Chester Martin: The Big Clean-Up

Tuesday, January 16, 2018 - by Chester Martin

I think it was probably Hollywood that created the myth of 'Sunny California'.  At least that is the concept I grew up with. California - and all the 'Old West' - was famous for blue skies and those natural formations out in the desert that looked so near and yet were deceptively so far away. California's 'golden sunsets' were the subject of many a painting, post-card, and song, that either showed us or teased us with the thought of 'skies that were not cloudy all day'.

World War 2 came and went, and soon we started hearing the truth - about the 'liquid sunshine' of southern California which increasingly diminished our earlier mental images of sunny skies.

A new word came into the English Language at about that time, called 'smog': a mixture of smoke and fog, which seems to have originated there on the west coast and to have been tailor-made to describe the true scene there in Los Angeles. Comedians on national radio shows from that city were now making funny jokes about the 'liquid sunshine' and 'smog' phenomena there, thus popularizing those expressions as they crept into the rest of the nation's vocabulary and became part of American culture. 'Smog' was an especially cool new word, and soon other cities joined LA, not wishing to feel left out. Cities of our industrial north, especially - such as Detroit - became affected by the phenomenon.

And I plainly remember when the new smog was first identified here in Chattanooga. That was, of course, back when the many smoke-stack industries were still in place, with toxic smoke billowing out from tall chimneys 24 hours a day. I can remember travelling from Brainerd into town through the newly opened 'ridge cut' on I-24  (about 1966) when the smog was so thick it seemed like you could drive your car across it to Lookout Mountain! No downtown  building could be clearly identified in that thick smoggy mess, although the skies might be crystal-clear directly overhead.

This was at the same time that littering the streets had become a pesky little problem as well. People would be leisurely driving along in their cars with a small bag of garbage poised on the floorboard just waiting for the right moment to be dumped. A window would suddenly open and that garbage would quickly and indiscriminately be thrown out - often right in the middle of traffic!  I've seen that done many times, and it was a nation-wide thing!  "Litterbug" campaigns began to spring up as a result - an idea that swept the nation - and DID lead to both a vast improvement in the country's cleanliness factor- and more importantly made people aware of the problem.

Environmentalists who had studied the relatively new field of "Ecology" at their universities  soon got into the act, of course, seeing a new way to make a buck. (And I am not putting them or their work down, as they certainly helped us to see where all those new nationwide problems were.)  The  environmentalists/ecologists also made us equally aware of the polluted seas, and oceanographers such as Dr. Thor Heyerdahl (of Kon-Tiki fame) scared us with stories of vast masses of debris floating about in mid-ocean. Later workers in that field asserted that some of these debris masses were "as big as the state of Texas." Such pollution of the oceans I cannot attest to personally, as I have neither been to sea, nor yet seen a video or news report on that specific subject. But I can say that it seems reasonable to believe that such floating islands of refuse can exist, especially following the immense "tsunami" caused by a powerful earthquake that devastated parts of Japan in March, 2011. It took ages for all the Japanese wreckage to reach the shores of Oregon and Washington, but it DID arrive! Human beings were only capable of standing by and watching this massive freak of Nature.

In very recent times it has been the heavily industrialized cities of China and Japan where the entire population appears to be wearing face-masks to screen out the heavy pollution in those places. Such masks may be an on-going way of life for those populations until they find ways to scrub industrial smoke out of their lives, just as we have done in the U.S. Those masks have been completely eliminated in our own cities, and we never see them anymore save for rare accidental chemical spills, natural dust-storms, and the like.

