Keeper of the Waters
In her beautiful, inspiring book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes that in the Potawatomi tradition, men are responsible for caring for fire while women are keepers of the waters. Though I am not contributing anything to the health of Lake Michigan at present, I spent the past month reestablishing my connection to many of the bodies of water to which I feel an affinity. While sitting with the view above of “my” harbor, I turned the pages of her book and of Loreen Nieuwenhuis’s A 1,000 Mile Walk on the Beach. Both authors see as imperative the establishment of a healthier relationship between humans and the environment. Whereas Kimmerer is a botanist by trade who aims to bridge the gap between science and the traditional Potawatomi worldview in order to heal the earth, Niewenhuis decided to walk the whole way around Lake Michigan to take time out to discover more about who she was and explore her relationship to this majestic body of water.
While it was not her main purpose in writing the book, Niewenhuis exposes the many ways in which Lake Michigan and all the living beings in and around it have been exploited in the name of profit and progress. I was shocked to discover that coho are not native to the Great Lakes but were introduced when native salmon could no longer spawn in the rivers that flow into the lake as a result of deforestation. Equally appalling is the amount of ammonia and toxic sludge continuing to be emitted by the BP refinery on the south shore of the lake and the amount of toxic spills and dumping that have occurred in the past one hundred years.
While punctuated with moments of doubt and concern for whether it’s possible to heal the numerous wounds already inflicted, Kimmerer’s book mostly serves as an antidote to any growing despair that may arise when an inventory of damage is taken. Two main themes are cultivating gratitude and learning how to take only what you need. I liked how she often poses questions that have no easy black or white answer:
How do we consume in a way that does justice to the lives that we take?
Can Americans…learn to live here as if we were staying? With both feet on the shore?
What do you love too much to lose? Who and what will you carry to safety?
Finding intelligent answers to these questions will take time. I took many notes while reading the book and am still thinking about how to integrate the lessons of the book into my own life. The ripples made by the stone of this book landing in the waters of my mind will keep spreading throughout the upcoming year. I am regrettably too far away to play much of a role in restoring Lake Michigan to health, but perhaps there will come a time in the future where I will be able to make a more active contribution to its welfare.
It wasn’t all about reading, this trip home. Since I stayed longer, there was time for a road trip to visit family farther away. TC, two lucky blog readers, and I lit out for the territory west of the Missouri River. Shortly after this picture was taken, I saw my first wild turkeys hanging out in a field on the side of the road. I am ashamed to say I didn’t know turkeys still lived in the wild. Great news, actually. It was also a pleasure to visit the Argyle Fiber Mill and pick up yarn made in Wisconsin. The animals who gave their fleece all live within fifty miles of the mill.
After stocking up on fibers, we didn’t stop until we had crossed the Mississippi. Unfortunately, it was shrouded in fog, so TC’s first glimpse of Old Man River wasn’t as spectacular as it might have been. Dubuque, Iowa, our destination that night, has a delightful main street complete with a yarn store, bookstore, coffee shop, and restaurant – all locally owned and located within one block of each other.
A week later, I spent a tranquil night on the shores of my dear old friend Lake Mendota, warming up and knitting in front of the roaring fire at a cozy arts and crafts bed and breakfast, the taste of rice noodles and bok choy dumplings still in my mouth. Funny how a walk on a grey December morning and the sight of old radiators and bathroom fixtures can make me nostalgic about my time as a student.
The weather was unseasonably warm until the last week, when winter decided to bare her teeth once again. The wool sweaters and socks I had made for others came in handy as the wind blew harder and snow started to accumulate. Even Honest Abe needed to cover up.
I wish you a happy, peaceful 2015 full of gratitude and plenty!