Back in the 70s there was an oil spill spill in southwestern Lake Michigan. I don’t remember if it made the national news; I learned about it when I went down to the beach for the first time that summer and found black sticky sand everywhere. My grandmother explained to me what had happened, but the impact of what that meant didn’t hit me until a few years later when the Exxon Valdez ran aground, dumping enough oil into the Alaskan waterways to make the evening news for weeks and even months in an era long preceding the Internet and the 24/7 news cycle.
I remember watching the news of the Valdez spell and being horrified at the irreparable damage to wildlife and to the shores and then wondering what the oil spills in Michigan- there have been more since – were doing to the people.
My parents and grandparents being upset about the spell, but it seem to be anger at the spills’ impact on our enjoyment of the beaches. None of us considered what the tarry sand might be doing to the health of the people who lived along the shores year around. These bills were just the occasional price to pay for our collective way of life.
I was thinking about the oil spills as I was looking for one more picture to paint for my fingerprints show. Most of my paintings of focused on places we’ve shaped and abandoned, or the more benign and picturesque fingerprints we have left, and I knew I wanted one more of Lake Michigan.
As I went through my pictures of the Lake, I found another image of decaying breakwaters and, for the first time in a long time, noticed black sand that, even 40 years later testifies to the long term, and sometimes, damaging fingerprints we can leave.
What struck me most, was that in my search for a picture of Lake Michigan, the fingerprint that jumped out at me first was the breakwater. Over the last 40 years the tarry Blacksand have become so much a part of the landscape, that I had to remind myself that they weren’t always there. It was a stark reminder that easy it is to begin accepting The mantra that destruction is just the price we have to pay for our lifestyle.
The reality is that it’s not an occasional price. It’s one that people in Michigan are still paying and continue to pay over and over again.
I don’t look at environmental issues like these hoping for easy answers,and, even though we do live in an earth-sheltered off-grid “cabin” in the woods, I appreciate and take advantage of many advances of the last century. I know we need to use energy to power them, but accepting that the wanton destruction of the environment that sustains us is the necessary price of progress is complacent. It is the opposite of progress. And it makes me think much more carefully about the type of fingerprints I want to leave on the land and the future.