Real People, Real Stories
Moving U is a project designed by graduate students in the Global Changes and Society course. The project aims to initiate tangible, positive change in confronting the air quality challenges we face in the Salt Lake Valley. The Real People, Real Stories contest provided a platform for campus community members to share their experiences of living with local air quality, with the goal of initiating tangible, positive change.
How I learned to stop worrying and love the bus
It’s not that the bus has never let me down. It’s hard to forgive that one particular bus driver last winter who blew past without stopping while I was waiting at night in a blizzard with snow creeping over the tops of my shoes. Or the bus that left my teenaged daughter stranded downtown when she stayed a bit too long at the mall and like Cinderella’s coach at midnight the 15-minute bus schedule converted to a once-per-hour pumpkin at 7:00pm. There are the many times I have watched my bus pull away while I’m stranded by traffic on the wrong side of the street, and more than a few times a scheduled bus simply failed to show up. And then there was the annoying incident last summer when I bought summer youth passes for both of my kids intending to leave the car in the driveway and teach them all kinds of virtuous public transit lessons about independence, social justice, preserving air quality, and all that. The first day we stood waiting at the bus stop we watched the bus approach and then turn the corner right before it was supposed to pick us up. Turns out our street was closing for construction, and so far the bus has been on detour for 5 months and counting. The nearest bus stop to my house is currently four blocks away.
But as far as aggravation and annoyance it’s not like my car is innocent. While it’s mostly mechanically reliable there was a day recently when I drove to campus for an early meeting only to find all of the parking lots blocked off for football tailgating. I not only missed my meeting, I got so frustrated by the chaotic traffic situation I ended up driving home and taking the bus back to work. And then there was the time I got rear-ended on my way to a Scandinavian dance party. There I was, anticipating the pleasure of eating Swedish meatballs with lingonberries and dancing to accordion music and instead I spent the next month dealing with insurance and car repairs. The reputation of cars for being convenient is not entirely well-deserved.
If all you want to do is go from point A to point B in the least amount of time I have to agree that driving a car is generally superior to taking the bus. However, as the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says, “When we are driving, we tend to think of arriving, and we sacrifice the journey for the sake of the arrival.” I don’t think of myself as a very Zen person but I still think that Thich Nhat Hanh is onto something. Even though I care about reducing air pollution, I don’t ride the bus because I’m a good person — I ride the bus because very often the quality of the journey is better.
But in order to enjoy busses, first I had to learn the right way to ride the bus. It’s a mistake to think of a bus as kind of a large inconvenient car that doesn’t go when or where you want. The best way to think about bus riding is as an aid to walking. I learned this from a friend who used the bus for her exercise routine. She would ride the bus to work and then jog home in the evening. I’m don’t like to run, but I do like to walk and I find that if I leave my house a bit early I can get to a bus stop about a mile away on the other side of Liberty Park. In the morning the pond is full of mallards, Canada geese and California gulls, but I’ve also seen exotic birds there like coots, cormorants, pelicans, Cooper’s hawks, once a wild turkey and one winter a bald eagle hung out by the lake for several months. There is a vending machine on the Tracy Aviary fence where I can put in a quarter and get a handful of duck food to toss to the birds, and behind the fence there is a magical flock of bright yellow sun conures. The path through the park has a colonnade of enormous old cottonwoods, and then there is a lovely shady bench to sit on to wait for the bus. So remember your Thoreau: “I have learned that the swiftest traveller is he that goes afoot.”
But Throeau didn’t allow that riding transit might be a pleasure in and of itself. Little kids adore busses. It’s better than Lagoon, blowing dandelions at the bus stop, putting money in the fare box, chatting with other passengers, pulling the bell to request a stop. When my kids were small one particular bus driver would play the Sponge Bob Squarepants theme on the intercom to make them smile. But in order to ride the bus properly (and particularly with kids) it is important to identify high-quality bus stops. Walk extra to get there if you have to. Some bus stops ruin your day because they are too close to busy roads, or exposed to hot sun, or there is no place to sit, or they are littered with trash or inhabited by creepy looking people. On the other hand, some bus stops are delightful. Particularly the ones near coffee shops. Particularly if I get there early enough to go in and get a cup of take-out coffee. Even better if I happen to run into a friend and decide to sit down and have a cup of coffee while I wait for the next bus.
For a lot of people waiting seems to be the biggest obstacle with busses and it’s easy to get impatient just sitting there. The trick is to stitch together those little scraps of time into a beautiful quilt. Thich Nhat Hanh suggests meditation, but I like to read poetry. I get most of my poetry books from the library, and I find that poems are just right for bus reading, not only because most poems are short, but because good poems bear multiple readings. Poetry and busses go well together in another way too, because as former Poet Laureate Billy Collins says, “The trouble with poetry is that it encourages the writing of more poetry.” I’m guilty. I compose poems in my head while I’m waking and jot them down in a little notebook when I get to the bus stop. Thanks to walking and riding the bus some of my poems have even been published, and since you asked I’ll interject with a non-fiction poem about a transcendent bus incident that happened nearly 30 years ago when I was a grad student in Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh Bus Stop
A mid-summer evening
I’m late getting home
antsy for the number sixty-one
twenty minutes wait at least
according to the schedule
when a frowsy woman
in a pilled plaid coat
far too warm for the season
shuffles up to the bus stop
plops down her heavy shopping bags
just when I’m thinking
this is the kind of bag lady
you encounter on public transit
Would you like a beer?
