Dreaming of a Clear View to Washington

Air Quality, Shenandoah National Park, and the Washington Monument

There was a legend I always heard when I was young: Once upon a time, the air was so clear, you were able to see the Washington Monument from Shenandoah National Park.

I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. It’s a beautiful place, full of rolling farmland and swift flowing streams, guarded by the ancient, rounded peaks of the Appalachians. There is a certain magic to these mountains, something unexplainable hidden in their fern crowded understories, beneath the rounded leaves of wild blueberry. It is this magic that pulls people from across the countryside, drawing them out of their homes and into mountains like water drawn out by the tide.

I was no exception, spending many summers in my youth hiking with my parents down trails to sit on the slick rocks surrounding waterfalls then up again to watch peregrine falcons launch themselves from Hawksbill Mountain, the highest point in the park. I saw deer, and bear, and the small, translucent flowers called Indian Pipestem that nosed up through the soil after a rainstorm.

As I peered across the Piedmont, where clouds huddled close to the ground, I would squint and think, Somewhere out there is Washington. I would imagine what it must have been like to see the monument, to stand on a rocky outcrop and see our very government from a piece of the country’s heart and how such an experience was now a thousand miles away in the unreachable past.

Pollution, mainly from the industrial Midwest, makes its way on the wind belts to the Shenandoah and obscures the view. Not only is the view harmed, but the pollution includes acid, mercury, sulfur, ozone. All sorts and manner of carcinogen that I breathed in and those that live there still do. As a child though, I didn’t care about that. I cared about the view and the park that was such a part of my heart and my identity as an American.

The hope to see the monument again was, I knew, impossible. The pollution came from states away and the Virginia General Assembly couldn’t legislate Chicago. Besides, making a mess is easier than cleaning up. So I put the thought aside, buried it deeply into my heart, and went about the business of growing up.

Years passed. Environmental policy changed, adapted in Washington. I heard snippets bent over rock samples in a classroom or counting fossils under a Carolina sky as I worked toward my degrees in Geology. Then, last year, I read something that made me stop. The air in Great Smoky Mountain National Park was the cleanest it had been in 20 years. The Smokies lie to the southwest of Shenandoah, a sister park along the green spine of the Appalachians. A spark of hope flared in my chest. What happened to that park could happen to mine. This was important; it meant improvements for many things like health, safety, recreation. However, all I could think of was that I might finally be able to see the Washington Monument from Shenandoah National Park like one of those people who had done so in that time long ago.

But that was last year and things have changed, politics have turned and the policies that did such good in the Smokies are in jeopardy. The scientists who study such things, who advise and council those in power on the air we breathe and the earth beneath our feet, have to prove their knowledge to those who believe ignorance makes expert. Those who sit on committees and panels that are underpinned by a culture of denial stained black by oil. Have those people in Congress ever walked through America’s heartland? Have they ever touched a sunflower on the side of a white chalked Nebraska highway, or sat beside a campfire at the bottom of a canyon, listening to cattle lowing while the stars spill into the jewel box of the sky? Have they put their feet into the still clear pool of Crater Lake or watched a bald eagle land on a tree over a riverbank? Have they?

It is a situation that chills me. 
 
 I still hold out hope for sustainable solutions. I hope for a time where science works hand in hand with development, business, and technology so that we can love our country in all of its potentials. I say that at least. I can’t deny, however, that my heart is sinking. I think of how far we’ve come, how close we came. I fear of a time when mercury again pollutes the Shenandoah River, making the fish inedible for decades. I fear of a time when rivers again catch fire, and towns become cancer hot spots as residents breath in poisonous dust from dried up lakes.
 
 And I fear, selfishly, that my childhood wish will never come true and we will never again see the Washington Monument from Shenandoah National Park.

Family hike in Shenandoah NP, 1992