Internet friends have recently been sending me the new and unbelievably fine crop of travel videos, knowing that I enjoy world travel. These videos are the very latest - all shot in HD, and many done in time-lapse photography - some with even the super-modern 'hyper time-lapse' technology using drones that can take cameras into heretofore totally inaccessible places. I have been astonished by the clarity of these videos - and the almost complete lack of visible pollution anywhere in the world!  It makes me wonder where it all went - and so fast. Yesterday we were told that the planet was dying from it, while today there is sufficient visual evidence to prove that theory wrong. I know there may still be badly polluted areas of our earth - and Mexico City has been suggested as one candidate for such a reputation. Also Madrid, Spain, might qualify as another candidate for such. Dunno, because when I was last there, about 30 years ago, the smog was so thick you couldn't see the sun until almost noon daily.  In the intervening 30 years I like to imagine that Madrid has both tackled and dealt with that problem. Judging from what I can now see the future looks promising. (Our young former house-guest friend, Sisi Z., now works in the Green industries of that city, and I believe the Madrileños have enjoyed a massive air cleanup since that time.)

Your own world overview might deserve an up-date, because if you are still of the mind that Eurasia and the "Stans" are out-dated, dusty, sand-swept, throwbacks to Medieval times then you are in for a big surprise!  Let me suggest that you watch a brief time-lapse tour of Astana, capital city of distant Kazakhstan - by Kirill Neiezhmakov -  on YouTube. It will astound you!  And it is the atmospheric clarity I want you to notice. Watch that same photographer's videos of Florence, Prague and Rome, and you will see what I mean. Cleanliness appears to be coming into vogue everywhere!  Nobody is holding a handkerchief to their nose anymore, and clean air is once again catching on world-wide. There is even a (to me) brand new video of Chattanooga I have not yet watched in full, made using drones to capture views of the city as you have never seen it before...and Chattanooga surely has the same sort of pristine look as seen from the air!   

Now I'll turn briefly to the oceans, which have been so widely criticized for decades. If the oceans are badly polluted I believe the worst of it follows the very heavily travelled sea-lanes, but that there are broad expanses of open water that remain absolutely clear and clean, and are home to all manner of exotic sea life. Once again we can thank the videographer's cameras for showing us that the battle to 'save the oceans' has not been totally lost.

To please both Ecologist and Layman alike, there was even a story on a national network news program recently which showed a dramatic reversal of the ozone problem over Antarctica and the entire South Polar region. This story could only have originated with environmental scientists who have equipment that is sophisticated enough to make such observations and produce such an array of facts. Let's thank those brave videographers who risk it all to produce wonderfully new images of Mother Earth and change peoples' opinions in the process!

Now if we can only get our scientist friends to agree that Florida will not soon sink into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean (at least in our life-times), and that the beaches of North Carolina will  still retain the same high-water line as decreed by King George, III, in Colonial times, we can relax a bit. Let our grandkids worry about their own future, just as we have worried about ours. I am betting that in their lifetimes long-term investments on Florida beach-front property are still going to be offered to the highest bidder - and that the famous stone clock-tower (now almost 90 years old) at Daytona Beach will not have sunk into the sand!. When I was five years old that clock-tower was a new and sensational addition to the beach just as Daytona was starting on its quest for world-wide popularity as a vacation resort. At that time it stood by itself directly on the beach and has survived all the natural disasters that only a 90-year time period can bring. It has also been dwarfed by the construction of a large high -rise beach hotel and seems to have suffered no ill effects. One would think that if Florida WERE thinking of settling into the sea - following the classic example set by Atlantis - then it would have started the process by now. How can such tonnage pressing down constantly on the beach sand keep from being swallowed up?

Nope...it hasn't happened...at least YET! And I am of the mind that it WON'T happen for a long, long time (like thousands of years???!!!)  All of earth's shorelines have been nibbled on along the edges, I am sure: look at England's fragile chalk cliffs of Dover - where the remnants of a Roman lighthouse still remain intact after more than 1500 years, high above the water. And consider the coast of our own Outer Banks of North Carolina, where ocean currents - and storms - are constantly changing, destroying bridges and beach-houses in the process. But mainland North Carolina remains pretty much the same as in Colonial times. Mother Nature and Father Time continue to do their evil work, and CHANGE will surely come about. (Those two evil people have even ganged up on ME, folks!)  Let's hope that Man may have solved the pollution problem, but we are still at Nature's mercy when it comes to sinking into the Atlantic Ocean and other stuff like that!

I suspect that only Mother Nature and Father Time will live to tell!

* * *

Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter, sculptor and artisan as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net.

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