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Remembrances Of Yesterday; Fears For Tomorrow

By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News
Some childhood memories are etched deeply into our psyche with their vivid recall, including sight, sound, and smell. For us, leaf piles burning in the fall is one such indelible memory. Today there are no leaf piles burning. It is illegal in most cities.

 “There are sound reasons for not burning leaves,” the late Hal Borland writes in his book Twelve Moons of the Year. “Their smoke adds to the urban smog, their smoldering flames create a fire hazard, and unburned leaves make good mulch and compost.

“But…” he continues, from time to time, someone will forget the law, fail to use common sense, or be oblivious to the environmental reasoning for not burning leaves. “When he does, the nostalgic people sniff the evening air and remember forgotten autumns when leaf smoke was the incense of October evenings. If you are middle-aged, don’t allow yourself to smell it, or you will wonder what happened to those years,” Borland writes.

Growing up, we raked the leaves into piles in the yard, and once mounded high, we dove in them with delight. We burrowed into the piles, burying ourselves in their rustling, dusty blanket. We ran into them, scattering the leaves as we plowed through, trying to make it to the end before losing momentum.

As we play in one pile, in the distance a match is put to another, and the leaves begin to smolder, then catch fire. A cloud of white smoke rises. Leaf gatherers stand close by sweeping more of the browns, yellows, and oranges of elms, maple, ash, and oak into the fire. A lazy, drifting ribbon of leaf smoke snakes through the neighborhood, instilling memories in children to recall in a day when piles of leaves burning belong only to the past.

Now leaves are mulched and bagged by lawn tractors that rapidly sweep across a yard. How many children laughing and jumping in piles of leaves is it gathering up as it cleanses the landscape?

We don’t pay attention to nature and our environment the way we did when our survival was dependent on noticing the clues of clouds and wildlife.

The vast majority of children today are raised in concrete surroundings, subdivisions with manicured lawns, and city playgrounds devoid of so much of a touch of nature. We might ask how those who don’t see abundant life around them consider the fragility of life on another shore, on the prairie, in the rain forest, or on the reefs of the oceans? How do they know what they’ve lost when they’ve never experienced what they should treasure?

Yet it is ironic that those who grow up with so little nature around them may care more about the future of our environment than those of us who live in rural areas.

In this wet year, our rural fall landscape is littered with new tile that will be dug into the soil to drain the land. And in turn, during summer’s heat water will be drawn from our limited aquifers to water crops.

Where sloughs should be gathering water, filtering it on its way to replenish our drinking water reserves, the land is sucked dry and plowed down. The aquifer’s balance of water to slake the thirst of future generations and future fields of crops is lessened.

“Once you have abundance in your head you kind of feel that you can consume it endlessly,” DNR Region 4 Groundwater Planner Tim Gieseke warns. It’s hard to believe in the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” that we don’t have water to spare. That we would forever be able to turn on the tap and clean, abundant water would come gushing out was a given. No longer. In western Minnesota, we are already seeing a limited resource depleted.

As we rip up conservation reserve acres, put virgin prairie to the plow, and tear out groves, the habitat for birds, pollinators, amphibians and thousands of other species vanishes. Nearly 3 billion birds have disappeared from the U.S. and Canadian avian populations since 1970. It is a stunning number and one that should give us a sense of shame. It’s a warning we ignore at our peril.

Humans are the equivalent of the asteroid that crashed into the Gulf of Mexico 65 million years ago, ending the age of the dinosaurs.

Through Earth’s history, there have been five major extinction events, natural cataclysms that drastically reduced the number of species inhabiting it. Asteroids, massive volcanic events that blocked the sun and cooled the Earth, and extensive glaciation periods are all thought to have played a role in previous mass extinctions.

Today’s sixth extinction event is the consequence of mankind’s overuse and abuse of the land, and our pumping of evermore carbon into the atmosphere. “Global warming will eventually push 1 out of every 13 species on Earth into extinction, a new study projects,” the Assocaited Press’ Science Writer Seth Borenstein reports.

There will be a reckoning one day with nature. Unfortunately, those who have done the damage won’t be the ones facing the consequences - it will be their children and grandchildren.

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