A walk in the woods

I woke up last Friday morning in a small wooden bed in a small wooden room in a small wooden red-and-white cabin in a lush forest in western Sweden. As I pulled the multiple layers quilts away from my face, beyond wisps of my breath I could see early morning sunlight pouring through the frosty double-pane bay window, beyond which I could see light powdery snow piled on the rocky earth and weighing down the slim boughs of the many evergreen trees that congregated around the cabin. From my warm sliver of bed I could tell the weather would be cold that day, but bright and beautiful. The perfect day for a walk in the woods.

©Erica Cirino

©Erica Cirino

Woods are cathartic places for certain people. I’m one of those people.

All that’s needed to enjoy the woods is a love of nature, an adventurous spirit, a peaceful attitude and a lack of concern about dirt. That’s about it, I would say. (Maybe a good dog, too.)

©Erica Cirino

©Erica Cirino

I go to the woods whenever I feel the stresses of urban life are beginning to get the best of me: When I have been working too much, thinking too much or worrying too much.

Without periodic time in the woods, my mind and body become stricken by restlessness. I get the feeling that I just need to go somewhere else.

That Friday in the woods turned out to be a good one.

My normally languid Alaskan malamute was filled with energy, cruising up and down the snow-covered trails, so many times her paw prints overlapped in each direction at least half a dozen times by the end of the day. She ran and ran, only pausing occasionally to gulp down mouthfuls of cool snow.

©Erica Cirino

©Erica Cirino

I took my camera with me that day, trying to capture the essence of what it is about the woods that is so medicinal to me. Only while reviewing my photos back in the cabin that evening—with my feet kicked up by the woodstove and a hot tea in my hands—did I realize what exactly it is I find so healing in the woods: it’s the quiet.

Back home in New York, I can hear from my apartment: trains, cars, boat foghorns, people, dogs, sirens, appliances, electronics. Here in the cabin, all I hear is: the light wind outside, the electric kettle whistling, the woodstove burning, icicles dripping, my dog breathing, my own breathing.

©Erica Cirino

©Erica Cirino

©Erica Cirino

©Erica Cirino

©Erica Cirino

©Erica Cirino

Much of the stressors people get caught up in every day are insignificant, petty things. Worry about relationships. Worry about work. Worry about self-image. When we worry about these things, we forget about the most important part of life: living. When we worry, we don’t live. We forgo happiness for worrying about things we think we’ll be happy if we have, if we fix, if we do. “If only this thing were different, I could be happy,” we think.

Why not be happy now, with what we already have?

In the woods, you have what is around you and inside of you—nothing more, nothing less. It is pure living. It’s a place of reflection, of gratitude for being alive and loved. For me, it’s a reminder of how to live a fulfilling—and yes, happy—life.

©Erica Cirino

©Erica Cirino

I'll close here, and leave you thinking about the woods and your relationship to it, with my favorite poem about the woods written by my favorite poet, Mary Oliver:

How I go to the woods

By Mary Oliver

"Ordinarily, I go to the woods alone, with not a single
friend, for they are all smilers and talkers and therefore

I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to the catbirds
or hugging the old black oak tree. I have my way of
praying, as you no doubt have yours.

Besides, when I am alone I can become invisible. I can sit
on the top of a dune as motionless as an uprise of weeds,
until the foxes run by unconcerned. I can hear the almost
unhearable sound of the roses singing.

If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love
you very much.”

Another day, another development project on Long Island

Why we need cleanups, not coverups, of industrial sites on Long Island: The case of EPCAL

The EPCAL site, upper left. An enormous contaminated plume of groundwater is moving southeast toward the Pine Barrens Preserve and Peconic River. Credit: Google Earth 

The EPCAL site, upper left. An enormous contaminated plume of groundwater is moving southeast toward the Pine Barrens Preserve and Peconic River. Credit: Google Earth 

As I scrolled down my Facebook feed on Wednesday night, I noticed something concerning, a news story posted by a guy in a local wildlife photography group I'm a part of: "LI developers win bid for 633 acres in Calverton." I was concerned because, a) being a trained scientist/science writer, the word "develop" and every derivation thereof usually indicates the destruction of something natural and the construction of something unnatural; and, b) I live on Long Island and so my NIMBY-senses started tingling. More projects? Not in my backyard. 

