(Note: this is a repost of a guest blog post I wrote for another pagan blog back in 2013. I used to repost that link every year around this time, but when I went to do so this year, the site was down. So I am posting it here instead.)
Wisdom is something that comes very slowly to humans, as a rule, and this is all the more obvious in connection with the environment. By and large, the majority of humanity sees the world, its resources, and attendant living plants and animals as a resource to be exploited rather than our partners and roommates on the planet. When it comes to wisdom, one of the maxims that we accept theoretically but have trouble applying practically is “Just because you can do a thing doesn’t mean you should do it.”
This week in the United States saw the celebration of the country’s Independence Day, where we ritualize the anniversary of gaining our freedom from the country that formerly claimed possession of this corner of the world, as well as the unjust ruler of that country. Independence is a fine thing, when celebrated thoughtfully and appropriately. Unfortunately, in many parts of the country, there is very little thought of independence, or of our ancestors who fought to achieve our freedom from England. Instead, Independence Day has devolved into another sort of celebration entirely, which we call the “Fourth of July”, and all too often, we celebrate it in ways that have nothing to do with wisdom.
The state where I live, Indiana, is known mostly as a rural area, part of the country’s heartland and breadbasket, where food is raised — both plant and animal — to help feed us. The jobs from those industries help support many fine people. And the land that raises that food, both on a large and small scale, is home to many spirits, equally large and small, who are far more intimately bound up with the land than we are with our celebrations.
Indiana also happens to be one of the states where it is legal for anyone over the age of 18 to buy and set off fireworks. There is a fairly large cottage industry set up in my part of the state (and others, too, I imagine), with a number of franchises setting up shops to sell a huge variety of firecrackers, sparklers, fireworks, and similar entertainments at various locations. Many of these shops are set up right next to the off-ramps of the interstates where buyers come from Illinois, where fireworks are illegal to purchase.
Fireworks are one of those inventions that started with components found in nature — sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate (or, as the last two are most commonly found in nature, burnt wood and bat guano) — that were combined in a specific proportion by humans to create something utterly outside of nature. The earliest known historical mention of gunpowder is in an 11th century Chinese text (although they were believed to use it as far back as the 7th century), and the Chinese used it for both fireworks and weaponry. Its use spread across the world until there are very few places these days where one can’t find it used for either purpose.
Our use of fireworks in the United States dates back before the War of Independence itself; the use of them to celebrate the Fourth of July dates back to the very first Independence Day in 1777.
And that’s how long we’ve been poisoning the land, its attendant creatures and plants, and the spirits of the land, with the debris from our pretty light shows.
Entirely aside from the human injuries caused every year by fireworks (of which there were several awful examples this year, most notably the incident in Simi Valley, California), it’s long been established that the larger physical debris from fireworks — cardboard tubes and end caps, bamboo sticks, leftover wires from sparklers — can hurt or even kill animals via ingestion and accident. This harm doesn’t stop with birds or fish, but spreads throughout the ecosystem of a surrounding area, including not just wild animals but outdoor companion animals and livestock such as cattle, swine, horses, sheep, and goats, as well.
But the damage from those pretty lights doesn’t stop there. Whenever a firework bursts — whether it’s Joe Average’s Roman candle or the larger 1.3G fireworks that cities use to put on their long Fourth of July celebrations — it releases a bouquet of chemicals and smoke into the air as it ignites and burns. The smoke is bad enough, and has been known to measurably increase particulate air pollution with the residue of the spent gunpowder, but such blasts also contribute to other pollutants entering the air, water, and land. The pretty colors seen in most fireworks are created by adding heavy metal particulates such as copper (blue), barium (greens), lithium and strontium (reds), and yellows (sodium) to the gunpowder in the rockets. These chemicals, which generally enter the atmosphere at low levels (in most cases, much lower than airplanes are cleared to fly at), can contribute to asthma and other respiratory illnesses in humans. The effects of the chemicals on animals is not well-documented, but it would seem likely to have just as severe an effect on them — or possibly worse.
Nor is that damage restricted to animals, or solely to inhaled particulate. After every Fourth of July, I usually spend two weeks picking fireworks debris out of my many gardens. The plastic, which is non-biodegradable, is bad enough, but easy to pick up; the cardboard fragments from tubes and end caps is worse; being in close proximity to the gunpowder and chemicals, they are usually liberally coated with residue, which washes into the soil when any water — be it rain or from watering the garden — hits it. The cardboard, if left uncollected, eventually breaks down and joins the soil, carrying a large dose of residue impregnated into its bulk into the soil with it.
Airborne residue also drifts down in the wake of the fireworks explosions to cover every plant, clogging the openings on top of the leaves, called stoma, which the plant needs to take in carbon dioxide and expel oxygen. Without those openings, gas exchange in the plants lags and slows, and may be stop entirely, killing the plants, if most or all of the plant’s stomates are completely clogged. Although the stomates of some plants are on the undersides, rather than the tops, of the leaves, and some plants — mostly aquatic ones — lack stomates at all, windborne residue can coat the undersides of leaves as well, and poison the water where aquatic plants dwell, being drawn up into the plants’ cellular structures by their roots.
It is not unthinkable to believe that what affects living plants and animals (and people, as we are just as much a part of our ecosystem as they are) affects the spirits of the land, as well. Whether you call them totems, wights, dryads and nymphs, or aos sí, the land’s spirits must feel the pain we cause to its living inhabitants in much the same way a mother feels the pain that harms her children. The idea that garbage in any form damages the land itself on a spiritual level is not a new one, but it is easier to overlook the damage done by something “pretty” than it is to ignore a huge pile of plastic water bottles and aluminum beer cans at the beach, or discarded fast-food garbage, or the hulks of rusting, abandoned cars. There are ways to celebrate Independence Day that don’t involve doing damage to the natural world around us, nor needlessly spend large amounts of money that could be put to better use trying to help save the environment rather than destroy it, and pagans, who claim to revere the land and esteem their connections with it, should be seeking out those ways rather than using fireworks or supporting fireworks shows. Planting trees, picking up garbage, or donating to environmental causes on the Fourth are all ways of showing one’s pride in one’s country, and the sacrifices our ancestors made to earn our freedom, than defiling the land that they fought for.
And the spirits of the land would doubtlessly agree.