In 1969 the Cuyahoga River, which originates in Burton, Ohio and travels through Akron and Cleveland until it empties into Lake Erie, caught on fire for the thirteenth time. This moment in history is the epitome of nature in Ohio. Since the westward expansion, it has fallen from a story of prominence and fertility. Instead, the natural world caught between the Ohio River and Lake Erie is raw, gritty, and scarred. Yet, despite this fact, Ohio is rich with people who have a deep connection with nature. How is this possible? One would be led to believe that the inherent ugliness of Ohio’s natural world would cause a separation. Maybe in some people this separation exists. However, there are individuals among us, whom we shall call the “Blue Collar Explorers” who deny this assumption of separation. This article will look to examine this group of people and show us why they are important to our world moving forward. Shall we?
This article in Time magazine that spoke about the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire said that the water “oozes rather than flows.” There was so much buildup of industrial waste in the river that a spark from a passing train (they are not 100% sure this was the cause, but the most likely scenario) ignited the sewage. The fire lasted under a half an hour and caused around $50,000 in damage. You would imagine this scenario would cause quite a stir within the inhabitants of Cleveland. Unfortunately, this was not the case. More disheartening than the fact the river caught fire from waste is the media’s desensitized response to it. After twelve other fires, the thirteenth was nothing special. In other words, river fires were “normal.”
This was the climax of environmental destruction in Ohio. Since the expansion westward was made easier with the erection of the Erie Canal and Ohio & Erie Canal, the population of Ohio boomed. In addition to the influx of people, the influx of demand for goods came with it. Ohio’s percentage of forested land dropped from 98% to 2%. Elk, wolves, mountain lions, bears, bobcats, eagles, beavers and numerous other animals were extirpated. Consumption rose, and along with it, pollution. As time went on, our technologies expanded. Industrialization. From there, poverty. As Ohio currently stands, it is a land of scars; scars from resource consumption, economic downturn, “growth,” pollution, opportunity, and ignorance. These wounds cannot be covered either. They are a part of us and this state. It is a definition we carry. In the environmental world, it is our identity. Ohio, a natural and social wound.
Have you lost heart yet? No one could deny you that feeling if you have. If you haven’t, I’m sure you know someone who has. A wound isn’t always physical. It can dominate the mind and heart if you let it. We call this bitterness, regret, shame. It’s a natural response that you imagine everyone would have when they look at the history of Ohio. It is how the rest of the country might view the state. “Why would you want to live there?” A common response to my travels when asked where I am from. Yet, despite this complete acceptance of bitterness towards Ohio, you find people who are the entire opposite side of the spectrum. They love it here. How? Why?
One of the wisest men I have ever met was a “retired” maintenance worker. His credentials? He worked in a factory all of his life, stayed married to the same woman since his early youth, loved his children and stuck to the confines of a small town. He was a working man that had to earn everything; a “blue collar” guy. He earned it, learned from it and became a great man. The best part? He had no idea how great he was, even if you told him a million times. I always wondered what made him so wise. He had no Ph.D. in philosophy. He never explored the depths of the earth. He was, by all accounts, a “regular” guy. So what was it about him?
After many discussions and much thought, I finally came to my conclusion about the source of his wisdom. He never shielded himself from the wounds. Factory work is unrelenting, small towns are invasive, and love is transparent. However, when you allow the labor of struggle to exist, the opposite side carries a different meaning. Think of it like this. A glass of water on a normal day carries no depth of meaning. It is just a glass of water. Now take that same glass of water after being stranded in the desert for two days without any source of liquid. That glass of water is salvation, hope, and triumph. This is where his wisdom came from. He knew the true meaning of things.
What if this is the key to our dilemma? Do Ohio explorers know the true meaning of nature? This is an important question for all people to consider. With a culture saturated in connection through media it is very easy for someone to gravitate toward something as a fad. In addition, it is easy to be pulled toward the fad if it is beautiful, easy, follower, and tantalizing. The opposite of a wound. If we use this as our definition to describe a fad then we can conclude our “Blue Collar” explorers don’t fit this mold. They connection with nature because they see meaning born from the scars. It doesn’t take the depths of the Grand Canyon. All it takes is dirt, space, and time. Their connection is true, pure, and deep. They have earned it like my retired maintenance friend. Nature is that glass of water extended out from the turmoil of labor. They understand the gratitude of grass because they have stood on the dirt. They understand the gratefulness of forests because they have sat in empty space. They see the creases in the bark, hear the tranquility of quiet, and feel the molecules in the air. They understand nature better than anyone. They are exactly what this world needs.
Blue collar explorers don’t just exist in the confines of Ohio. Many spaces on our planet are wounded but are saturated with people who connect on a different level. If at any time during this article you have though, “he is talking about me” – take pride in that. The world needs people like you. Keep being yourself. The world is a better place because of it.