World's End, Hudson Division
NOWADAYS, THOSE LITTLE MEN in the funnies carrying signs reading the end of the world is at hand need only walk as far as the nearest publisher's office to get the message printed. The latest Jeremiah to join the prophets of ecological disaster is Robert Boyle, who is concerned with the Hudson River and man's efforts to turn this noble flood into a squalid sewer.
If this were all, Boyle's book would be merely a timely polemic on an important and fashionable topic. But Boyle, a staff member for Sports Illustrated, is more than an enraged critic. He is an accomplished journalist-naturalist with a curious blend of love, knowledge and perspective that help turn his "natural and unnatural history" of a river into what should become a small classic.
Crime Supplement. Fish are clearly Boyle's primary fixation. He keeps an aquarium in his Croton-on-Hudson house, partly for receiving specimens he seines from the river, partly to exercise his empathy for finned creatures. The striped-bass fingerlings, he comments cheerfully, "were gamboling all over the tank like Labrador pups." Just as canaries were once carried into coal mines to warn the miners of poisonous gases, Boyle tends to use fish as a measure of man. Bass taken from the Hudson off Bayonne have a taint of petroleum; shad roe is more than just fishy; sturgeon taken below Consolidated Edison's plant at Indian Point (those that manage to survive its giant water-cooling intake pipes) should be checked for radioactivity.
Because of a certain monomania in Boyle, large portions of his book read like a crime supplement to the Rivers of America series, which set out to celebrate the belief that America was still the Beautiful. Boyle follows the river down from its source at Mount Marcy (where the great conservationist Theodore Roosevelt received the news of McKinley's death by assassination) and finds its enemies innumerable. Thrifty upriver towns happily send their raw sewage roiling southward toward foul and wicked Manhattan. Tankers leak oil. Corporations discharge incalculable quantities of industrial waste. They always seem able to find a tame scientist to testify before civic bodies that acids, oils, oxides and industrial Dreck of all sorts are only minimally harmful. When that fails, they pay minimal fines and cheerfully go on polluting.
The worst areas are the Albany Pool, the section below Troy and Rensselaer, and the approaches to New York harbor—but industrialization has already begun to zero in on the relatively clean areas between. Consolidated Edison appears as one of Boyle's main targets. Despite some effort by the company to modify its plans in the face of public pressure, Boyle regards the controversial projected Con Ed installation at Storm King as a threat with an ultimate effect on wildlife that cannot be measured but will surely be dangerous.
Boyle's book is most effective polemically when simply relating the flaccid reactions of various law-enforcement agencies to inquiries on what is officially being done about known polluters. It is probably most instructive in showing how Boyle and like-minded Hudson Valley neighbors have brought private action against companies who break the law by polluting the river. Customarily the going is slow. But any private group that can hold on long enough to win gets a share of the fine the company must forfeit, and can use it to help pay for playing David to further industrial Goliaths.
Shrugs and Overstatement. There are two dangers in confronting the present conservation crisis. One is to overstate the damage to the environment. The other is to fall into the kind of shoulder-shrugging despair best illustrated by Writer Lillian Hellman when her neighbors sought her help in protecting the island of Martha's Vineyard from a jet airstrip. "Everywhere else has been ruined," she replied. "Why should we be different?" Boyle avoids both pitfalls. Hand-wringing fishermen often exaggerate the ruination of the Hudson by pointing to a lack of salmon. By consulting records and fishery experts, Boyle has established that the Hudson never was a salmon-run river. Some sections of the river are clogged with effluence but not yet ruined, Boyle points out. The river still has more fish than most men dream of—particularly striped bass and sturgeon, once known as Albany beef and now widely (though erroneously) thought to be all but gone from the river.
Urban New Yorkers are unlikely to turn out in great numbers to try to keep the Hudson safe for sturgeon. But the U.S. is becoming aware that nature nuts, bird watchers (as private interests call them) and conservationists may be fighting not only for the survival of the shad, the blue heron and the osprey, but for the survival of the human species. Boyle tells the story of 19th century Naturalist Verplanck Colvin who gave his life struggling to create what eventually became Adirondack State Park. The story—and this book—are a reminder that while Americans were busy getting and spending, much of the country was preserved for them by fond zealots and near madmen.