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Guest Column
A crooked tree branch saves the Earth Day | Column
Contemplating nature and a polluting plastic bag in St. Petersburg’s Crescent Lake.
A runner at Crescent Lake Park in St. Petersburg.
A runner at Crescent Lake Park in St. Petersburg.
Published Apr. 30

No one told me it was Earth Day.

But it didn’t matter. We were still celebrating nature in a suburban neighborhood kind of way.

As is our habit, Karen and I were circumnavigating Crescent Lake in St. Petersburg, getting some exercise and enjoying what passes for a brisk morning walk in the Sunshine State.

Roy Peter Clark
Roy Peter Clark

Crescent Lake is not so much a lake as a big pond, the center of a well-kept city park, where folks walk their dogs, and young moms and dads push cute kids in strollers. There is a dog park next to courts where folks play tennis and a paddle sport called pickleball.

Workers groom the baseball field where for years the New York Yankees conducted Spring Training. I swear I can feel the ghost of Babe Ruth. He played right field, not far from the lake. Before they put up a fence, it was said that the Bambino was nervous about alligators.

I haven’t seen a gator there yet or an otter. But we see plenty of turtles and a wonderful variety of birds. Flocks of white pelicans made their migratory visit from the north. The brown pelicans — official bird of our city! — show off their soaring, diving, and fishing skills. Snake birds dry out their wings. A great variety of ducks duck their heads and quack their way in and around the water.

No one told us it was Earth Day as we watched two families of baby ducklings paddle after their mama ducks. The edges of the lake are being crowded out by the vegetation that grows — I am guessing — from the lawn fertilizers that flow in the water from neighborhood houses. The ducks didn’t seem to mind as they enjoyed a breakfast of whatever mini-life was hovering just above the surface.

Then we saw it. A big black plastic garbage bag caught in the breeze like a kite. I hoped it would land on the grass where we could gather it, but it got caught in space where the vegetation met the water.

We all know that this kind of plastic pollution is bad for birds and sea life.

“I’m going in to get it,” I said.

“No, you’re not,” said the person I was walking with, who had recently nursed me after a bad fall in the bathroom.

She was right, of course. It would be foolhardy to work my way down a muddy slope toward the water. I would surely fall in. (But it was Earth Day – though we did not know that yet!)

Stubborn and foolish, I sat at the top of the slope and dangled my sneakers toward the water, hoping I might be able to snag the garbage bag with my foot.

I heard a voice. “You goin’ in after that bag?”

I looked over my shoulder and it was a tiny woman with short grey hair. “I’m a mountain woman from North Carolina,” she announced. “We need a stick.”

In a flash she found one, a crooked tree branch. She began to step down the slope. I was sure she would fall, but she reached out and grabbed my hand. She took a couple of steps. Sure enough, she reached down with her stick and snagged the bag on the first swipe.

Then the fun began. After tossing the stick up on the grass with the bag, now secured, she needed to get back up the slope. “Are you vaccinated?” she asked. Yes, I was. Both of us were masked. “Let’s dance,” she said, and we now were two hands in two hands, swinging them back and forth, laughing in some kind of celebratory mountain square dance.

I was still seated on the ground, remember, pulling her up to the top of the slope. She needed just one more push to make it. If she had been my wife, I know how I would have sealed the deal. But this was a mountain woman from North Carolina, no ifs, no ands, no butts.

She made it and turned to help me up. “I’m strong,” she said. And she was. The mama ducks and the baby ducks paddled toward us in appreciation, or was I now just high on nature?

After all, it was Earth Day!

Roy Peter Clark is a contributing writer. You can reach him at rclark@poynter.org.