Air Water Earth

Phil and I have been on several weekend road trips lately–to Chisholm for a family memorial service, to Leech Lake for a reunion with dear friends, along with frequent trips to our cabin in Herbster. We like to listen to audiobooks along the way, carrying our minds to distant places, instead of the highway beneath us. Recent titles have taken us to Alaska (Road Song by Natalie Kusz) and to London, New York and Senegal (Swing Time by Zadie Smith) and to Ireland (This is Happiness by Niall Williams). During this time of travel, the sky above was the same faded gray-white, the horizon obscured by smoky haze. We have driven in blizzards that bring low visibility and blankets of snow. But when the snow stops, the plows and shovels come out, the roadways and sidewalks cleared, and it is back to business as usual. We know Summer’s severe storms, black clouds that gather and spin, leaving swaths of openings where towns and trees once stood. And once over, we mobilize with rakes and chain saws to clean up the damage. But there is no quick fix for our missing blue sky, only an awareness of what other people of the world have come to know as “normal.”

The smoke and haze has turned our attention to both hardships far away, and at home. We are part of a shared sky.

This summer of drought, heat and fires have brought particulate counts and unhealthy air alerts to our forecast. We are grateful for our air conditioners that cool us, use water sparingly to revive our plants and walk outdoors early in the day, if at all. It feels like a place we have visited, but can come home from, to fair skies, especially in the environs around Lake Superior. We can breathe deeply here, inhale the sweet cool air and feel a clearing of our lungs.

Baby Lena was up with her parents ready to be introduced to the Lake. The little family packed the car with her carrier, a shade tent for the beach, and plans for short hikes while she slept in her little cocoon. They sent photos of her little fuzzy head barely sticking out, snuggled close to her father’s chest. They came home early, no beach time, no long walks because the outside air wasn’t pure enough for a baby’s lungs.

I don’t mean to sound like a spoiled traveler who complains bitterly that my vacation was ruined because it never stopped raining or that the pool was closed. Clean air and fresh water are natural resources we expect in our region, a central feature of the quality of life here. People from all over come to the BWCA, or to vacation on one of the 10,000 lakes for swimming, boating and fishing. A privilege we have come to know.

When we are hit with a new reality that threatens our most basic of needs–air to breathe, water to drink–It doesn’t merely add another point of pressure to the growing pile of concerns about climate change, but hits at its basic core. How interdependent we are, how short sighted we have been.

Does raising awareness change behaviors? Or does it require self interest?

On recent drives north, we have passed yard signs with the outline of Lake Superior in bold blue with the words “Not For Sale” over the western part of the lake, the narrow western tip of (the wolf’s nose) Lake Superior. We asked neighbors about its meaning. On face value, we agreed our treasured lake is not for sale, but there was more. We learned just down the road from us, in Clover Township, a land owner proposed a business plan to harvest water. Their plan is to collect the artesian water, store and transport it in large tanks, for bottling in plastic containers in Superior, Wisconsin. From there the bottled water would be distributed and sold to distant markets.

The shape of Lake Superior looks like a wolf; Isle Royale ...
The shape of Lake Superior looks like the head of a wolf

Our area is blessed with artesian wells, the kind that brings water from aquifer to the surface under its own pressure, without the need of a pump or casing. An aquifer is a natural deposit of water-bearing rock that is both permeable, and able to store water. Aquifers are not limitless. They can be depleted when they are drained at a faster rate than they can be recharged. And the artesian well in question is connected to Bark Bay Slough and Lake Superior, literally in our back yard.

Lake Superior is known as a freshwater ocean, an inland sea, the greatest of the Great Lakes. Unique for its size and depth, it is the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area and the third-largest by volume. Is the perception of its vastness the motivation to harvest just a portion? Just as the forests were logged off and the iron ore mined because it seemed limitless?

Are we as individuals entitled to a shared resource like fresh water? Will others claim it who live in drier, distant places?

I wrote a letter to add my voice in opposition to the plan. The Bayfield County and Clover Township Boards already said no, but the company has appealed the decision and are moving forward without the conditional use permitting process. Laws were designed to prevent this, but the protection and persistence go on.

This summer’s travels have brought awareness to places that were transformed by industrial harvest. In Chisholm, where Phil’s grandfather dug ore by steam shovel for 50 years, the main street is sleepy and empty now. The abandoned open pits where he once mined iron, now deep chasms in the earth, not unlike the river canyons of the West. Our trip to Leech Lake brought us to the center of northern Minnesota, not far from Itasca, the headwaters of the Mississippi River and popular tourist spot. It is also the largest Indian Reservation in Minnesota where the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe live, at one time the hunters and gatherers who sustained this land and their people. As an outsider, I cannot claim to know the realities of reservation life, or feel the divisions over land stewardship and ecology. But I can honor indigenous people for their sacred care of the earth through a different model of harvest, that claims power and responsibility for the past and future.

4 thoughts on “Air Water Earth

  1. Wonderful, Debra. In 2003, I visited with a University of Oregon law professor, back when I was an acquisitions editor. At the time, I was looking for a new author for an environmental law textbook. About twenty minutes into our conversation, she told me that water rights would be THE most critical, most disputed issue in future. She handed me a bond copy of one of her law review articles about water rights. I still have it today and oh, how right she was, and thought I never doubted her, it’s still eerie to see her words enter a period of full manifestation.

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  2. Heidi, I visited Colorado in 1978 to study water resources as a limit to growth along the front range. Limits were not considered, it was a matter of where can we get MORE water. Divert water from Canada or other places. We have still not learned a hard lesson, that there are limits. Thanks for reading.

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    1. You ask thought-provoking questions, Deb, and educate on an important issue. Thank you for taking a stand. You’ve made me pause and reflect on how I live my life.

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  3. What a beautiful and sobering reflection on the natural resources we have not tended well. After a summer of drought and fires and floods and extreme temperatures, how many more signs do we need? And why have we ignored the wisdom of the Indigenous people who cared for this earth well. We are left with a lot of questions. We must speak out, as you’re doing. Thank you for this!

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