And I say,
Yes, thank you. I would love a beer.
She hands me a can of Iron City
warm as dishwater
it foams like hand soap when I pop the tab
we sit there on the bench
drinking from open containers
Can I read you my poems?
And since I am drinking her beer
what can I say?
Please do, I would love to hear your poems.
She pulls out a spiral bound notebook
cursive lines scrawled in pencil
reads to me in a sing-song tone
like my mother reading a bedtime story
until the bus comes.
I know, I know. I sound more than a bit entitled and pretentious going on like this about the poetry of bus riding. Some people don’t have options and they have to put up with all the inconvenience of busses; I have a car so I can opt out any time I want. However, with the population of the Salt Lake City metro area growing we’ve come to a point where people with cars need to stop exercising their privilege of driving everywhere or else none of us will be able to breathe. That makes riding the bus sound like it’s going to be an unpleasant sacrifice for the public good. I’m here to tell you that once I learned the right way to ride a bus I sometimes feel a bit cheated when I have to drive my car to work. I get there faster, but I miss the birds, the trees, the coffee, the little kids and the poetry.
Amy Brunvand is a Librarian at the J. Willard Marriott Library where she specializes in government information. She also writes for Catalyst magazine, mostly about environmental issues and dancing. She grew up in Salt Lake City and earned a BS in Geology at the University of Utah. Her favorite UTA bus route is the #17 which passes Salt Lake Community College, Westminster College and the University of Utah and has a particularly academic vibe.
The Silent Shifting of Everything Around Me
Everything that you know and love.
Everything that you know and love will change.
Even some of the things you hate.
Two years ago, the inversion had become so bad that Salt Lake was in the midst of a citywide health emergency. This wasn’t the first time that pollution greyed out the sky, but it was one of the worst. Underneath the grey a concentration of particulates and poisons thickens while the winds ignore the valley. Our atmosphere congeals and fumes creep into every crevice like amebic wraiths. In order to breathe I took a hike in the foothills….
I need escape. Outside, the grey sky hangs over the city. The clock reads 4:30, which gives me an hour or so before sunset. Quickly I grab my things, throw on some decent shoes, and head out to the car. With a turn of the key I am on my way to the foothills. Soft mounts covered with a patchwork of winter snow. My beat up Subaru cruises north along 9th East. Within minutes I begin the steep climb up the avenues. I take advantage of the incline and peer vertically through the haze. The stressed engine shakes the chassis of the old car as excitement buzzes in my lungs.
I stop the car when the road and houses end. A small and rocky footpath leads up the first knoll. At the top I turn around to take in the view. I can only see the first few homes before the visible world is swallowed. Few residents enjoy the privilege of living just past the border of the murk. Today is a bad day.
I turn back around to continue my hike. The shoreline trail is no more than a ten minute walk. I run along the serpentine pathway, pushed down in the snow by others seeking refuge. Within 30 or 40 paces I have to pause. I need to cough. The rasp of agitation is audible in the back of the throat. I feel an itch, a gurgle accompanied by hems and subtle attempts of clearing the windpipe. Cracking from the back of the throat advances into the lungs. Tussive vibrations fill the chest. Barking from the core overtakes my body. Shaking and spewing, expectorating the chemistry of combustion. My cough is protecting my body by violent means, expelling the foul brown haze. I catch my breath, take a drink of water, and continue. It is as if my body knows the proximity of fresh air, driving me on some primal level to a place that will cultivate instead of infiltrate. The sun is almost down and I know that my time up here is limited.
Years ago, my sister brought home a spirometer from the doctor’s office. She demonstrated how to operate the piece of equipment. First she wrapped her lips around the mouthpiece. Then she inhaled as deep as possible before exhaling with all of her bodily force. The yellow plunger moved up the graduated measurements until it reached the black line left by the doctor. The marking quantified my sister’s lung capacity, showed the limits of her breathing. I was intrigued by the cylindrical contraption and wanted immediately to compare myself to my sibling. I followed the procedure and the plunger shot beyond my sister’s score. I felt a faint sense of victory. Once again I was the bigger and better sibling. My lungs were huge. I asked my father if my size was the reason for larger lungs. He shook his head no and told me to sit down.
“Sometimes, your sister can’t breathe that well.”
“I don’t know.”
Will pledges to care about the air rework our deeply rooted fossil fueled lifestyles? Is it really about my choice to drive? We apply temporary band-aids to deep wounds of constructed necessity. These difficult thoughts circulate through my brain as I breathe an hour’s worth of relatively clean air. I find a good rock, grab a seat, and soak in the view of the Great Salt Lake. As the sun sinks behind the western mountains light shines on the surface of the water forming a long orange sliver. The swirling pinks and purples of the atmosphere disappear into charcoal black. The cold night begins and a dry freeze settles into my body.
I am cold. I have stood outside for an hour or so and my shivering skeleton signals my need to return. I am overcome with a deep ennui. For a moment I escaped from the valley. For a moment my thoughts spread out across the landscape. However, as I start my descent I am visibly reminded of what I have to go back into: jobs, finances, and haze. A grimace begins in my heart and transforms into a writhing frown. Coming down from the oak-covered hillsides becomes synonymous not only with the return to my everyday obligations but also with the return to a compromised environment. I savor the last few steps before I reach my car by consciously taking deep breaths. I start the car, turn around, and drive back into the depression of the valley.
