HAS MORE HEROES THAN YOU MIGHT THINK
by Whit Gibbons
August 3, 2008
stories are worth updating and retelling, especially when they have good
endings, such as this one.
last century, a man in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, began telling elected officials
and the general public about the historical, cultural, and environmental
significance of a local stream. The stream had suffered abuse by industrial
impacts and blatant disregard for environmental stewardship.
is John Wathen. The stream is called Hurricane Creek. Last week the Tuscaloosa
County Commission agreed to set aside 249 acres on the creek for a public
park. This enlightened action by the commission is commendable not only
for the land protection itself but for the recognition of John's message
as an important one to support. Several years ago I wrote a column about
John, praising his kind of environmental activism and lauding John himself
as a hero. To reprint parts of it today seems timely and appropriate.
causes or significant advances throughout history have heroes associated
with them. Ecology and environmentalism are no exception and the history
books will recognize some for many years. Aldo Leopold is known for advancing
principles of conservation. President Theodore Roosevelt implemented countless
conservation measures from his political vantage point. Archie Carr led
the way for international efforts to protect sea turtles.
chapters are always too short to acknowledge some of the lesser known,
but equally important, contributors to a better environment. I refer to
the countless numbers of people who are concerned about keeping a healthy
environment and who go about making a difference in local communities
through their commitment. We all know people like this, and the downside
of mentioning any one individual is that dozens of others who also contribute
go unmentioned. But that is the way of the world, so let me mention a
person, John Wathen, who is making a difference environmentally at a place,
Hurricane Creek, I am familiar with.
I have been
to the creek many times; my first memory of it was as a five-year-old
during World War II with my grandparents and seeing a clear stream running
over and around rocks big enough for a family picnic. High cliffs with
hardwoods and pines framed the far side. Sandbars lined the near shore
up to the edge of the woodland. My memories are of deep pools with fish,
the sounds of swirling waters around rocks, and the fresh smell of outdoors.
many places in this country have such a creek, and the exact location
does not matter for my point, which is that in the years since my childhood,
Hurricane Creek has changed. Upstream pollution, trash from negligent
creek visitors, and a general degrading occurred over time. But the water
continued to pour forth, and the creek remained.
Then a man
named John Wathen set about to make some changes for the better, to return
Hurricane Creek to as close to its original pristine condition as possible.
He canoed the creek, picking up cans and bottles in the shallows and on
the shore, plucking plastic bags and wrappers from the vegetation. He
persuaded others to take up the cause of restoring a beautiful piece of
nature to its former self. He developed an organization called Friends
of Hurricane Creek.
faced the same obstacles from political and commercial interests that
anyone does when trying to set things right. Pollution is not an easy
thing to quell with big business and self-serving politics involved. Attitudes
are not always easy to change when a community decides that nothing can
be done because the problem's too big or the political opposition too
powerful. But Wathen persisted. He still persists. And the creek is again
beginning to look like my long-ago memory of it.
Creeks are all over the country, and most of them need a protector. Such
people do not always get mentioned in books on the history of the environment,
but their efforts are vital to all of us. We still have heroes around
who will work against steep odds to protect the environment. And every
one of them could use help.
finally be rewarded, as have John Wathen and Hurricane Creek, a place
I would like to take my own grandchildren.
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