There has been a tremendous amount of talk about water in the state of Minnesota recently. The following is my response to the Mississippi River Forum, a morning of presentations and conversation held at the Science Museum of Minnesota and hosted by the National Park Service, in partnership with the Mississippi Park Connection that I attended last month.
I am in a banquet room on the fourth floor at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Round tables draped in white clothes, pitchers of ice water in the center of each. A buffet near the restroom is scattered with stale bagels, cream cheese, cantaloupe, and crumbs. Outside, the Mississippi River rolls past.
The National Park Service is hosting this morning’s presentations and conversation. The room is mostly full, a hundred or so academics and policy-makers eating off napkins and filling the air with small talk. My head is full of blizzards and floods. The inside of bee hives. Monarch wings. In my head, I’m back in the Brooks Range with herds of caribou. Out on a river with dusty sun and darting mayflies. As the chain of welcoming addresses begins, I listen hard. What I hear at forums like this is almost always the same. Today I want to be surprised; I want to hear something different.
I have a growing suspicion that humans are betraying their purpose on earth. Instead of using wisdom and intelligence to live among and honor the many other forms of life with which we share this planet, we have come to see these other forms of life as resources to exploit. It is this betrayal to wisdom and intelligence that prohibits us from living on earth without destroying our very ability to do so in the process. I’m talking about honoring lichen, moss, rocks, ferns, wolverines, mountain lions, mice, mosquitoes, grizzly bears, sedge grass, fens, and river eddies as equals.
As the morning’s presentations, comments, and questions roll on, what I hear affirms my suspicion. The first presentation is called, “Getting to Clean Water: How Do the Economics of Cropping Systems Measure Up?” Shawn, the presenter, is smart and academically awarded. He throws in football statistics and references an outdated TV dating show. These antics are frustrating. Why do we persist in watering down the truth? The use of football and TV as tools for storytelling exemplifies our collective inability to go deeper, to go beyond our own human reflections in the stream. There is genuine power and spirit at the heart of this planet; why do we always skirt around it, obsessed with our own ability to amuse?
Terry Tempest Williams has said that anger plays an important role in the work of love. She is right. We don’t need to feel guilty about our anger towards the people and systems that are destroying the ability for life to continue on this planet. Often anger is misrepresented as being negative. The only time anger is negative is when it renders us complacent. If we embrace what Williams calls our “sacred rage” and use it to remain awake and focused, and to keep working to become better ancestors, protecting life from further harm, then we are exemplifying the importance of anger in the work of love. If you love something, you protect it.
I am angry at our narcissism, angry at our arrogance. I am angry that so many of the proposed solutions I hear (today included) are exclusively for the sake of human gain, following the assumption that humans are the supreme beings in control of this planet. For a very long time, humans have only thought in terms of what we can take, make, gain, profit. It is time we start thinking about how we can learn, give back, share, and relate to the rest of life present here on Earth.
Turning my head away from the screen and PowerPoint graphs, just beyond the giant glass windows, the river rolls by. It snags clouds right out of the sky and carries them downstream on its wet, shiny back. People walking along its banks share in conversation, and the water snatches their words, carrying them across to the other side, into the cottonwood trees and the ears of other people walking along the opposing bank. Why isn’t this something to honor? Why doesn’t this hold value? I don’t know any humans who can carry voices and clouds on their backs.
Shawn suggests that we need to create new markets that will offer incentives and make it financially viable for farmers to embrace healthier farming practices. His idea is to get sediment and pollutants out of the river by increasing the surface area of buffer strips. (Buffer strips being land along waterways planted with crops that would hold soil in place, limit erosion, and filter pollutants from runoff.) Shawn is not wrong. The math adds up. If done right, buffer strips could increase the water quality of the river. But buffer strips do nothing to benefit human relationships with the land and water beyond perpetuating them as extractable resources for our gain.
I’m going to take a left turn here, because something is missing.
Beavers have been building dams for thousands of years. These dams have created incredibly diverse and productive ecosystems. Now, look at what humans have done to the quality and habitat of our rivers in far less time by building dams. The only reason we build dams is for the purpose of human gain. A beaver dam adds to the ecosystem rather than extracting from it, because it is the beavers’ home. It is built in relationship and reciprocity to its surroundings.
Our understanding of this planet, like Shawn’s presentation, is limited, when it is purely economic, when it does not consider the well-being of any life besides that of humans. It views the land, water, and everything that inhabits both merely as resources to exploit. Such an understanding does not facilitate a participatory, or relational outlook. We call Earth our home, but we do not relate to it as such.
Herein comes the difference between how humans live on the planet and how beavers do. This is also why Shawn’s presentation, and the two others that followed his that morning, only present diversions, not lasting solutions for improving the quality of the river or the ability for humans to continue living on earth. In order to improve the quality of the river, you have to improve the quality of conditions for each thing along the river’s chain of life. You have to admit it is all related. Plans for continued extraction offset by less pollution are not an adequate solution. Furthermore, mandating that farmers implement buffer strips and providing them with financial incentive to do so, creating a “watershed-friendly” pork chop, or determining whether water is a commodity or a right (all things which were also discussed) will not bring us any closer to lasting solutions for a clean river.
It is time to admit that humans are wrong, and that we must look beyond ourselves for answers. When humans are the measure for intelligence and power, the potential for comprehension also falls within those limits. It is time to look elsewhere.
Gazing out the window again, with my back to the stale bagels and PowerPoint pie charts, looking across the river at Harriet Island, my eyes find the goldening cottonwoods scattered about the manicured green park lawn. In the silence created by the distance between us I can hear the sound of wind rattling their leaves, shaking the sunlight loose. My head is still full, as it always is, with storms and blizzards, bees wings, fox dens, sand bars, cut banks, stratifying lakes and grizzly fur. Real energy. Real power.
I look to these forms of life and to the tools at my disposal — art and poetry — to go beyond the narrow confines of science, policy, economics, and academia, to foster an understanding that rivers, milkweed, mussels, walleye, and lightning all have their own immense power and spirit. If we want clean rivers, if we want to keep living here on earth, it is essential to find the wisdom to listen, learn, and relate to the power and spirit in these forms.
To become better ancestors, we must understand that human life is vulnerable and dependent on all life. Thus all life must be protected.
Related links and information: I Would Rather Be A Buffalo is Ben’s most recent record, from which you can listen to a selection of songs (or buy) here: http://www.benweaver.net/listen/. Follow him on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter@benweavermusic. Visit Ben’s website: http://www.benweaver.net for more information.