When open spaces become dumping places

The “Welcome Birders” signs are up and our little community is ready for an influx of people with binoculars and cameras slung around their necks.

Soon, all eyes will be on the stars of the spring migration – the tiny warblers who stop along Lake Erie’s shores on their way north.

This year, however, birders here for the Biggest Week in American Birding will be seeing a plethora of signs other than those welcoming them. These bright-yellow placards are promoting our community’s effort to stop the dumping of spent lime sludge in a local limestone quarry. Those of us engaged in this David-versus-Goliath fight are hoping to build awareness and elicit additional support from the birding community.

The threat that the quarry dumping poses is something no one in Ottawa County’s Benton Township ever expected to face. Most residents here are occupied with farming, other work, and maintaining their property, even as they enjoy their bucolic location near one of the prime birding spots in the country. Still, because people here are responsible for their own water and sewage via private wells and septic systems, they know what it takes to maintain them. Hence, local conversations of late have been peppered with talk of “the aquifer” that feeds our wells and what effect the dumping of spent lime might have on it, given the sludge contains copper, lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium and other metals and substances. Lacking a municipal  department that manages our water supply, we have banded together, driven by concern for our wells and a love of the area once known as the Great Black Swamp.

Interestingly, the problem we face involves drinking water in another community – an urban one. The city of Toledo in neighboring Lucas County made national headlines nearly three years ago when toxins from the algae bloom on Lake Erie compromised the city’s water, leading to the temporary shutdown of the municipal water-treatment plant.

To prevent a recurrence, Toledo began making changes that included removing from lined lagoons the spent lime used to clean its drinking water and relocating it elsewhere.  Enter an enterprising company, which bought a quarry in Ottawa County and arranged for one of its affiliates to haul and dump the sludge under terms of a multi-million-dollar contract.

Rural Benton Township must have seemed the ideal setting for this operation. Unlike in the city, the proceedings of the governing trustees are not reported in detail by local news outlets. Also, unlike more densely populated suburban neighborhoods, where people take note of everything from the grass-cutting habits of their neighbors to a for-sale sign going up, rural dwellers are more likely to look out their windows and notice an eagle or Northern Harrier soaring over a fallow field.

So it happened that few of us even realized what was going on at the quarry until last year when the persistent efforts of a neighbor who had observed the activity  and tried to raise the alarm finally captured everyone’s attention.  Since then, residents have organized and educated themselves about what exactly the dumping of spent lime sludge in and around the quarry could mean to these environs and most especially the drinking water.

They’ve learned what the state Environmental Protection Agency can and cannot do, what local zoning laws mean, about other communities that have faced and successfully fought similar threats, and how to get the message out to news organizations. They’ve had signs made and set up a Facebook group and a website that includes a link for donations to help pay the hefty legal bills the township has had to absorb to counter the dumping.

Along the way, people have gotten to know each other a little better, setting aside what differences they might have for a unified effort to protect their water. They’ve discovered that many of their neighbors share an interest in the birds that draw visitors to this area each spring and that they want to do what they can to ensure Benton Township continues to provide a friendly habitat for wildlife as well as people.

In listening to the commentary at township meetings over the last months and interacting with our neighbors, it often has struck me how those of us who live in rural areas value the peace, spaciousness, and proximity to the natural world we find outside the city. Yet, these very qualities make our environs vulnerable to outside forces that would exploit what we treasure. It is a good reminder to all of us to keep watch and stay vigilant, even — and perhaps especially —  in the quiet.

To learn more about the Benton Township quarry dumping, visit http://www.stopquarrydumping.com

 

 

 

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On the way of the nothing

“It’s often necessary in life to do nothing, but so few people do it nicely.” – From City of Bells by Elizabeth Goudge

The barrenness of winter has always held a certain appeal for me. Perhaps that’s why, as a northerner, I have little desire to flee to a warmer climate as so many of my peers do at this time of year.

Why that is, I’m not certain, but it may have something to do with relishing the opportunity to do nothing for a season. Not literally doing nothing, of course, but I do love that sense of repose that comes each January after the Christmas rush when we settle in for a long winter of reading, evenings by the fire, and a break from the frenzied activity that foists itself upon us with the onset of milder weather.

These days, as I look out on the stark, gray landscape, I can smile at the cheery messages I receive from friends and family waxing on about the sunny, warm weather and what they are doing in Florida or other snowbird destinations. Deep within, I take a kind of secret delight in being able to stay put and enter into the fallowness of this season and its hidden gifts.

A northern winter forces us into a kind of nothingness that can be maddening. But if we are willing to endure long enough to pass through its portal, we can encounter a place of stillness where we know that under or just ahead of the seeming nothingness lies something precious.

I saw that clearly on a recent weekend when I made my way to Magee Marsh, where I go to watch warblers and other migratory birds each spring. I expected nothing in the way of bird sightings, but merely wanted to walk and experience the landscape in its unadorned winter raiment.

Even so, I was happily surprised by the presence of two Northern Saw-whet Owls that other birders had spied in a stand of pine trees at the marsh’s bird center. Farther in, I was treated to splendid views of a Bald Eagle perched near its nest.

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Blogger Kim Clair Smith captured this view of a Northern Saw-whet Owl in 2013 and her sighting was just as happily unexpected as mine. Read about it here.

But what has stayed with me most prominently since that day was the incredibly austere setting of the birders’ boardwalk, bereft of any sign of life. As I walked by the places where I have seen Prothonotary Warblers, Baltimore Orioles, Gray Catbirds, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Northern Parulas, and Red-eyed Vireos, I was mostly struck by the utter nothingness of my surroundings. Aside from two birders I encountered on the way out, I saw no one and nothing but barren and felled trees. The contrast to what I see in the spring was almost breathtaking. In May, I am elbow-to-elbow with birders and nature photographers walking under leafy branches and straining to see Wilson’s or Orange-crowned warblers.  There is a hum of excitement and activity as birders from around the world converge in groups to train their binoculars, scopes, or cameras on a particularly sought-after bird or share the news of a good sighting “at the loop” or “by the east entrance.” Could this be the same place? Indeed, it was.

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The Magee Marsh boardwalk in its winter raiment.

That day, I loved the marsh and the boardwalk for their essence, revealed by the absence of foliage, people, and birds. There seemed to be nothing, but there was something. It was much as I had come to love the frail frame of my aging mother before she died because it reflected the graceful serenity that remained as she was taken down to her bare branches.

By detaching from my desire for and memories of spring and facing the nothingness of the landscape, I received something new, as we do in the spiritual life when we abstain or fast from our pleasures so as to hear and see more deeply things eternal.

In the spring, I will love the marsh even more for having seen it in its barren state. But for now, I will treasure the memory of its frame, consoled by its beauty and anticipating the joy of seeing it transformed from its state of seeming nothingness into one teeming with life.