This summer my kids and I visited Yellowstone and the Grand Teton National Parks. My husband could not join us because of daily medical treatments. The area holds special meaning for the five of us – a unique distinction – the destination of our last carefree family vacation, August 2007. It was a road trip to Wyoming to visit both national parks. At the time our kids were ages 5, 9 and 11 – Box Car Children books on tape saturated the car radio. Two weeks after we returned, my husband developed shingles on his face and it was then we received the news his lymphoma had returned with a vengeance.
It was not an easy choice deciding to take the kids without him this time, and one I have since received criticism for making. He is going on his 737th consecutive day of IV treatments for an infection he developed over two years ago, the result of a suppressed immune system. What many fail to appreciate is children continue to grow up despite a parent’s need for medical treatments. For the past four summers we have stayed close to home because of his hospitalizations, daily infusions, and the unpredictability of infections. Mixed with the guilt that seems to come anymore when I am forced to make difficult choices, I decided we would seize an opportunity and join my sister and her family in Wyoming.
On our fist day we saw a bald eagle – our national bird, once almost extinct. In my 50 years I had never seen a bald eagle in its natural habitat. Soaring high, hunting for food. The white head and tail made its presentation distinct from the other birds. My sister, a wildlife biologist, shared her knowledge of the eagle’s history. To see a bald eagle was amazing, the implications inspiring. Hope is the word that came to my mind as she described its comeback.
Bald eagles were officially declared an endangered species in 1967, after growing public concern over their dwindling numbers. The eagle’s demise has since been attributed to chemical exposure, namely DDT, used heavily post World War II. Fish, the primary food of eagles, were heavily exposed to the chemical run off into the rivers. Bald eagles ate the fish that concentrated the chemical, which ultimately prevented calcium from being deposited in their eggshells. The thinning shells would not protect the unborn birds and so the population declined to near extinction. The eagles started down the path to recovery in 1972, when the Environmental Protection Agency banned the chemical.
Later in the week we did a scenic float trip on the Snake River. As we wound through the high mountain dessert of Wyoming, the Tetons our backdrop, the kids started counting the number of bald eagles. One, two … eight … thirteen … sixteen eagles and three nests. Wildlife biologists estimate one of the nests we saw weighs over 1,000 pounds.
Seeing bald eagles in their natural habitat is a declaration of hope – that we can correct the damage done by the chemical intoxications to our environment. If we can save a bird species from extinction by eliminating use of a chemical that contributed to its demise, can we not correct our pollution of yesterday that is causing cancer in people today, and prevent further contamination of our environment to prevent our children and grandchildren from getting cancer tomorrow?
I believe many people who are getting cancer midlife are the canaries in our coal mine, signaling to us the effects of cumulative toxic exposure, no different than the bald eagles of yesteryear. We can pay attention to the information and do something about it, or ignore the signs and watch more of the fall out.
The science is strong showing many of the chemicals we use to make our clothing, bedding, food, perfumes, lotions, and cleaning agents are absorbed by our body, challenging our cell’s check and balance systems, and taxing our immune system. No doubt in my mind, dose makes the poison. No doubt in my mind, we are all taking in daily a large assortment of chemicals.
For many of us, tackling the environmental issues seems overwhelming, often leaving us feeling a sense of apathy. I know first hand that hope is critical when all else seems to be failing. It is the feeling that what is wanted will be had and that things can turn out for the better. With hope there is life. Without hope there is despair.
This week the media has been reporting the sightings of the first bald eagles in the California Bay Area after more than a 50-year absence. Wildlife biologists are saying their return is proof that the food the eagles are eating is cleaner and contains fewer pesticides. They are citing the occurrence as a true environmental success story.
I saw my first bald eagle in nature at age 50, my children at the ages of 9, 14 and 16. That is hope. Returning to Yellowstone and the Grand Teton for my children without their father was difficult. I have hope that we can do a better job of pulling back on our reliance on chemicals. We’ve done it before. And look what we gained.