I can feel it in my body, a pressing desire to rid myself of pollution. Every day I run salt-water through my sinuses with a netty pot. In one nostril and out the other, flushing away the bits and pieces of smog that have accumulated in my skull. I feel constantly infiltrated. In a grocery store the other day I saw a man wearing a white face mask while he shopped. Images of Beijing flashed through my mind. Has it become that bad? I want to believe that things do not have to be this way. That I don’t have to drive to live my life. I hope that one small action can lead to another and soon enough, because of all the coughing and choking, we rearrange our lifestyles to be able to breathe. The words sound good but I fear a reality much more complex.
This year I took the same hike only to find a slightly different reality. Instead of the freeze and the polluted air, I walked in unseasonably warm temperatures and took deep breathes of the relatively clean air. What was going on? Was this January in Salt lake City? These questions stirred within me an eerie sense of loss. Sure, the toxic formula of one part geography and two parts emissions is, in general, a guaranteed downside to winter, but this year the equation broke down alongside my understanding of the place I have called home my entire life.
On my way back down from my twilight-zone-esque hike I came across a fellow hiker who was enjoying the LA like weather. His seemingly cursory introduction to our conversation struck me like a fist to the back of the head. What about this weather?
All winter long I felt snowsick. All of my life November to January has meant overnight snows that blanketed the city in a soft and silent white. In my adult years these snowstorms brought with them the freedom of breath as they expunged the valley of its toxic soup. This year I could count the number of snowstorms on one hand. The noticeable lack of snow made the winter feel timeless, as if summer never really got around to ending. I even missed the murky inversion. It was at the very least something that I knew.
Perhaps the hardest part of accepting the warmest January that humanity has ever seen, so far, was that while I felt and observed the localized effects of increasing global averages I do not have the capacity to watch how everything shifts around me. With air pollution I can at least see the source of the filth. My mind can wrap around car exhaust, oil refineries and mines but it cannot fathom the depth and complexity of global warming.
I do know that island nations are losing ground, fruit flies are genetically transforming, breeding and blooming seasons are shifting, weather events are intensifying, ocean temperatures are rising, and some species are looking for a new home as they stray farther away from their native ecosystems. I can’t help but engage in the painful contemplation of what this all means. The parts per million concentration of CO2 has moved beyond 400 and I am left feeling that I have little to no say about the state of affairs that has brought the planet to the edge of the world as we have known it. I do not feel fine. The wild beauty of the world at large and more specifically the beauty of my own home is eroding. I am trapped feeling solastalgic in a world that continues to march toward a diminished future.
The phantoms of the California drought swirl in my head alongside the knowledge that the Great Salt Lake is at the lowest levels it has ever been. While I still have the capacity to find solace in the mountains and streams that have soothed my soul for many years I can’t help but wonder how much this will all change. What will happen to the birds that have used the lake for as long as I can fathom? Where will I hunt for the flowers that ignite my desire every spring? I am tired of the oppressive views of gray forests standing dead en masse at some of my favorite landscapes.
Tractors are piling the sand along the shore.
An electric fence stands along the Bangladesh border while people live in waist deep water.
A farmer moves his family to a tumultuous city that he doesn’t understand.
The rain is not falling like it used to.
What if Charles Bowden was right and this whole experiment called civilized life was doomed since inception. Do we need to be drunk, or is it time we woke up. I watch the globe spiral down the bowling lane of the future and I wonder where it will end up. We sit at the tipping point and stare down at what might be the next stable state of the earth. This old rock has transformed itself many times over and won’t stop doing so just because we can’t seem to figure our shit out. Where do we go from here?
This isn’t the first time humanity has experienced a large reorganization of the planet they call home. In the past people kept moving in the hopes of finding a new world that they could inhabit. Today we know our borders and we have reached the limits. There is little room to move. We are forced to stay put and make a future out of the pieces.
In the shadow of our machinations I contemplate words like sustainability and resilience while I hope that the all too clever human race figures out what that means in our daily lives. I would be a fool to say I didn’t enjoy what I know in this life. I love live music, delicious food, and the mind expanding adventure of international travel. These things are sacred to me. I want to be able to do a good day’s work and live my life without the grief of global warming. I want to be excited about the choices my government is making when it comes to fossil fuels. I want to live in a world that isn’t disintegrating because of my existence.
Somewhere buried in the graphs depicting global temperature increase, beneath the melting glaciers and shoved in between California’s drought and the beef industry I have hope.
People fill the streets to march for climate justice. I know that I am not alone. I hope renewable energy, organic farms, and ecological cities become the norm. I hope with the knowledge that everything I know and love will change, is changing. Where do we go from here?
Emerson Andrews is a hip-hop musician, writer, and capoeirista living in Salt Lake City, Utah. His love of strange interstices continues to drive his desire to write in any form be it comedy, music, or poetry. He currently works in the University of Utah Sustainability Office as the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund Coordinator. When he is not writing or working you can find him floating down the river, jumping in the roda, or walking through the desert.
