I prevented our dogs from wading at Jamestown Beach today. The rising tide carried a floating mat of yellow scum. I suspected pollution, which made me wonder about the meaning of the word.
Pollution is as hard to define as when Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was stumped for a precise definition ofpornography. He lamely replied, “I know it when I see it.”
So it’s in the eyes of the beholder. I remember the public outrage when the rock musical Hair came to the English stage from Broadway. The censors allowed it on technical grounds: it wasn’t obscene if the nude male and female actors remained perfectly still. How could they condemn it when Michaelangelo’s sculpture of David stood displaying a full frontal in a museum open to the public?
I asked a park attendant about the yellow scum, not though from idle curiosity. I am a registered River Rat, a volunteer monitoring river health for the James River Association. “You will see bigger slicks of pollen next week,” he said.
Aha! I should have guessed it was from pine and cypress cones shedding gobs of pollen. My weather app reported exceptional levels of pollen. Early next month our cars will have an annual coat of fine yellow dust, but I had never seen so much floating. And only seen in excess did I regard it as pollution, prompting questions.
Is pollution by definition man-made and harmful?
It flashes images of oil pouring from a damaged oil tanker and plastic detritus on the high seas. Only we are to blame! But we aren’t the only species that foul our environment. Gazing at the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth last week I saw the island whitewashed with uric acid excreted by the gannet and gull colonies. The ammoniacal odor of bat guano has taken my breath away in caves and seals have deposited tons of guano on islands, especially the Lobos. It makes a fine fertilizer after dilution but is toxic in its raw state.
You can think of other examples of natural substances that might be called pollution. Of course, those examples don’t mitigate our guilt. No other species has polluted all seven continents and five oceans with myriads of artificial chemicals, some of which will persist for generations to come.