Calverton is a hamlet partly in the Town of Riverhead and partly in the Town of Brookhaven, which, in the 1800s was a farming community where cranberries were grown in swampy wetlands along the ecologically important Peconic River. In the 1950s, the U.S. Navy bought more than 6,000 acres of land in Calverton to create a Grumman jet finishing plant and jet test area, complete with two runways, an industrial site now referred to as "EPCAL." In the 70s, more than 1,000 acres was used to create the Calverton National Cemetery. In the 90s, Northrop Grumman (formerly Grumman) left the base and so the Navy began selling off the land. About 2,640 acres were given to the town of Riverhead, while nearly 3,000 acres of undeveloped land were given to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation for remediation and wildlife management and 140 acres were given to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to expand the national cemetery. 

Today, the unsold land--358 acres--are still owned by the U.S. Navy because they're still too contaminated to pass on to another owner, such as the state, a town or a private developer. The groundwater, soil and sediments under these 350+ acres are contaminated with heavy metals such as lead (think Flint: harmful to the neurological and biological health of humans and animals; can cause death), PCBs (industrial chemicals that can cause cancer, disease and death in humans and animals), SVOCs and VOCs (chemicals in fossil fuels that can also cause cancer, disease and death in humans and other animals), pesticides (chemicals used to kill insects that, you guessed it, can cause cancer, disease and death in humans and animals, á la DDT...which devastated wild bird populations in the 1960s and 70s). 

The article doesn't mention EPCAL's environmental legacy as a major polluter. Instead it focuses on jobs for Long Islanders. The article doesn't mention that, besides the 358 acres currently still undergoing cleanup, a gigantic groundwater plume contaminated with the same toxic chemicals found on the EPCAL site is expanding day by day, moving southeast toward the Peconic River and Long Island State Pine Barrens Preserve, two extremely environmentally sensitive areas. What's more, the state- and town-owned portion of the site is still undergoing some decontamination, just not at the same level as the federally owned part (apparently, it's not as toxic). So basically, the site is less-than-pristine and still contains potentially cancer-, disease- and death-causing heavy metals and chemicals.

Concerned, I tweeted the article and posted it on my own Facebook page. A friend from my running club commented, positing that it's probably best the already-developed part of the plant be transformed into something else industrial, rather than clearing out new land on the site, or elsewhere on the Island for that matter. To a point I agree: Building new buildings where there are already buildings rather than uprooting trees and draining wetlands is smart.

But EPCAL is not fully cleaned up and ready for reuse. "Reuse" in this case also involves demolition and new construction--digging up the ground and carrying away rubble--which will increase traffic generally through the site, kicking up contaminated dust and dirt. Extreme care will need to be taken to ensure runoff, construction debris, noise and workers' litter do not harm the sensitive parts of the site. Because construction on a toxic site is less of an exacting and sterile science than, say, measuring samples of toxic chemicals with a precise micropipette in a lab, I I have some doubts about whether that's possible.

What should be done is a complete federal cleanup not only of the EPCAL site, but of the plume which is seeping from under the site into Long Island's sole-source aquifer system; the underground complex of rock and water the whole island relies on for its drinking water. The government has done some cleanup of the site, but the plume, as I've elaborated, exceeds the boundaries of the site. 

It's ridiculous to think we're building on a toxic waste dump--disrupting toxic materials and possibly inputting more toxic materials instead of cleaning them up. During construction, oil and fluids can leak from vehicles and machines, paints and sealants can spill, exhaust will undoubtedly flow from both moving and idling trucks (why people leave trucks idling is a mystery to me). I feel bad for the people who are going to do construction and work there, and those who live near EPCAL. The EPA has said of the site it's still decontaminating: "Any future soil excavation would be performed in a manner that would minimize exposure to workers. Trespassers are kept off the site by a combination of fencing and security, and are not expected to come in contact with contaminated soil." 

The disruption of the contaminated soil, sediments and water at EPCAL is undoubtedly unhealthy.

This is why we need cleanups, not coverups, of EPCAL and other contaminated industrial sites on Long Island. EPCAL could be repurposed, or it could be demolished and returned into wildlife habitat, but should only be touched when completely remediated and safe for humans and animals.

Besides full cleanups, we need to reassess our values as a society. Are jobs (many of which will be temporary) more valuable than our health, wellbeing and environment? Is it possible to hold fulfilling, sustainable careers and live rewarding lives without poisoning ourselves and the environment?

I think so, I know so. We just need to shift our values and lifestyles. Think: drive less, use less plastic, build fewer malls, eat less meat, don't litter, install solar panels, recycle more, repurpose old things before buying new things, create a compost pile and most importantly, be informed about your environment. Toxic industrial sites are everywhere on Long Island, undoubtedly in your town. You can find them, and learn more about them, via the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory webpage

Energy, Inc.

