Story by Jaclyn Lipp | Photo by Johnny Simon
Green may really be one of Athens’ truest colors. It’s not only in the way that springtime breathes bursts of color back into its countryside, or how green serves as one of the symbols of the local university. People from all over Athens County are concerned about the environment and are making sustainability efforts that weave together within the community.
It’s a crisp, cool morning at the Ridges. The bus doors swing open, and fourth and fifth graders from Nelsonville-York Elementary School pile out into the picnic area. Immediately, chattering fills the air as kids chase each other and play together. It’s a field trip day -- a day of sustainability -- for the students to learn some basic ways to help save the environment.
As the group spreads out onto a grassy field, student volunteers from Ohio University lead the younger students in a “fun-ercise” to learn about invasive plants. Invasive plants like honeysuckle and garlic mustard steal sunlight and soil from native species.
“OK guys, close your eyes,” a student leader says. “I’m going to tickle one person’s hand and you pretend you are the garlic mustard plant and everyone else is a native plant. Then everyone can start shaking hands when you open your eyes, and the garlic mustard will keep tickling other people to turn them into garlic mustard too.”
As the kids run around, bursts of screams are audible as one by one, their hands get secretly tickled during handshakes. In the end, only one or two people are still native species. Even in the game, it’s clear just how pervasive the plants can be. The kids are then handed cards to look for the invasive plants to pull from the woods, and they head off with their group. Every once in a while, a student volunteer passes by with kids trailing, pulled garlic mustard overflowing from their arms.
From the picnic table area in the background, a woman with long brown hair and hiking clothes takes in the whole scene with bright, hazel eyes. This is one of her outreach programs through the university. Sonia Marcus is the sustainability coordinator at Ohio University and one of the many characters at the heart of keeping Athens healthy and beautiful.
Marcus’ life and passions have taken her all over the world. She is a free spirit of sorts, words excitedly flowing out of her mouth as she talks about her experiences. Most recently, Marcus has settled down in Athens in her sustainability job for the university. The location seems fitting for her, as the town is continually evolving and providing opportunities for change.
Earlier in her career, she was a documentary film editor in New York, her home state. Then, when she needed a change, she decided to pick up and move to Senegal to volunteer for an AIDs organization. Marcus said she went over with a “missionary-type attitude” to help the people in the poor, developing country. During the three years she spent there in various roles such as hosting a radio show, teaching English and working at a youth media center, she ended up getting educated in an important way.
At some point it hit her during a presentation in the city of Dakar about pollution and waste handling in the country and how it needed to improve, she knew what she needed to do. Marcus had been living in a developing country, but she had slowly learned that in many ways, the people she had come to support already had a high quality of life and ways to be happy. After the speaker told her that Senegal didn’t generate any nuclear waste, she realized she needed to focus her efforts back home in the United States to see what she could do about its environmental problems.
“These different pieces came together in my mind. I became more aware to the degree to which the U.S. specifically was crapping up the planet for everybody else in terms of our use of resources, in terms of our consumptive lifestyles and in terms of our agricultural policies that protected American farmers and didn’t allow developing world farmers to thrive,” Marcus said. “I thought, ‘What I need to do is go home and see what I can contribute to cleaning up our own shop, which seems to be a problem for everybody else in the whole world.’”
Marcus did find her way back and ended up in Athens to get her master’s degrees in communication development studies and environmental science. She has been living in Athens for three years and has been working on reducing the ecological footprint at the university, as well as organizing outreach programs and engaging the community in lively discussions. Her main goal is to stimulate critical thinking about environmental and social issues.
“We are at this very interesting geographical and historical intersection right here that I think is the perfect place for bringing people to the table and conversing,” Marcus said. “This is the place where these really difficult conversations are taking place, and this is the place where, culturally, we’re tied to coal mining, and the present reality is we have this large number of coal-fired power plants within 20 minutes of campus. A lot of interesting intersections are happening here to educate and engage about these issues.”
The coal conversation is a difficult one because so many coal-fired power plants dot the Ohio River Valley in the areas surrounding Athens. Athens is part of the area with the highest concentration of coal-fired plants in the world. Many greenhouse gases are emitted from the plants, such as carbon dioxide and mercury. This is often part of the discussion about climate change and the future. Coal mining itself can also bring up issues related to mountain-top removal mining and acid mine drainage, yet coal mining has been a big part of the area’s history. Remnants of the peak mining era exist throughout the county, such as in the old Eclipse mining town, and even in the current mining companies and towns.
Sandy Nessing, the director of sustainability at American Electric Power, recently visited Ohio University to discuss sustainability issues of her company. AEP is a one of the largest utility companies in the nation, and students were able to fire off questions and challenge and learn about the company’s practices with coal mining.
Other important initiatives around the community touch on a variety of issues. A composting project at Ohio University, started in January 2009, is the largest of its kind at any university or college. The composting system, an enormous green machine located in a white shed at the Ridges, has a two-ton capacity and turns waste into soil in 14 days. The university has been working to encourage students and the community to compost more waste products.
Along a bike path that winds through Athens, the West Side Community Gardens sits off to the right, a wealth of different types of plants growing in the big garden patches. The garden was created by Community Food Initiatives, a non-profit organization that plants gardens around Athens County to help people learn more about growing their own food. The organization encourages gardeners to give a portion back to the community to help others.
Earth Month took place through April, and its events in Athens may be some of the biggest indicators of the diverse range of sustainability projects in the community. From on-campus “green” crafts like decorating potted plants and making reclaimed bottle caps into beads, to community wildflower walks, to dance performances highlighting Appalachian coal communities and lectures and discussions about sustainability, the sustainability efforts around Athens are coming together and intersecting in this small, but diverse place.
“I’m very proud of what’s happening here in Athens. – it’s amazing. It’s a teeny, tiny town, but a hub for progressive thought and action,” Marcus says. “But could we be doing more? Absolutely. Athens is a nice balance of the task that remains to be done and the gains that have already been made.”