I am currently living and working in Middlebury, Vermont, as an Instructor in Environmental Humanities at the Middlebury School of the Environment. For my class "Environmentalism and the Poor" my students and I each wrote personal reflection essays on the convergence of class, privilege, and environmental awareness and values in our lives. The following is my response to the assignment.
Mohawk River scene, November 2013
I grew up just a few miles upland from the Mohawk River, but I did not know it. My father, mother, older brother and I all lived in a big house on a road named for the native peoples who once lived here. They were the Mohicans, and our street, plotted on a map for the first time probably in the early twentieth century, was named Mohegan Road. It intersects with Stuyvesant Road (named for the seventeenth-century Dutch governor of this land) and runs parallel to Algonquin Road (named for the larger group of native peoples that included Mohicans but not the Mohawks). As for the Mohawks, they were the “keepers of the eastern door.” They were members of the Iroquois confederacy—the Haudenosaunee—a great polity stretching westward from the Mohawk River to Niagara Falls, and stretching backward in time from the present to at least five hundred years ago. The Mohawk River is named for the people who lived along it. I never met a Mohawk until I moved to New York City, and I did not know that I lived along the Mohawk River. I lived a few miles upland. A river and its people flowed unknowingly beneath me through space and time.
Canal boats, barges, fishing boats, and high school crew teams can be seen going upstream and downstream each day along the river. In high school, my sweetheart participated on the crew team. I once attended one of their matches on the Mohawk. It was my first time actually on the river. Earlier, when we first fell in the love, she drove me down to the river one night and dared me to go skinny-dipping with her. I would not, but I watched her through the cracks in my fingers as she stripped down and made her body mysteriously disappear into the river.
She knew the river through the act of boating on it and swimming in it. I, on the other hand, was afraid to put a toe in it. We grew up hearing from anxious parents and schoolyard rumors that General Electric, the big corporation just a few miles upstream, had dumped heavy metals and toxins into the river for generations. It was not safe to swim in the Mohawk River. This was the narrative I learned and accepted as truth. But people swam in the river nevertheless. When I was older—sometime after college—I moved back to the Mohawk and lived in an apartment on my own for the first time in the city of Schenectady. Sometimes I would go down to the river and enjoy it with my senses from a safe distance. I watched the African-American children wading in and swimming in the inlet, laughing and splashing as they enjoyed the cool feel of the water on their overheated bodies. Were their apartments hot and stuffy, lacking air conditioning and fans? I felt the same heat as them, but why did they cool off in the river and I did not? Were our knowledges of and apprehensions of the level of pollution in the river wildly different? As for me, I was above swimming in the river. I swam at the Jewish Community Center in the chlorinated pool. I could swim at Union College where my dad worked. To each their own toxins: they chose industrial waste streams; I chose chlorine and kiddie pool piss.
One day I saw a swirling eddy of garbage floating in the Mohawk as it wound around Schenectady. I went home, opened a phone book, and called the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to file a report. The woman on the other end of the line told me that, “oh, someone probably just dumped a load of garbage into the river. Assholes.” I later reflected on our conversation: who was the asshole? Why would anyone dump waste into the Mohawk River?
Downstream of us is the sewage treatment plant. Electricity is utilized to process my poop, separate it into liquids and solids, treat the liquid content, and then flush it all into the Mohawk. I'm not sure if we directly drink that water, but perhaps someone does. The electricity to run the sewage plant once came from the river itself. The Mohawk is dammed up so many times over from its headwaters in the Adirondacks to its outlet near Albany. Old hydroelectric plants sit as ruins along the water's edge. Today much of our energy comes from coal—mined in Appalachia, or perhaps somewhere else. I don't really know. Do the wires above our heads carry the current of hot coal from your river to mine? River currents can only go in one direction, down. Every river must end. But electrical currents go in all and every direction. The Mohawk used to be a corridor for electricity just as it is for water. Now it carries treated poop and heavy metals. No one knows where our electricity comes from.
General Electric began laying off employees at its Schenectady plant in the 1970s. Was it one hundred here and one hundred there, or did they lock out ten thousand all at once? By the time I came of age along the river, only two to three thousand workers still punched their timecards. When tens of thousands left, the population of our city went into free fall, and a neighborhood built expressly for company workers was soon a slum for the city's poorest. African-Americans became a majority of this neighborhood's residents, and white people increasingly stayed away. Anxious parents warned us not to go to Hamilton Hill. On the hill above the flats above the river, the poor, the dispossessed, and people of color got locked in—stuck in situ by the anger and despair of a crumbling white working class, a people on the defensive and in retreat, a people who once referred to the glowing “G.E.” sign above the canal with pride of place.
Globalization was good to our river. General Electric moved production overseas where labor was cheaper and environmental regulations less stringent or non-existent. Their motto, “we bring good things to life,” was unveiled when they left town. G.E. had brought good things to Schenectady—a sparkling downtown; men in fine suits, woman in party dresses; blue-collar men and women marching up and down Hamilton Hill, going to and from jobs that were sufficient and honorable; union meeting halls resounding with the sound of exhortations and proclamations by workers, for workers; marches up and down State Street; socialists taking over City Hall in the 1910s, creating parks for the poor, places of respite for the downtrodden. When G.E. left, the lights turned off. So began the post-industrial apocalypse. The people thinned out, and spread out. The pollution stopped. The river cleared up. People cleaned it up. The Mohawk was brought back to life, and we have globalization to thank for that.
But now men and women walk to work at General Electric-India and General Electric-China, where new rivers are receiving the brunt of our old pollution. We may clean up our own rivers by using compact fluorescent lightbulbs; the dams along the Mohawk can be smashed to smithereens, allowing fish to swim freely up and downstream if we want them to, because we are energy-efficient consumers and we no longer need “white coal” from the river. But who is putting the mercury in our compact fluorescent bulbs? Who is bringing good things to life in the twenty-first century?
I grew up close to, but distant from, the Mohawk River. Later, as I grew older, I came to love it very much. I love it passionately, but passively from a respectable distance. It is an expression of my class and my upbringing, of my station in society and in the world, and of my relationship to (or alienation from) work. I do not swim in the river. I do not boat on it. I try not to drink it. I most certainly poop into it. I don't want to pollute it, and I will do my part to clean it up, but I don't know and I can't care if I am polluting someone else's river to do so. When I turn on the lights in my parents' house, what good things are brought to life, and what good things are destroyed? If the energy we consume is not coming from the river, then where is it coming from? If I can't use the river to get from one place to another, or to power a single light bulb, then what use is it? Three hundred years ago, Dutch, English, and French traders and trappers traveled one way on the river while Mohawks traveled in the other direction. The river was a meeting place—a flashpoint in globalization. Great battles in our Revolutionary War were fought along its shores. The Erie Canal was built tracing its edge. One of the world's great corporations took root in the flats along the river in that great age of steam, iron, consolidation, unionization, immigration, socialism, upheaval, and progress. You never step into the same river twice, and that could easily be said of the Mohawk.