Beautiful Appalachia. Credit: Erica Cirino

Beautiful Appalachia. Credit: Erica Cirino

Driving out to Western Pennsylvania, away from the East’s sprawling cities and out to the open space of Appalachia, I am quickly reminded of the debate Americans are waging over energy.

The further I drive down the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the more I am reminded: Bold billboards claim energy taxes are ruining the lives of the everyday Pennsylvanian. Yet other equally large roadside displays read, “More methane, more smog, more [insert image of an asthmatic child with an inhaler here].” The white steel skeletons of hydraulic fracturing towers mark each natural gas well pad. Stark signs staked at the side of major highways exclaim: “BLASTING ZONE – 1,000 FEET,” and I can see giant yellow bulldozers toting around tons of dug-up earth, spreading it away from freshly leveled mountaintops.

I didn’t give much thought to mining and fracking when I set out for Westmoreland County on a reporting trip this past Wednesday. After all, I came here to write about animals, not energy. But the more billboards, oil wells, blasting zones and bulldozers I see, the more I realize both industries are a big—if not important—part of life here.  

Western Pennsylvania’s economy relies on revenues from resource extraction—that is, bituminous coal and natural gas. With more people aware of the negative health impacts of mining (both in underground and surface—or mountaintop—mines) and hydraulic fracturing—not to mention the ever-increasing threats posed by climate change—economic reliance on these industries is coming under increased scrutiny by concerned residents. Or so I’ve learned.

*          *          *          *          *          *

Wednesday evening, after a full afternoon of reporting and a quick dinner to refuel, I head to my hotel, located in the town of Donegal, to catch up on emails and review my notes. Those leveled mountains and well pads fresh in my mind, I first Google “Donegal fracking.” What I find shocks me: There are eight wells located in this town alone…eight of 251 wells in the county, three of 51 in the county which have safety violations. Local people are concerned about their town’s future. Local people are scared about water contamination. Yet industry permits continue to be approved.

Naturally, I must investigate.

Being born and raised on Long Island, New York, I grew up around polluting industries, sure. That includes lots of industries that pose environmental contamination and human health risks, from military manufacturing to laboratory research to chemical production to a nuclear power plant that never opened. We have our fare share of toxic plumes and cancer clusters. But on the Island—and elsewhere in New York, for that matter—we don’t have fracking. (Or coal mining.)

As I powered down my laptop, my phone buzzed. “What are you up to? XO Mom” read a text.

"I'm researching fracking."

"What's fracking?"

"You know...natural gas extraction wells. There are three here with violations. One apparently contaminated drinking water here. I need to see it."

"Be careful, Erin. I am sure people will not like you poking around. Your job makes me a bit nervous. Oye...."

I smile. I have to admit, it’s kind of cool to be compared to Erin Brockovich, even if it’s my own mother doing the comparing.

I explain to her that it’s still light out, and that I’ll text her as soon as I get back from exploring. I’m not a troublemaker, just curious. I want to see what these wells are all about. The one I want to see, Kalp I-9H, apparently has a tailings pond that leaked chemicals into the local aquifer. I use my investigative skills to pinpoint the location of the well, which, according to NPR's ShalePlay project, has the highest number of violations in Donegal.  

It's simple for me to locate the well. But I find that seeing the well is a lot easier said than done. You see, some energy companies—like WPX Energy, LLC.—do a pretty good job of hiding their operations from the public view.

The entrance to WXP Energy Appalachia, LLC's Kalp 1-9H well. Credit: Erica Cirino

The entrance to WXP Energy Appalachia, LLC's Kalp 1-9H well. Credit: Erica Cirino

A glimpse of WXP Energy Appalachia, LLC's Kalp 1-9H well. Credit: Erica Cirino

A glimpse of WXP Energy Appalachia, LLC's Kalp 1-9H well. Credit: Erica Cirino

 There really isn’t much to see. There's a long dirt driveway and up on a hill I spot the tops of a few green dumpsters. I drive back to my hotel and text Mom. “I’m back, all fine. Love you.” Then I doze off.

I sleep well, but fracking is still on my mind when I wake. In the breakfast room, a round, blond woman in a black apron arranges trays of steaming biscuits, gravy, sausage and grits on the counter, chatting with another guest about local jobs (or the lack thereof):

“Good biscuits,” says a large, tired-looking man in a red flannel shirt, fraying jeans, cowboy hat and muddy leather work boots. “I need my energy today. Hard at work this week.”

“Thank you, sir,” the cook says sweetly in a clearly Appalachian accent. “Where you working?”

