July 21, 2004

In the Beauty of Minnesota Waters

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN -- It's the summer festival season, and I'm noticing a theme. Water-Ski Days in Lake City, with its parade of floats depicting rural America, was held the other day, and Minneapolis Aquatennial is being held all this week. Waterama in Glenwood, the Hoyt Lakes Water Carnival, and Catfish Derby Days in Franklin are coming up this weekend.

If you're still up for a watery fest, Riverboat Days in Wabasha will be held next weekend, with its famous Fireman's Water Fight.

We are water-crazed here in Minnesota. We even celebrate the official state liquid in frozen form, building crystalline ice palaces and holding pagan coronation and dethroning rituals for winter gods in the state's capital every year. Not to mention our passion for the ancient rite of ice fishing, a prolonged genuflection to the bounties of the deep.

I appreciate these celebrations because the connection to our state's life-sustaining ponds, streams, lakes and rivers are at the heart of what makes us Minnesotans. The connection is elemental and magical.

The waters of Minnesota also connect us with the world. Growing up here, I thought of Minnesota's waters -- for me the Zumbro River, Lake Superior and the Mississippi River -- primarily as signifiers of the state itself. That is, they defined my place, my home and my own identity to a large degree.

Lake Pepin

Today, though, I see these great waters not just as landmarks that define Minnesota, but also as living connectors -- like blood vessels or super-sensitive membranes -- between our state and the rest of the world.

Partly this is a matter of traveling I've done, and partly it's thanks to the vision of the world that science and ecology gives us, and partly, I think, it's just a matter of getting older and thinking more about responsibility.

For a couple of years in the 1990s, I worked in mainland China, and I frequently stayed in Shanghai. There I would stand on the banks of the Yangtze River, on the boulevard called the Bund, and I would see this mighty artery of commerce bearing coal barges and container ships and tiny tattered junks hauling pigs to market and every kind of ship imaginable.

When I returned to live in Minnesota in 2000, I visited Lake City and stood on the shores of Lake Pepin. I played hockey on Lake Pepin in the winter as a kid, and I sailed and motor-boated there in the summer, and somehow the Mississippi River never seemed terribly grand to me then. When I returned home, though, having seen the Yangtze, somehow the Mississippi had grown in stature in my eyes, and in my soul, too.

Spiritual Work

Maybe this is like saying that one's parents, when one grows up and has seen a little bit of the world, suddenly seem a lot smarter in retrospect. I'm not sure. I do know that my travels have showed me there is no more awe-inspiring a place in the world than right here. At the same time, it's not "better than" but rather "similar to" and "along with." I see the Mississippi River now as like a brother or sister to the Yangtze River.

The ecological view, of course, also fosters apprehension of Minnesota's global connectedness. The health of our state's waters is increasingly seen not just as a mirror of our own, but of the world's environmental health, too.

Gone are the days when pollution in one of Minnesota's lakes could be traced to a local source. Today, any of dozens of toxins in local fish could have originated in Russia, China or Japan. Invasive species arrive in our lakes and rivers via Great Lake barges, our shoe bottoms and Internet mail orders.

So what is our global responsibility as stewards of one of the world's most complex water-land ecosystems? To me, above and beyond the practical matter of keeping our waters clean, a spiritual responsibility is implied.

Hamline University's Center for Global Environmental Education uses a quote by the Japanese conservationist, Tanaka Shozo, as a motto: "The care of rivers is not a question of rivers, but of the human heart."

That means that here in Minnesota -- with our 11,842 lakes and 6,564 streams and rivers -- we've been granted unusual access to someplace precious, little-known and deep. The world needs to learn some things about this place, and quickly. With each lake and river a potential portal to the human heart, we've got a powerful natural resource here, indeed.

So maybe we could each go to our favorite place by the water this summer, get quiet and learn a little something about that place and about ourselves.

Now that would be worth a festival.

Copyright @ 2004 The McGill Report