The Gift of Water
as seen in the Marquette Monthly November, 2016
By Paul Lehmberg
“Dip him in the river who loves water.”
– William Blake
The William Blake of the above words was a kind of holy fool. He was a 19th century British poet, and in him, madness and wisdom seemed to have commingled. Blake’s wisdom—exemplified, I would say, in the above words—eclipsed his madness, and the result is that we’re still reading William Blake two centuries later. I ran across Blake’s line somewhere on the web, and for weeks I’ve been carrying around his curious words. They tumble in my mind, like loose change, and they’ve lately summoned a story—my story—of water.
I’m in the grip of Blake partly because I’m a newly minted Water Steward— a newly formed coalition of wise, though perhaps also mad, folk who wish to serve as stewards—that is, as keepers—of the local waters comprising the Northern Great Lakes Basin. These waters, we are convinced, will need our—that is, society’s—wise stewardship even more in the future than they do now. You might say that we Water Stewards are gearing up—the goal is to deepen our individual and collective consciousness, and one way of doing this is through story.
Our natural resources are finite, most people now are beginning to understand. Water will be the next ecological dilemma. We’ll need to share our water, but before that, we’ll need to conserve that water and keep it clean. And to carry out these tasks, we’ll need to love water, or learn to love it. Story, I believe, can summon and clarify that love.
“Dip him in the river who loves water,” proclaims Blake. If you do love water, you will be dipped in the river—not tossed in, but dipped in. What delicious words!
It sounds wonderfully like a coming home, a baptism, a full immersion blessing, and a full identification with water. Blake’s water is more than merely a resource, something primarily to be managed and used, good only because it’s good for something. Blake’s water is good—wondrous, even—simply because it exists. Water IS, and it has intrinsic value. Also, water is in, with, and under all life, and for these reasons, water is to be acknowledged, celebrated, revered, and loved.
Water IS us. Blake couldn’t have told us what percentage of us is water, but modern science knows—65-75% of the human body is water. We are essentially water, and each of us has a story of water, especially those of us who have lived in the Upper Peninsula for any length of time, and acknowledging and telling those stories can improve our love, and hence our “keeping” of the Great Lakes Basin.
My own story, which Blake has me thinking about, will be recognizable. Always, I’ve been around water. I was born in a little town on the Minnesota River, and I grew up in another little town close by, where the corn stops and the lakes start. When I was twelve, my father bought me a canoe, and with it, I explored the local lakes and sloughs and creeks. I wasn’t fully aware of it at the time, but I was learning to love water.
In college and graduate school, I guided canoe trips in the canoe country along the Minnesota/Ontario border. This land had been scoured to bedrock by glaciers, and a thin mantle of soil now supports a mostly reedy forest of pine, fir, cedar, and birch. It was a spare, even mournful, landscape, but eerily beautiful. And there was all that water—half the land was water. Over seven summers I traveled thousands of miles through it by canoe. The lakes were clear, cold, and pure, and everywhere you could dip your cup and drink. The impress of these waters was deep and lasting, and I, along with two boyhood friends, similarly impressed, built a primitive cabin there, accessible only by water. We’ve had that cabin now for nearly fifty years. Our long friendship, our history, has been built on water, and of water.
The last chapter in my story of water is my life in Marquette, where I’ve lived almost forty years, in two different houses, both on the East side, both close to the Lake. It turns out that I always wanted to live close to the Lake. The Lake, of course, is the great geographical fact of Marquette—the town is unimaginable without it. Perhaps you can guess that I love the Lake. Almost every day, on my appointed rounds, I go out of my way to drive by it. Sure, the Lake is beautiful—it’s never not beautiful—but, beautiful or not, I think I would still yearn for it. I can’t get enough of the Lake, and everyday, especially in my later years, I want to be in its presence. It’s no wonder to me that the dying sometimes ask that their ashes be cast upon its waters.
Well, that’s my story of water, or parts of it. You get the idea—and I’m betting that you have a story too. I’m betting that your story is worth telling too, certainly to yourself, and likely to others too. Telling it will summon your love. Telling it will help us all keep these waters.
Editor’s note: This column was written by a member of the Northern Great Lakes Water Stewards, a faith-based initiative, establishing collaborative partnerships to monitor, restore, and protect the lakes and streams of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.