I sit down with a bowl of oatmeal, yogurt, banana and a hot green tea (all the while thinking about the integrity of the water used to make my oats and tea) and listen.

“Out on the oil wells round here, came out from New Mexico. Needed the extra cash.”

“I hear you. I’ve been working mornings here, and bartend six nights a week. It’s all I can do to keep food on the table.”

Classic story: Small town, lots of energy, lack of cash. When the man leaves, I wave down the cook.

“Good morning,” I say. “I’m here from New York. I saw a few gas wells around here, and heard you talking to that man. What’s the consensus on fracking here?”

The cook’s smile dissolves into a look of dismay. She looks around before leaning in and whispers, “To tell you the truth, a lot of people around here don’t like it. There’s been a few issues, and people are scared. I don’t want my kids to get sick. I don’t want to get sick. But the town just approved a new permit, sadly.”

Later that day, I’m chatting with another local—a researcher I was working with for my story. “So, I know there’s fracking going on here….”

He looks at me a bit dejectedly, and then readjusts his glasses. “You know, it’s such a weird issue. I spoke out about it at a town meeting recently. But fracking brings a lot of money to this area. So some people want it around, even with the health scares.”

I spend one more night in Westmoreland County, among beautiful mountains, lakes and wildlife…and fracking towers, well pads and tailings ponds. I leave midmorning so I can meet a friend living in Montgomery County for lunch. We plan to meet at a hip vegan place in Pottstown, 30 minutes from her house and on my way back to N.Y.

The rain is coming down, and it’s foggy, making it tough to navigate my hatchback, which has a penchant for hydroplaning on slick roads. I blast the radio to stay alert. Along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, suddenly the rain abates and the fog lifts long enough for me to see the Somerset Wind Farm, five turbines tucked along a mountain ridge. About an hour later, I see dozens of solar panels on a farm.

I smile to see renewable energy make an appearance in this state so dominated by oil and coal: I mean, look at all these coal mines. Look at all these gas wells. It’s so much, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection suggests residents living near mines purchase “Mine Subsidence Insurance.”

*          *          *          *          *          *

My positive mood fades about a hundred miles later, when my cellphone’s GPS function stops working when driving into Pottstown, P.A., a suburban college town off the Schuylkill River. Frustrated, I pull over and fumble with it for a few minutes. There is absolutely no service…I can’t find the restaurant, I can’t even call my friend. Then I look up at the sky and notice two huge gray, steaming towers: two reactors of a nuclear power station.

Limerick Generating Station. Credit: Smallbones (Wikimedia)

Limerick Generating Station. Credit: Smallbones (Wikimedia)

You can’t make this stuff up. It’s Limerick Generating Station. I feel like Energy, Inc., is watching me. Okay, not exactly. But there’s no arguing it’s omnipresent in this state.

I see my friend’s car crawling down the street and flag it down. Somehow, we’ve both found the restaurant without the miracle that is mobile electronic technology.

“Dude, my phone stopped working!” says my friend as she slowly gets out of her car, looking angrily at the device in her hand.

“Mine too—and I wonder if it has anything to do with that,” I say, pointing up at the hulking power station.

“You know, I remember my dad mentioning once that for some reason there’s no service around power plants. Like, for security or something.”

I shake my head and sigh. I’m tired and disheartened. Can’t we create clean energy jobs? Can’t we stop polluting the Earth? Can’t we take away some power from energy companies?

As my friend and I chat about how good it is to see each other, but I’m preoccupied. In the back of my mind I try not to worry about the chemical composition of the water we’re about to drink.


Poems about pollution


The world around us isn't always pretty. But the way words can describe even the most awful situations and places can be pretty powerful. Even beautiful, sometimes.

Northport Power Station, image from Wikimedia Commons,  Fmtownsmarty.

Northport Power Station, image from Wikimedia Commons, Fmtownsmarty.

On a recent Thursday night a good friend and I went for a drive around my town. We talked about hopes and fears, love and loss, present and future. 

I met this friend while enrolled in an environmental writing and media class in college. Like me, she's both concerned about the environment and a creative soul. 

Naturally the both of us are drawn to scenes of natural beauty: shimmering seas, soaring birds, rich forests. But we also have a fascination for the grotesque--the imperfect parts of nature: rippling rainbows of oil in mud puddles, plumes of plastic swirling in the oceans...and of course, the thick, soot-laden smoke pouring out of power plants.

Northport Power Station, February 2016...from behind the fence.

Northport Power Station, February 2016...from behind the fence.

