stash of broken lawn chairs, unworking grills, milk crates, rusted out wheelbarrows, and piles of grass clippings that they are certain time will turn into fertilizer. Like neighbors everywhere they pile this stuff against the fence that separates my property from theirs. Sometimes whey put atop it a blue tarp, as if to suggest neatness but in practice creating just another eyesore that I must hide from my view by creating an eyesore of my own, this one hidden in green fervor beneath a sheath of whatever green thing will grow.
Nothing grew in the brook since trucks came round in the late 1950s spraying the new sensation, DDT, on the brook, to kill the mosquitoes. It did so, but only for a few years while killing everything else, seemingly forever. Schools of fish – common roach if you must know – went belly up and floated downstream. With them died the rest of the food chain, which included a maelstrom of aquatic bugs and the fish that ate them, several species, leaving only ducks and the snapping turtles that preyed on them.
Several times over the years – often when a publisher rejected my newest idiotic idea and I needed to do something therapeutic – I waded and took water samples. Nothing, not a damn thing but the pesticide-resistant plants that grew in great mats, choking the stream. Once in the early 1980s I took one of these samples to a colleague at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who ran it through a testing thing of the sort now found on CSI, and discovered a pesticide spike big enough to kill everything but weeds, ducks, and really mean turtles. It was left over from the initial event.
Goodbye, I thought, forever.
Then last year I noticed a Great Blue Heron. He was in the brook and occasionally ducked his beak into one of those weed mats, catching something. Great Blue Herons eat fish, not weeds or ducks and certainly not snapping turtles. I saw one of the latter recently and guessed it measured four feet from head to tail. He swam by languidly, with the confidence of a creature that knew that nothing in there would bother him.
Then I noticed something else, definitely a living something, making a fuss in the aforementioned weed mats around dusk. Then I noticed the presence of pickerel along my brook bank. They are predators; the bigger ones for fish, the smaller ones for aquatic worms and things of that nature. But I turned up no aquatic insects of any kind in my samples, the last one having been taken three or fours years ago.
And there were water striders, which prey on smaller things. What were they eating in the vast dead wasteland below the surface?
What the hell was down there? So the other day, lying on the brook bank pondering the fate of the republic, I saw them. There were dozens of underwater insects, dashing around eating one another and clearly, something smaller. They were the same sorts of insects the boy me used to put in aquariums and watch. I have not yet found one of the fish that eat them and which, in turn, the pickerel and herons eat, but obviously they are there. What I had I found was a lower rung of the food chain. I was thrilled and amazed. Life can come back half a century after man and his modern weapons had extinguished it.
I thought of making it a metaphor for the arrival of the Obama administration. They I realized that would make me look like an idiot, and didn’t do it.
There’s life! Against all odds, there’s life! You, go lay on the brook bank and you will find it.
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