Over the weekend, Barbara posted news that after an ordinary weekend outing on the Indian River, her husband’s leg became infected with a dangerous bacterial infection associated with pollution. Pollution they have been striving to stop. Just because they went swimming in a river they loved.
About a decade ago, my youngest son was surfing in a remote and inaccessible part of Costa Rica during rainy season. On a phone call, he made light of an infection in his knee that followed the progress of a staph infection. With the help of a Miami physician and then Tico locals, I moved heaven and earth to get him medication that was unavailable in Costa Rica. Unlike some infections reported from exposure to Florida’s toxic waters, my son probably doesn’t even remember his encounter. I will never forget it.
Although I have this connection to the Osborn’s frightful story (and hope for Bruce's quick recovery), and in addition to shared anger at Florida legislators who refuse to solve the crisis of Lake Okeechobee and the Indian River in Florida — there is more to my interest.
The capriciousness of nature is woven through the threat of climate change to alter civilization. I am on the look out for the small story that represents the whole. Preventable disease, if only we protected our environment, is one of those stories.
It turns out these stories have any even deeper connection to our shared and common past.
Long before Christianity or any other religions we identify by name, our ancestors worshipped what the writer Mircea Eliade called, the myth of the eternal return. In the study of comparative religions, Eliade discovered traces of ancient beliefs and cultures revolving around common fears of uncertainty, of disease and crop failures, and of generations that burned brightly, burned out and then returned thanks to the power of nature to regenerate, not only to destroy. He called the phenomenon, the myth of the eternal return, and it echoes through all our named religions. In this way, we are connected to pre-history tens of thousands of years before Christ.
In only six decades that frame my own life, I have observed the destruction of parts of nature; Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island where I was raised, Florida Bay where I experienced, in my youth, the glories of a diverse, shallow water wilderness, of sea grass meadows vibrant with fish and birds as far as the eye could see.
I witnessed something else: how a generation younger than mine failed to keep the flame of indignation burning, once the older generation of observers burned out.
It happened in Rhode Island, where the last generation of bay men and families connected by history to Native Americans who sustainably populated the land and rivers, dissolved. It happened in Florida Bay, where fishermen woven from the same cloth as their brethren in New England, disdained government, treasured independence, and lost what they valued; what nature offered freely.
The same will happen in the Indian River, unless river activists successfully mobilize in ways that keep the fire burning longer than it did in South Florida and the Florida Keys.
It is human nature, perhaps, that unless one has experienced directly the value of something, one doesn’t know what was lost. The promise that this is not universally the case depends on education and understanding of those stories that connect us, as Eliade observed.
What is most upsetting about the loss of estuaries and ecosystems elsewhere within just a few decades and the span of just a few generations is that these will not return.
When our waters become so toxic that swimming becomes an existential threat, there must be a majority of people willing to overturn the threats.
The ancients understood perfectly well that our hubris, or denial, can conquer us. They did imagine a time when civilizations could be ruined by a leader’s single decision. What gave people hope — long before the written record even existed — was the belief that nature can provide the conditions that return economic security and safety to people.
With Narragansett Bay, Florida Bay, with the Indian River and the Caloosahatchee in Florida, with Lake Okeechobee and the springs of North Florida; all these places have lost protections under a government and elected officials who nonetheless professed and pledged their oath to protect under the state constitution.
The infection in Bruce Osborn’s knee is our problem today. If we don’t take care of today’s infections, they will spread like wildfire and not just any wildfire; they will end nature and the myth of the eternal return.