It just so happens that the both of us live within a stone's throw of a power plant. For me, it's the Northport Power Station, for her it's the Shoreham Power Station. 

That night, we discussed the similarities and differences between our hometown power plants:


The hulking Northport plant runs on compressed natural gas that's piped in, like it is to most homes in the area, and also liquid oil. Shoreham's smaller plant, adjacent to the never-opened Shoreham nuclear power plant, runs on liquid natural gas, which is trucked in on tankers. 

Both are located on Long Island's North Shore, butted up against the Sound. In other words, if there were to be a major leak or explosion (caused by gas or oil or the other chemicals used in operating a power plant), a multitude of things that live in and near the Sound--including people--would be harmed.

Both plants are owned and operated by National Grid. Both are surrounded by tall, angry chain-link and barbed-wire fences.

Additionally, the Northport power station creates steam. To cool the mechanisms of the Northport plant, huge quantities of water are pulled from the Sound, sucking up fish eggs, insect larvae, fish and other marine wildlife, which get trapped in filter screens. During the cooling process, this saltwater heats up. Then, still hot, it's returned to the Sound, where it damages marine ecosystems and harms wildlife.... 

You can read more about Long Island's power plants--and the environmental harm they cause--in this environmental analysis.


That night my friend drove her Prius slowly, carefully through the dark roads that wind around the Northport plant's four red-and-white striped towers. Through clouds of steam, the towers' flashing red lights looked like alien eyes blinking at us from the liquid black sky, harsh and ominous. 

She parked and I hopped out of her car into the cold, late-winter night. I peered at the plant through the fence. Clinging onto the chain-linked armor that protects the plant from too much outside observation, I pulled myself up above some brush, trying to get a better view--a better idea--of what was going on there. But the plant--set deep into the middle of the property, way by the water, was too far away to see clearly. 

I returned to my friend's car, and we continued our nighttime adventure around the power plant. We discussed our hypotheses about why there might be so much secrecy and protection surrounding places like these: Places of pollution. Places that create energy and other industrial products. Places like Flint and places like Hoosick Falls. Places like her town, and places like mine.

So late that night, after my friend dropped me off at home, I wrote down what I saw so that maybe later, maybe one day, I will understand:


Smokestacks rise

into polluted skies.

Oh how darkness shrouds

dirty secrets and lies.


Miles of fencing 

Cuts through this seaside village

People have no say.


Imminent danger

surrounded by water

there is no way out.


Lingering thoughts:

  • Do you have a power plant in your town?
  • Does your town have a toxic legacy?
  • If you could live anywhere, where would you choose?

Also: I invite you to send me your poems of pollution. Shoot me an email:

How to escape mental quicksand: i.e. finding inspiration in words and other places

Quicksand warning sign in Denmark. Credit: Matthew Bargo

Quicksand warning sign in Denmark. Credit: Matthew Bargo

When you’re feeling vulnerable, rundown, anxious or uncreative, it’s all too easy to fall into what I call “mental quicksand.” Just like its real counterpart, mental quicksand tends to swallow you up when you least expect it.

And the more you struggle to escape it, the deeper it swallows you up.

Once you get stuck in mental quicksand, it can seem impossible to escape. But believe me, it’s possible. All you need to do is look for a little inspiration in the right places to help put you in a better state of mind.

As a writer-artist-runner, naturally I try to write, make art or run (or some combination of all three) when stuck in mental quicksand to help change my mindset. Getting out in nature also always seems to help me escape.

And then there’s looking at others’ words.

No matter what kind of quicksand pit you fall in (the lacking-confidence type, the lacking-energy type, the lacking-optimism type, etc.) you can be assured many others have also fallen into that same one. Reading about what others have learned through their quicksand escapes can help you get out, too.

All my life I’ve been a collector of good quotes, song lyrics and poems. I’ve been writing them down on scraps of paper and backs of notebooks. Finally, yesterday, I decided to give my collection some justice and put it in a nice little bound book: a handy “How to Escape Mental Quicksand” handbook.


Right now it looks pretty plain—you can be sure I will be adding some pizazz with collage to the cover—but inside live some very powerful words. 

Here are three favorites I’ve added thus far:

1.     Hope is not about receiving, about being the beneficiary of some nebulous good fortune, it’s about putting desire into action. Hope is an idea with an engine. —   Tracy K. Smith

2.     Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing. —   Benjamin Franklin

3.     Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray. —   Rumi

I’m hoping to create an online version of my handbook so you can use it when you need it. If you have any good “quicksand” quotes to share, please comment, email or tweet them to me!