St. Patrick's Day 2018 began with a dreary start. I woke early to make the 45 minute trek from Greensboro to Walnut Cove to pick up trash as part of the Clean the Cove event. It was an easy morning to roll over and stay snuggled up in bed. The clouds were heavy and luminous over the landscape. In fact, as I approached Stokes County in Stokesdale, I noticed that the smokestacks for Belews Creek seemed to be producing large, violet clouds, a site I had never seen before.
As I headed west along Hwy 158, I shrieked out loud as I rounded a curve. There stood a large rainbow streak boldly looming above the red foliage of new spring leaves of a maple tree. It was almost like a presence. I have never had such a close encounter with a rainbow before. Drastically slowing my speed, I realized that there was a complete rainbow in front of me and the pot of gold was next to Belews Creek smokestacks. The lighting of the emissions at this point was like a golden flame. I quickly pulled off onto a side road. I was searching for a clearing where I could see the entire rainbow arching across the Sauratown Mountain range, encompassing Walnut Cove, Stokes County, and completing its decent next to the smokestacks.
Just the day before, my four-year-old had asked me if there was going to be a rainbow the next day for St. Patrick's Day. They had discussed the holiday at preschool. The rainbows, the gold, the leprechauns were all fresh on his mind. I told him that was tricky. Rainbows usually require some rain. They don't just magically appear. But here it was.
Not only was it a rainbow, it was a vibrant, complete rainbow seeming to make a promise to make amends for the weight of over-reliance on fossil fuels. For the hidden health burdens that had been placed on our community forty years ago. It was hard not to cry. It felt like the Double Rainbow Guy, who cried out, "What does it mean?" I certainly knew what I hoped that it meant. That we are nearing a complete cleanup of our community, despite the physical evidence of moves by Duke Energy to begin capping our site in place.
We are one of six remaining sites slated to be capped, even though we are the only remaining site to have proven off-site contamination with high levels of arsenic found in groundwater beyond Duke Energy's property line. Next week marks the three year anniversary of 42 families living on bottled water at Belews Creek out of the almost one thousand in North Carolina. That is if you are lucky enough to fall within the arbitrary half-mile radius that determines whether Duke provides you with water.
I was unable to capture the beauty of the rainbow. Certainly, I have some lovely pictures. But they are faint and pale in comparison to what I experienced in person: the sudden appearance above the flaming red tree, seeing the complete rainbow across the landscape, and even driving beneath the rainbow and seeing it from a side angle. It all felt like magic.
As I continued back on route to the Clean Up Event, a few drops of rain started to fall. There was the rain. I could not wait to tell Oliver what happened and to see if I was able to capture anything with my iPhone. Certainly rainbows are why we should have cameras built into the front of our cars.
As we selected our clean-up route, I originally planned to focus on the Walk Walnut Cove route through London. I am hoping that we will create an audio walking tour through the area this summer. But instead, we were redirected to Highway 65, which is my regular drive into town. We would pick up from Hedgecock Builder's Supply down to MLK Jr. Drive, which includes the recently annexed Walnut Tree entrance. As we waited for the rain to clear, Linda and I watched Chad drive his cement truck to and from the power plant to receive coal ash to complete a job that had been disrupted by the previous weekend's snow.
Once the sun appeared, my father, who has a lot of experience picking up trash, warned that I needed a stick to use. He had one along with a handled bag, which made it easy for him to drop his collection directly in with little effort. He was right. I was starting to feel the fatigue of picking up trash and shifted my efforts to taking pictures to document the event, which allowed me to create a video.
It seems that each side of the road had a particular pattern of trash: approaching town, there were a greater number of beer bottles. Leaving town included predominantly styrofoam cups and food containers. Some of my more poignant finds included:
A new growth underneath a glass beer bottle in a patch of wild day lilies growing along the side of the road just beyond Hedgecock's
A chance to closely examine the mosses and native plants along the roadside that have often intrigued me
A plastic colander was found over the bridge as we approached the end of our route
The colander is a perfect metaphor to describe the current state of our unlined coal ash basins in North Carolina. We have used the colander as a metaphor in presentations. I have used it as part of my prayers and meditations since fall of 2016. I quickly grabbed it and knew that it would become an art project in the near future.
Later that evening as we gathered in Fowler Park, we spent time planting flowers and discussing ideas of other spaces we could plant them. Certainly our entrances could use some sprucing up. We talked to the kids, who were enjoying Fowler Park. And I played around with creating my first video. When I returned home to watch it, I was astonished that it looks like a little green friend did in fact showed up. I pointed it out to Oliver and Lucy as my leprechaun. I have never had anything like that happen before.
Walnut Cove is a tiny, rural town. It has approximately 1400 people living within its town limits. Small events like picking up trash do not feel like they are making a tremendous difference. But as I shared the video on Facebook, I was surprised by the outpouring of comments by people. Many referred to the PSAs of the early 70s to help "Keep America Beautiful." NC no longer funds roadside cleanup by prisoners. We need to hold one another accountable and stop littering. Period.
Picking up trash has a rewarding feeling of instant gratification and gives you a sense of ownership over a small strip of land. In searching for how to heal our massive environmental issues, the notion of intent returns over and over again. Just our intent to clean up our lands makes a large difference. A morning of stepping outside and picking up trash IS taking the action that we need to shift our greater environment to a cleaner, healthier one. It creates a renewed sense of awareness and makes a big difference, even if we cannot clean up larger problems - like coal ash - solely on our own.