A Deeper Boom: The Beginning of the Environmental Movement

The incipient environmental justice movement suffered from the same wilful deafness to diverse voices that made it necessary, but laid the groundwork for a more holistic approach now.

  • Robert W. Every, OSC Extension Entomology Specialist, is shown operating sprayer on sheep for ticks on an Oregon farm in 1948. The nozzles were held close to the fleece in order to get skin deep penetration with the DDT solution.
    Photo courtesy OSU Special Collections & Archives
  • Beauty is one of the recurring qualities people cite as essential for living well in the world.
    Photo by Flickr/gustaffo89

I was barely 17 in the summer of 1973, rangy and restless, sweating through a muggy July in South Bend, Indiana, the land of corn and rust. I made five bucks an hour working a drill press — using it to bore little circles into blue plastic electrical boxes, or on other days, making half-inch mounting-bolt holes in the tops of bright-red Snapper lawnmower seats. In July I got a better job: fifty cents an hour more to work in a metal shop on the south end of town, where I dropped faucets and trailer-hitch balls into giant tanks of sulfuric acid, wincing and snorting against the tang, to prepare them for chrome plating.

My parents were away weekends that summer, 45 miles to the southeast, finishing a little cottage they’d been working on for a half-dozen years. Left alone, I was twitchy, stirred up by the urge to roam. One Friday night, at around 9 p.m., I loaded a small backpack with food and water, slipped into a torn blue windbreaker and walked a block and a half to the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks. There I hunkered down in a patch of weeds, screening myself from passing cars, and waited. I’d timed the outing to roughly coincide with one of the westbound trains rolling through — a schedule I knew from having spent years of nights listening to the freight cars rolling across the neighborhood.

Sure enough, in 15 or 20 minutes came the usual signal for trains approaching an intersection — two long horn blows, one short, another long — and then the rails started shimmering in a big pour of headlight. There was the deep, earth-shaking grumble of four giant diesel engines rolling past, the grind of steel wheels against the rails, a screech of brakes as the train slowed. And finally, the sound of the white gravel stones on the track bed crunching under my shoes as I trotted out of the bluestem and butterfly weed to jump butt-first into the open doorway of a boxcar.

And suddenly there I was, rolling west through the summer night, fireflies blinking on and off in the ditches. In 10 minutes or so came a line of abandoned, dimly lit brick factories and warehouses at the western edge of the city, their long lines of rock-shattered windows blackened with soot. And then, finally, countryside. Here and there a small wood lot. And at the edges of the fields near Stillwell, a sweep or two of hedgerow — lines of thicket that in those days seemed to be vanishing right before our eyes, as farmers plowed everything under to plant corn and soybeans. And farther west still, clinging to the last soggy places not yet filled in by bulldozers, the dull silhouettes of thrush and cattail, where I imagined resolute little green frogs singing up the summer moon. At my turn-around point, three hours up the line in Gary, the landscape was ghoulish, vile. There were clusters of fuming smokestacks and a row of burn-off plumes from Standard Oil and U.S. Steel. At night the skies shined like weak neon. The fires that erupted now and then in the Gary city dump added onto the usual sulfury odor of the city, a smell like scorched wires.

At the edge of the freight yard, on a bleak street paved with crumbling bricks, I struck up a conversation with a guy in his fifties named Stan — stooped, unshaven, wearing a dark blue t-shirt ripped at the shoulder, smelling of Aqua Velva and cigarettes. He said he’d been fired from his job on the slag line for showing up drunk. Now he was trying to get west, to Kansas, hoping to crash for a couple of months with his oldest daughter. At a pause in the conversation I told him how strange Gary looked to a guy from South Bend: the crazy-colored sky, the nasty smell, the puddles of fuel oil. He flinched.

“To hell with that,” he snarled, turning to walk away. “You don’t get it, fella. Poison is progress.”

I grew up in an age of industrial hauteur, a woozy time of contrivance and contraption that, despite enormous benefits, was by the mid-1950s sick with bravado. My brother and I, along with millions of fellow baby boomers, took our first bike rides and hoisted our first kites in a world stained by poisons, from nuclear fallout in the Rockies to DDT on the Great Plains. In New York City alone, three separate smog events between 1953 and 1966 killed more than 600 people.

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