P.S. This is Not a Punt
I’ve worked for weeks on coming up with one story or one narrative that explains how I feel about air quality, and I’ve come up empty handed. Do I write about the conversation I had with a man as we rode our bicycles up Emigration Canyon outside Salt Lake City, me hard of breath and him chatting easily? Oh, I stay indoors when the air quality is anything but green. Not worth it, he said. Shortly thereafter he spun away, leaving me to ponder if I, too, should avoid exercise on days when the air quality report is yellow, the first step above green and a signifier that especially sensitive people could have problems breathing outdoors while the rest of us are likely, hopefully just fine. Surely that explained his effortless cycling compared to mine.
I could write about being a 22-year-old cub reporter in Durango, Colorado, where I was made—made! It was horrible!—to cover the energy industry only to find the beat fascinating and the related conversation about air quality eye-opening. We made the air bad, I realized. You and me. Because we plug computers into the walls, flick on lights, and turn our homes into warm, cozy nests or chilled refuges, all choices that consume energy and have the byproduct of kicking pollutants into the air. Because we drive with abandon down our plentiful roads, knowing our ability to follow our dreams no matter the consequences is the bedrock of this free, American society. Because it’s hard to see how the small choices we make each day add up to a heap of smog tomorrow, because most of us will not experience an asthma attack triggered by bad air, and because if we develop respiratory problems in the future, we will find it hard to say whether the cause is genetics, or cigarettes we smoked in college, or time spent outside on a hazy afternoon.
Back in the mid 2000s, during my days as a reporter, I bounced between interviews with activists and the managers of coal-fired power plants, feeling spun by their differing perspectives. It was difficult to know where my internal compass needle should point. Each side blamed the other. You pollute the air! But you ask us to exist! In the end, figuring out which group to side with didn’t matter. The strands between me, my desires and the energy needed to fuel them were becoming obvious in the way a spider web finally appears on a damp, summer’s morning as the dawning light strikes the beaded dew.
I have another story, this one about the three months I lived in Uganda, an East African country whose society has harbingers of our distant past, like terribly rutted dirt roads and dinners cooked over an open fire, but also the modern trappings of cell phones and e-mail addresses. My host family fetched their water from a well, bought milk for the baby once a day from their neighbor’s cow, had no mail boxes, no postal service, and no trash collection, but they could pay for a motorcycle taxi using mobile money on their phone. They let the bush grow wild in chunks on their land so they could harvest the wood for fuel. Every afternoon, my sixty-year-old host mother walked the steep slope of her backyard until she reached a place too dense to go any farther. Here, she hacked at the base of trees the thickness of her wrist with a blunt machete. After she severed the trunk, she left the fresh cuttings and moved on to last week’s, now dry enough to burn, hauling the bundle fastened with banana leaf fibers up the hill.
Abwooli, my host mother, made her whole life on the patch of land where she lived with her mother, disabled sister, three of her nine children, and a granddaughter. Even the few items she bought—soap, cooking oil, salt and paraffin for a lantern—came from money she earned weaving reeds into baskets or selling a surplus sack of maize at the end of the growing season. Everything else she needed, she grew. I have no such connection to the things in my life. When I boil rice, I have no idea whether it’s coal or wind or some other fuel that turns the electric coil a glowing red. Not so for Abwooli. If she coughs over the fire, she knows it’s from the wood smoke whereas people living downwind of a power plant may not realize it’s the fumes falling from smoke stacks that labors their breathing. When dinner has been prepared, Abwooli pulls un-burnt wood from the fire because leaving it on would waste her earlier labor. If she no longer needs her lantern, she douses the flame straight away because she has barely enough money to buy what little paraffin she uses. I, on the other hand, have locked my apartment door only to realize I forgot to turn off a light. Because I was running late, I didn’t bother re-opening the door, and so, it cheerily greeted me ten hours later.
Just this week, I had dinner with college friends who met me fifteen years ago. The conversation turned to how our personalities had changed. You were the most hippie person I knew, and still are, said Josie. I laughed, knowing that in college I would have recoiled at this description, being a punk rocker who hated hippies, but I guess truthful classifications are unavoidable. I have since spent weeks in the mountains and desert learning to make a fire by rubbing two sticks together, become a vegetarian to save the environment, and considered buying land off the grid where I can eat out of my garden and make my home in a yurt or cobb house slapped together by the labor of my own hands. As further evidence that I might be a tree hugger, I make it a mission to only drive my car if my destination is at least five miles away, and I refuse to purchase garbage bags because how silly is it to buy something plastic to put garbage into just so it can be thrown away?
But, when it comes to air quality, I do not know what else I am supposed to do. I believe it should be easy to convert me to whatever improvement strategy is needed, and I sometimes wonder if I’m already doing by part or, alternatively, if I am an embarrassment to the earth-loving hippies everyone thinks are my kin. Perhaps my attempt to be a good, environmental steward is only half-assed compared to the 24-year-old woman who hasn’t thrown out a piece of plastic in the last two years. I heard on NPR she even saves the bits that seal a loaf of bread in its bag because they aren’t recyclable. They sit in a mason jar on her shelf, awaiting the day she figures out a new use for them. She brings her own take-home containers to restaurants, and freezes her compost until she can bring it to the farmer’s market. I am not that committed, although I have frozen my compost (only to throw it out when I could find no one to accept it and after I decided burying it in the woods was unethical). And you know what? I think that’s okay. She may have a small carbon footprint, but it would be impossible, unsustainable, even, to think we could convince the 7 billion people alive today – or even just the 319 million Americans – to each live like her.
