The beginning of a new year in most cultures, including ours, asks us to reflect on the year gone by, including our own behavior, and clarify what's needed to live better. The issue is usually addressed in the form of New Year's resolutions, which tend to be narrow life style changes, e.g. get more exercise, be more patient. Seldom do we tackle anything major.
The New Year's question was inadvertently illuminated when we saw two films back to back, quite by accident. One was a documentary about Lake Baikal in Siberia, which holds 20 percent of the world's fresh water and is impacted by terrible pollution from pulp and paper mills. Without giving you a lot of detail, the documentary poses the question, "How can I behave, how can I act to improve the quality of life around me right now?"
The parallels between Lake Baikal and the Columbia River, right here in our backyard, were obvious. The fishing people there, mostly Russians who both displaced the indigenous people and adopted their methods of subsistence hunting and fishing, were quite aware, just as our fishermen are, of the disastrous ecosystem impacts of clearcutting forests and dumping paper mill chemicals into a vast and seemingly pristine water body. They saw the results in lower fish catches and smaller, sometimes deformed, fish. Generally the film was a tale of poorly conceived railroad projects, a failure to include water and air pollution controls while building industrial plants, and in the end, boom towns with high unemployment and squalid living conditions. Back in 1979, the problems at Lake Baikal were so bad that they generated the first-ever public street demonstrations in the highly controlled USSR.
We can't blame it all on Soviet central planning. The same kinds of boondoggles have occurred in North America. The difference is that in the USSR, the entity that planned and built the projects (the central government) had total control. In the United States, many such projects are initiated by private enterprise and it is government that creates a counterbalance of restraints that protect environmental and public health. Well, some of the time.
Watching the documentary, I couldn't help thinking, "What should I be doing about similar problems here at home?" but it's daunting to think about what it really takes in terms of time and energy, especially when it comes out of your so-called "spare time." The work involved is generally no fun, and besides, being an "activist" of any kind usually engenders criticism, not support.
The second movie we saw that night offered a different path. It was a lightweight Italian comedy, "Mediterraneo," about a small group of WWII Italian soldiers who get stranded on a tiny Greek island. Cut off from all contact with the war and outside world, they slowly become acclimated to simple village life on the island: friendly people, enough to eat, the blue Aegean, and opportunities to engage in their favorite pastimes, whether soccer, women, or painting new frescoes in the damaged church. In other words, a life of simple pleasures, devoid of the big questions that tend to divide people and nations and plunge us into conflict and war.
That path is certainly attractive. Just enjoy the beauty that remains in our countryside. Spend more time with friends and family. Read more novels. Hey, see more movies! Do what you need to get by economically, and don't think too much about the future, because it could make you sad ...or angry. This seems to be the path taken by many of us now.
But even "Mediterrraneo" tackled the deeper question. One of the men, at the point of "rescue" at the end of the war, spoke fervently about going home to Italy to help build "a new country," where there were "great opportunities for improvement." Years later, he returns to the Greek island, saying it was no use, "They don't want anything to change." He was probably referring to the traditional Italian power elite, based in the industrialized north.
As I get older and don't have the same physical energy and resilient optimism I used to, the Greek islands look better and better, yet the "responsible" part of my personality won't let me go there, not yet. Perhaps it's because I came of age in the sixties, and although I agree that many people "don't want anything to change," change has come. Attitudes have changed. Wars have been stopped. Rivers have been cleaned up. And these things didn't get done by hanging out on a beach reading novels.
Victoria Stoppiello is a free lance writer from Ilwaco, where she has deep roots in our area's fishing tradition.