Planet Princeton

Steve Hiltner: Tragedy within Tragedy

Tragedy now is experienced like a Russian doll, in which local tragedy is wrapped in the tragedies playing out nationally and globally. A woman died last week at Washington and Nassau during rush hour, hit by a cement truck as she crossed. During the ensuing investigation, her body remained on the street, covered by a white sheet–a sight that haunted people passing by on their way home from work.

Three years ago, on my PrincetonPrimer.org blog, I identified a cheap and simple fix that would improve safety at that dangerous intersection. The green arrows need to be followed by blinking yellow arrows rather than disappear altogether. Instead the state made changes that may have improved some aspects, but have fostered impatience by increasing wait times.

Four times recently around town, I witnessed cars rushing to make turns without first checking for pedestrians. Three of those times, I was the one who could have been run over even though I had the right of way.

There’s also been an uptick in cement trucks heading south through town. While studying the light cycle at Washington and Nassau a few days ago, I saw one pull up to the red light. The driver seemed apprehensive, as if he knew he was about to make the same turn that just days before had proved fatal.

If we were honest with ourselves, we would feel that same apprehension every time we get in a gas-powered vehicle. Before last week’s tragedy, I had already witnessed death at Washington and Nassau. In the Garden Theater, I watched in horror as a loved one died, killed not by the front end of a vehicle but by what rises from the rear. The movie was Chasing Coral, in which time lapse photography captures the deeply disturbing transformation of wondrous, vibrant, bountiful coral reefs into graveyards. Ocean waters overheated by global warming, like a patient with runaway fever, are causing this massive worldwide die-off.

In coral reefs, too, death is shrouded in white. Bleaching is the coral’s initial stress response to overheating. Then, if the water remains too warm, a whole complex, indispensable ecosystem dies in a month or two. Last year’s die-off was barely noticed while the nation was handing a bull the keys to the china shop. The indifference of the current president to the damage he is doing parallels the carbon-based economy’s indifference to its demolition of nature. Like drivers rushing to make a turn, people aren’t looking at where we’re collectively headed.

Lest we be too hard on ourselves, remember that we’d be well along the way to kicking the carbon habit by now if not for the politicians and lobbyists working hard to keep us stuck in this horrid role as fossil carbon distributors.

And so grief is wrapped in grief, as so many things in life suddenly seem vulnerable, so carelessly lost. Our lives are wrapped in the security of institutions and a nurturing planet that, unlike our limited spans, are meant to endure, to last far into forever. Now, when facing our own mortality, we can find little solace in the prospects for the world being left behind.

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Steve Hiltner

Stephen K. Hiltner is a botanist and jazz musician, who has served on various advisory commissions and has worked to promote sustainability in Princeton for the past fifteen years. He currently leads efforts to restore nature and culture at Herrontown Woods, maintains numerous blogs about nature and sustainability, and leads a theatrical group called Climate Cabaret. Steve is a regular contributor to Planet Princeton.

3 comments

  • Well said, Mr Hiltner. The “experts” don’t like tone told what to do, they’d rather wait until something bad happens to do the changes. They are supported by the ones who want to save money, and who can’tsee that those “savings” mean nothing when lives are lost.

  • Well, that’s an unflattering interpretation. I think there are a lot of people who look at what’s going on nationally and globally, see permanent damage being done, and wonder if they could have done more to help stop it. If you study up on something, and have insights and possible solutions to share, then you, too, should let people know about it, and give your full name so that people know who you are.

  • Way to turn a tragic death into a plug for own site and a political statement, exactly like the president you criticize.

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