I have another friend, a scrappy Portuguese man who lives to race bikes, loves his fat golden cat, and eats a gallon of cookie dough ice cream in the evening before passing out on the couch by 8 p.m. One day, he came into the bike shop.
I unplugged my fridge, he said.
How come, one of the mechanics asked.
I don’t use it much, he said.
Whaddya mean you unplugged your fridge?
It was unbelievable to consider, and even now, on long rides, the topic still crops up. Remember the time Alan unplugged his fridge for a month, someone will ask, and we’ll all shake our heads at the absurdity. He did it to see if he would save money because all he kept in the old ice box on a regular basis was a gallon of milk and condiments. In the end, he figured he about broke even and, probably sick of the harassment, he plugged the thing back in. Alan admittedly wasn’t thinking about the environment, but if he took that much crap for his experiment, I can only imagine what it would take to convince the rest of America to dial back their use of appliances in the name of not money, but the planet.
So what then? What do we do?
I don’t have the answer, and when I look at my schedule, I’m not sure that I have the time or passion to figure it out. I feel guilty making that admission, but it’s honest. I am a writer, a teacher, a student, an outdoor enthusiast, and my days are consumed by my various interests. I want to make good decisions for the environment, and if I thought I could single-handedly fix poor air quality, I would. I’m glad I ride my bike more than I drive my car. I don’t mind switching out my light bulbs for energy-efficient ones. But I know we need more than those simple actions to make a big change, especially in the face of our growing global population. After all, I went to Uganda to learn what the fifth-fastest growing country in the world looks like and with the hope that seeing such a precarious situation would help me understand how to live differently, how to live better, how to live for the future. While my travels taught me so much, they brought me neither enlightenment nor a magic bullet.
I have also learned that there are people who do have the time and the passion, and that has led me to believe that if I cannot or will not do the work myself, my duty is to support them. To be a democratically engaged citizen and vote for officials who will create funding for scientists to explore solutions. To show up at fundraisers for organizations that are doing the work needed to make this a better situation for us all. To be an ally however I can. Just as there is no one story that can describe my feelings about this topic, it is no one person’s job to fix our declining air quality. Yes, I should do what I can on a daily basis. Change starts at the local level. I’ve come to believe what’s more important, however, is that I do what I can to help the people who’ve made it their life’s work to devise solutions. Then, when they come to me with answers, I should listen and take action.
Lisa Meerts-Brandsma has returned to the West after earning an MFA in non-fiction at the University of New Hampshire. Prior to that, she covered the environment for local newspapers in Colorado, and received training in how better to do this through the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources. She has worked for several years as a backpacking guide, and is enrolled in a doctoral program in Parks, Recreation and Tourism at the University of Utah. When not writing, thinking, teaching or learning, she loves to ride road and mountain bikes.
Clean-eating. Clean water. Clean air?
There is a sadness underneath the surface of flesh that is just below my eyes, where the dark circles paint the skin purple. There is an empty feeling in my arms as I consider that my baby would have been seven months old this November. There is a quietness in our home that only sleeping or absent children would permit. And, despite the sadness and finality of the death of our first child, there is the hope that a future with full-term pregnancies and healthy children will follow.
This hope is stacked among the health books that are scattered around the apartment. It is bottled up with the vitamin and nutrient supplements I take daily. It is logged with my google searches; and, it is cooling in the fridge keeping fresh with the vegetables that mark a new era for our diet. This last year has been spent in a frenzied search for the items that support good health and life; and, expelling the items that will quash it. Terms like: whole, organic, all-natural, toxin-free, and clean, scatter through my new health conscious vocabulary. Organic. all-natural. Toxin-free. Clean. Clean-eating. Clean water. Clean air?
Hiking a trail near Red Butte, Alex and I breathed cold gray air as we climbed higher and higher. A light amount of snow covered the earth in patches. The ground everywhere else was mud. I thought about our baby and wondered how I might climb higher and higher out of the emotional gray I had settled into after the loss. We reached the crest and looked out at the valley. A thin line of light separated the gray clouds in the sky from the gray smog of the city. Were it not for that streak of light and the dirtiness in the gray of the smog the two gaseous forms would have blended, their differences imperceptible. One form, natural and safe—a thing of majesty from which water pours and where lightning is born. The other, unnatural and toxic.
The view, on that day, hiking Red Butte, was not picturesque. Gloomy and heavy the smog sat on the city and choked it out. The vibrance, the beauty, and the life of the city was smudged gray like the mark left over on paper from a dry, old eraser. At times, you forget, while living beneath that great eraser mark, the heaviness of the air you breathe. Looking out from that trail there was no denying that in Salt Lake City we are all chain-smokers and we are all addicted. We are addicted to the luxury of our idle cars, the profits of our bustling industry, and the ease of not making the change. I picture that view now and imagine, as if from some great cigar, the whole city alight but you cannot see it for the smoke.
This smoke, this smog, filled with toxic chemicals fills our our lungs when we breathe and impacts us all: the runner completing laps at liberty park on a winter morning, the child with asthma, the senior citizen, the pregnant mother and her growing baby. The invisible steroids, chemicals, hormones, and toxins in our food, our skin care products, and our cleaning supplies are just like the unseen chemicals floating in the air settling upon our city. Shouldn’t the slogans that demand higher standards for our food dominate the production and protection of our air? Organic, all-natural, toxin-free, clean air.
