The Gift of Water

“There is a fish in me,” claimed the poet Carl Sandburg. John Muir said: “Rivers flow not past, but through us." Overly poetic? How about this: “We exist to advance the sources of creation and creativity. Refresh your mind and restore your body. Life. Water. Inspiration.” This message adorns a water bottle – “LIFE WTR” – bottled by PepsiCo and sold for $2 per liter. What runs through us if not “life water”? Our brains and hearts are 75% water. Water isn’t a luxury item. We can survive for only 3-5 days without water. Don’t try this at home.

Recently, the podcast Radiolab explored conservation hunting (“Wild Things”). "If we want wildlife to be around for future generations… wildlife has to have a value. If it doesn't have a value... it's gonna be gone." The hunter who made this statement had paid $350K to shoot an endangered rhino. By his reckoning, an old bull had a “negative value”; by paying to kill it, he was "creating a positive value” for rhinos, “jobs for game wardens… for trackers." We’ve heard this argument before: Michigan’s water has a negative value unless extracted, used in a power plant’s cooling system, transformed from a public resource into a privatized commodity, or turned into jobs. The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) identifies the mining industry as one of Michigan’s “biggest water users." What happens when we call ourselves “water users” instead of living vessels?

(((We should say: we carry rivers inside ourselves.)))

Recently, Nestlé sought a water withdrawal permit to extract “210 million gallons per year – for the price of a $200 DEQ permit fee” (according to Worthless underground, our water is instantly valuable when extracted by Nestlé and sold back to us in plastic bottles. Let’s do the math: 210 million gallons of water fills 790 million plastic liter bottles. Multiply by $2. A hefty profit!

(((Careful, we plead. There is a fish in me, and a river. We poor creatures are made of water. We thirst.)))

Closer to home, Eagle Mine will soon ask regulators for a favor: they want to pump wastewater into the Escanaba River, leaving salts and toxic metals for the river to disperse. Doesn’t the Escanaba have intrinsic value, apart from serving industry? Can a river refuse to serve? If not, let’s admit that the river has been enslaved, given degrading tasks to perform for our benefit.

(((We say we are “blessed by the Great Lakes.” We say “God’s Country.”)))

I was horrified to learn that Marquette County was Michigan’s 6th highest water user in 2014 – “79 billion gallons of water” divided by 67,215 residents, meaning a per capita water use of “1.1 million gallons per person” (see:  A million gallons? Flowing through our veins, or through our fingers? Walt Whitman advised: “dismiss whatever insults your own soul.” Freshwater is one of the world’s most valuable commodities, but we’re trading our pure aquifers for a few jobs. "The value of water and pricing, not to mention privatization and commodification of water, are turned upside-down,” said Jim Olson, an environmental lawyer. The soul is feeling insulted, friends.

While I pen these words, the EPA is holding a series of “Waters of the United States Listening Sessions.” They’re not actually listening to the water. They’re listening to industries complain about the Clean Water Rule, an attempt to protect headwater wetlands. Undaunted, lichens bloom on every branch, reminding us to drink water, paying attention to each sip. Don’t believe me? Walk out some bright morning after a soaking rain. The lichens glow: cyan, citron, sea-foam, verdant lime, lush viridian! What’s the secret ingredient of their revival? Hint: it flows not past but through… If a river runs through us, I’m betting we hold headwaters, too – wild swamps, ephemeral springs. If you had to put a price on the water flowing in your body at this moment, what would it be? Would you sell it? Have you mapped your Source? Headwaters are hard-to-navigate places. Priceless, fragile places in need of our protection. Places where ideas seep and clarify, where inkling becomes belief, becomes rivulet, becomes river, becomes you.


#Greywater – Water used for washing can be reused! Set up a “dry sink” near a deck, flowerbed or sauna. Collect water in a pail to irrigate trees – or pipe to a settling basin lined with rocks and filter cloth, surrounded by thirsty perennials. Keep greywater out of streams and ponds, and use biodegradable soap. See:

#Great Lakes Commons“Let’s imagine that the value of money is tied to the quality and availability of water to serve life in the Great Lakes basin.” See:

This essay published in the November 2017 issue of Marquette Monthly, the largest independently and locally owned publication in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “The Gift of Water” columns are offered by the Northern Great Lakes Water Stewards and the Cedar Tree Institute, who are spearheading an interfaith effort to preserve, protect, and sanctify the waters of the Upper Peninsula.