After spending this last year in an attempt to achieve greater health I worry about the smog. I worry that, unlike the other elements of my life that impact health, I can’t just decide to breathe better air – to quit the smog and buy the, slightly more expensive, organic, clean air at WholeFoods. I wonder what it would cost if I could buy clean air? I know that it is 80 something dollars for the vitamin supplements, $9 for the natural soaps, $4.79 for the organic milk, $8.84 for the natural organic deodorant. What will be the cost for Salt Lake City to clean the air?
What will be the cost if we don’t?
Elyse Stoedter, the daughter of Marc and Joanne Taylor, was raised in Ephraim, Utah with her four older brothers. This rural upbringing taught Elyse to appreciate the beauty of the natural world. After spending the last five years in Salt Lake City she has also developed a love for the bustle and diversity of the city. She is a graduate of the University of Utah. It is at the U that she and her husband, Alex, met in Grammar class (both were English majors). They are proud of this real-life meet cute. She is currently employed at the Marriott Library.
It’s Not Just About Air Quality
I’m a healthy middle-age male, who doesn’t suffer from any respiratory illnesses. Yet, even I start experiencing a sore throat and mucus build up during extended periods of compromised air quality. I am deeply concerned by the long-term health effects of exposure to poor air—both physical and mental. I worry about raising children here. I worry about the economic effects of our air quality problem. However, I am not worried about finding solutions. We already have plenty of solutions. It’s just a matter of getting people to realize that the solutions will benefit their lives in ways that extend far beyond the benefit of improved air quality.
My focus of study and my hobby has become active transportation and transit. About five years ago, I started to change my lifestyle to become less car-dependent. I did this out of personal curiosity and also the realization that a credible professional actually uses the infrastructure that he or she designs. I have seen far too many mistakes made in transportation planning, because of professionals failing to practice what they’ve preached and too often literally failing to walk the walk.
During my time attending the University of Utah, I have never owned a parking pass and have only driven to campus for the purpose of picking up classmates for an event off campus or when I knew I would be working on a project into the wee hours of the morning. In a typical month, I spend more money washing the dust off my car than I do on gasoline. My typical commute to campus involves walking to TRAX, taking the Green Line downtown, riding the GREENbike bikeshare across downtown to my next transfer point, and riding either the TRAX Red Line or #2 bus to campus. It offers me exercise, the chance to escape the isolation of riding alone in a car, and the opportunity to make observations about and gain insights relating to transit and active transportation.
I have also experienced several benefits from changing my lifestyle. I suffer from back problems. The number one thing that alleviates my back problems is walking. Living the active transportation and transit lifestyle makes my back problems a non-issue, and I don’t have to take additional walks specifically for my back. I’ve also noticed that the walking solves other issues, like improving blood circulation, so I don’t get cold feet while sleeping during the winter. I also notice that I feel much happier due to the exercise and also the increased social interaction due to riding transit. It’s gotten to the point that I dread having to drive, especially driving alone.
Too often we act as if the changes needed to improve air quality will be an onerous burden to society. I’ve seen overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The bottom line is that the changes we need to make to improve air quality are also the changes we need to make in order to preserve our own health and sanity.
Mike Christensen is in his last semester working on a Master of City and Metropolitan Planning and an Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate in Sustainability. His focus is on public transit and active transportation. For his professional project, Mike is creating a plan to implement intercity passenger rail service connecting Logan, Cedar City, and Moab with Salt Lake City.
I’m stuck in city doldrums
Deep in smelly smog
I’m sinking into cement
That’s hidden by the fog
I’m trapped in human torment
That’s found in human stares
I’m caught in mild suspicion
That no one really cares
I’m bound by all the rebar
That makes this city stand
I’m captured by the idea
That this isn’t really grand
I’m weary of the chaos
That breeds from day to day
All I’m really asking
Is do I have to stay?
Always in Transit
I can just move. I don’t have to stay here anymore. I can simply just pack my bags and leave— never to return.
This is not teenage angst, and this is not an answer. This is not an option that any of us can have.
I was not born here, and to say that I will die here is a bit too grim. But I do live here. Utah is my Domicile. It is my alltoounnatural habitat? it is my favorite old haunt? my stomping ground? the place that I know better than my own warm bed. Utah has been my home for nearly twenty years. And for as long as it has been my home, it has been covered in an unwanted haze.
I am always in transit: driving my car, cruising on my skateboard, hopping on the TRAX, riding the bus, peddling a bike, flexing my glutes and pumping my calves . . . to school, to work, to a friend’s house, to the store . . . because I have to, or because I want to, or because someone else wants me to. I find myself constantly moving from north to south, and from east to west. I am an adventurer and an explorer, a navigator of city and county? and with great certainty, I know the lay of the land—but the haze is unmappable.
The haze clouds over cities—stretching in vastitude—from the sublime that is the Wasatch
mountains in the east? to the snowy Oquirrhs looming far, far west? past through a happier valley? to all points south of the mountain? past Ogden in the North, and towards the edge of that great and allsobriny lake. The haze is pernicious, and it engulfs the whole of the valley and the state.
The haze is, indeed, pernicious—spreading aimlessly, hovering below the clouds, and disrupting our daily lives. But the smog is vastly more menacing.
The smog is the polluted waste of millions of Utahns always in transit. The haze is different: it does not damage our lungs, like the smog does? it is not the byproduct of pollutants and
chemicals in the air, like the smog is? it permeates through cities despite heavy or low traffic, despite the coldest of days or the hottest of nights. What the haze does, like the smog, is it blinds us. The haze is the dark cloud of denial that seeps through the valley, it is the unwillingness to acknowledge the smog as a threat, and as a problem.
Often I wonder of what we can do to fix this mess—the problem of pollution. I live with the
realization that the problem is not simply the carbon output of many people always in transit, but it is rather the blind veil of ignorance that envelops the whole of Utah. We need to foster public awareness, the system must be engaged with the person, and vice versa. A willingness to learn and to teach has to exist. The problem of pollution manifested because of an unwillingness to learn and listen—the system of thought neglected advocacy and education—but now that we have been taught, we have to act.
I am writing this paper because I am always in transit, and that is an unavoidable aspect of my life. But I am mindful of many things. Utah is home to many diverse things, and not all of those things are people. I am one of many of those things, and I have a responsibility? a duty above all else. I am constantly moving, but it is always forward—whether on a bike, green or blue? or on a board, long or snow? riding on the TRAX, or on a bus, or even on the train? or, yes, even in my small yet reliably pollutant car. I have many options, but to leave is not one of them.
Utah is my home and I can see through the haze, but not past the smog. So listen, learn, and act. And maybe we can fix this mess. I am, like many others, always in transit. But we all have to start moving forward and clear the haze to see the smog—and find the solution.
Porch Board Winters
I’ve noticed a change in Utah’s winters over the last couple of years. In that time, education
has also sharpened my awareness of environment, and the quality of our air.
Changing air-quality affects how people I know breathe. That gives me pause. And, Utah
air-quality so often in the News in whatever form, also tells me the writing is on the wall. Our
world is changing, right now.
People dress lighter than before. The air is tinged, thicker somehow, and there’s less snow
on the ground than there used to be. My skier friends gripe.
This is a minute chapter in Utah air-quality. These are my ramblings, observations, instincts
and experiences. Consider this a winter looking glass at air-quality from the floorboards of
my back porch. It’s about air that now feels brackish, but once didn’t.
I distinctly recall how my porch boards feel beneath my bare feet in winter because I spend
a lot of time there, especially in the fall and winter months. I stand on those boards because
I love the sauna-like sensation as my body steams in the cold. This is good for thinking and
Autumn and crisp winter smells are also particularly important to me. Piles of wet leaves,
hints of pumpkin in the air, dripping branches, rain-soaked streets, and the paintbrush in the
trees. Some of that paintbrush has lost its luster because air-quality makes them fainter.
Is this imagination playing tricks? I think not, as the truths I suspect tear a stich in
Utah winter should be a world hushed by drifts of deep white snow. Instead dingy air and
absence of snow tell a different winter’s tale.
Seeing the world from this vantage point at the right time of day, when the light is just so, is
like stepping into a painting. To the northwest, I can see the Great Salt Lake from my porch
snaking into the distance, a pale sliver at dusk. Directly west, the Ochre Mountains rise over
a valley of lights. Lately, my view is poorer than it used to be.
I often snap photos from there, as I watch the light travel west. But over the last couple of
years, a dull vapor has crept into the frame. The air is different, heavier now. This year, I
think our sky was a shade grayer.
The warped boards of my porch are warmer under my feet, and more pliant than they were
last year. Could be those old boards have seen too many winters.
Last winter was markedly warmer than the one previous. So far, 2015 has been tepid. Just
like last year. I can comfortably wear summer clothes to watch winter sunsets from my porch.
Hotter summers mean I use more energy and make larger demands on a diminishing
Winter has become a scratch at the back of my throat that refuses to go away. It hasn’t
always been there. But I don’t smoke, and I’m in excellent health. Several people close to
me struggle to breath because of air-quality. My physician tells me air quality is a factor.
I know a 12 year-old girl whose asthma is worse because of it. I see the panic in her face
when she’s short of breath. The anxiety pulling at the corners of her eyes when she talks
about how her friends feel when she uses her inhaler bothers me. Her grandmother, a
diabetic, also experiences more trouble breathing than before.
Looking west from my porch boards through the approaching haze makes me shudder. Not
from frigid temperatures or Yuletide cheer. I shiver with apprehension.
Snowflakes fell softly onto my red nose as the chairlift carted me up the white-covered mountains. The weather man had boasted the evening before about how today would be a perfect ski-day, the kind people move to Utah for where overhead is simply clear blue with only a few puffy white clouds decorating the sky. The kind where snowflakes fell gracefully, but your hands stayed warm tucked into their little glove-cocoons. I clicked my skis together, feeling my worn-down muscles after a full day of powering down the famous resorts mountains.
“Beautiful day, huh?” the man in an ostentatiously bright red jacket said as he peered over the black chair towards the black diamonds we were being carried over. “Up here is the only place where you can see the ski clearly, down in the valley, ya can’t, ya know? It’s just smog ’n’ grime. Ya see?” He pointed his gray mitten towards the Valley. It looked like a different world, like when a tyrant ruler would look over his devastated town from his glorious and pristine castle. I nodded politely and made small talk with the man until the lift scooted us off onto the mountain. I skied peacefully down the mountain, staring at the difference in the sky, one was blue and the other wasn’t a definable color. It was the color of when you pour all of your used paints into water and it becomes murky, cloudy and thick, a color so unappealing that even Crayola can’t cover it up with a cheeky kid-friendly title to stick on the crayons.
A few days later, I sat in my health class listening to my professor discuss how air quality can effect stress. I rested my forehead on my fist, wondering how this stocky man in a sweater could possibly make a connection between the feeling in my stomach from the essays, tests, and social commitments I had on my plate to the air that I was inhaling at the very moment he was read off a power point. I thought back to the man who had pointed out the drastic changes in the sky and it registered how the air was actually stressing me out. And the way I handle stress? Going outside.
The problem with Utah air goes further than just adding to the stress levels of the already hair-pulling anxiety that every collegiate already experiences daily. It goes deeper than causing six-year old Kimberly to stay inside for recess instead of playing outside with her friends on the “red air” days. It spreads wider than the problem that the couple trying to see the stars on a first date and can’t because of the constant thick cover. The Utah air has become an epidemic, everyone is at risk if they are breathing the air in Utah. Those in Utah might be of different religions, different races, different political affiliations, but they are all breathing the same air in lungs that aren’t designed to support the amount of invasive particles that have leeched onto and into our air.
Our society encourages us to go outside, put down that potato chip and video game controller. Live. Breathe. Play. They push us to do that but for so many, they can’t go outside in Utah with the air the way that it is. Utah is my home, my mom and dad packed up an Ohioan household with two daughters and moved across the country to be in “recreational home” where we could ski, climb, hike, bike and call the gigantic mountains our backyard.
I hopped into my Hybrid after class, silently patting myself on the back for buying a car that wouldn’t guzzle gallons of gas uselessly. I drove past busses and billboards, urging people to “think green” and to “save the planet.” All very encouraging, all very eye catching and presented the same way organic soap would be, with earthy tones and quaint detailing on the advertisements. But none of them provided a solution. I wondered how I was supposed to make a change? How could I make a difference as a 20-year-old college student? Nobody had an answer.
I pulled my long red hair into a braid and tucked it underneath my blue hat. The sky was blue, clear, with only a few wisps of clouds dancing in the blue. While I inhaled deeply, I knew that as I drove down the canyon and into the valley, the deep inhales of air would be partnered with tiny, invisible creatures.
I bike to school nearly every day. I live in Sugarhouse, close to Highland High School and the Blue Plate Diner. It is about a four-mile journey to the University of Utah that I consistently make. It up largely up hill, but I am tough so I can make it. Rain, sun, or snow, I bike. Biking is an integral part of my life. I bike because it is good for my health; it saves me money that I would otherwise have to spend on gas; and it reduces my CO2 footprint because I am not burning fossil fuels to make that four-mile trek to school. It also is because motor vehicles account for a large percentage of the pollution that forms into the murky Salt Lake City inversions I have come to know. That is my biking rationale, but even though I bike through the rain and snow, I can’t always bike. Why? Pollution. I remember distinctly one-week last year that exemplifies this issue.
It was mid January. I woke up at 7:30 and went through my typical routine. Showered, ate breakfast, packed my bag with all the stuff I needed for the day, and checked the air quality at Airnow.gov. The air quality was red. I subsequently walked over to my front window and I saw the soup that some may call ‘air.’ It looked like a massive fog had rolled in. However, it wasn’t fog; it was pollution. I instantly thought, there is no way in hell I can bike in that. Breathing in that pollution gives me headaches. A week before I had tried biking when it was ‘soupy’ out. I distinctly remember how I couldn’t even retain the information from my International Relations class that morning. Biking in bad air quality inhibits my academics and as an A-student, that is a concern of mine. Furthermore, Airnow.gov advises to “reduce prolonged and heavy exertion” on red air quality days. Prolonged and heavy exertion defines my biking journey in a nutshell. I considered my experience a week before and how the air quality affected me in class, along with Airnow.gov’s warning. I then made a decision. I got in my car and went to school because that was my only option. The soupy pollution lingered for the rest of the week, continually preventing me from biking. And this is only one of the instances that has happened; I could describe several other occasions last year. This dynamic I describe creates a significant and quandary with improving Utah’s Air quality during the winter months.
As I stated before, I bike in part to not contribute to local air pollution. But there is a point where biking becomes infeasible for me and I have to take my car. This creates a negative feedback loop of sorts. When the air is really bad, the time it makes the most sense to not be injecting more pollution into the valley, I am pressed to because I my zero-emissions route to school, biking, becomes unrealistic.
I could always buy one of those bane-esque masks that filter the air, but that is expensive for me. Buying a bus pass is another route I could take, but the $60 a month is another financial burden. I also live nowhere near TRAX, so that is not an option. It seems to me that being conscious and doing something about my contributions to Salt Lake City’s air quality, is expensive. And the thing is, not every college student has the money or is the right location to utilize less pollutant routes to school. It is not always economically to be environmental. But can we, meaning Salt Lake City citizen, really afford that? I have heard the air quality take two years off people lives in aggregate in the Wasatch Front. Can two years of someone’s life be quantified in economic terms? Not in my opinion; I don’t know if I can ascribe a value to time. The economic and negative feedback loop quandaries I describe are inhibitors for me to be more environmental. I am not sure what to do, but economic routes to be more environmental makes sense to me, whatever they may be.
That is my experience with air quality in Utah; hopefully in the future the air will be clearer and I can say goodbye to that soup.