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Looking Downstream

March 1, 2018
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For forty years, my career has featured the interface between land and water — most of it on Lake Superior. Paddling over and camping along water, its rhythms have become a part of me. On Lake Superior, the sound of waves is as constant as breathing — the silence is shocking when I walk inland.

On the rivers, there is a pull of gravity drawing me downstream. It creates its own rhythms of standing waves and swirling eddies. There is the long, slow inhalation and exhalation of changing water levels. When the rains fall in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, the runoff is tempered by giant sponges of numerous bogs and countless beaver dams. But eventually the rivers do rise — sometimes dramatically. On one of my trips, I got off the St. Croix mere hours before flood waters reached me. When I returned to my car in Taylors Falls, the water was several feet higher than when I had put in a few days before. Most of the campsites I’d recently visited were now under water. It was easy to envision my untethered kayak floating away while I slept.

Throughout the course of working for more than two years on the rivers, I returned to kayak my favorite stretches many times. I began to anticipate what was coming around the next bend and recognize particular trees or rock outcrops as familiar friends. I had gained an expanded awareness of the watershed I live in, and a deep gratitude to Northern States Power and the National Park Service for their stewardship of this incredible landscape.

Humans evolved within nature, and most of us find beauty and perspective in natural environments. Whether delighting in the S curve of a river or the creatures found along it, we have a need to experience the natural world in order to be whole and well. I am pleased that my photographs are often used in hospitals and senior living facilities as a surrogate for nature, eliciting many of the same positive responses as actually being outdoors. Similarly, I hope these images bring into your home some of the same enjoyment you derive from being near the water.

When people develop an emotional connection with a lake or a river — especially when they fervently want their descendants to be able to have the same experiences — we then have a common basis from which to share a conversation about protecting what we love.

The St. Croix is a perfect microcosm of past human interaction with nature. Over the course of three centuries, through over-harvesting (and the use of the pesticide, DDT), we depleted what were originally seen as inexhaustible resources. Fortunately, the St. Croix also has a remarkable story of resurrection. When we travel through the watershed now, we are likely to see trees and wildlife that were extirpated or rare just a few decades ago: white pine, beaver, gray wolves, osprey, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, trumpeter swans, giant Canada geese, wood ducks, great egrets, sandhill cranes, and mussels have all returned in significant numbers, and through intensive reintroduction efforts, whooping cranes once again dance in Wisconsin.

But our conversation must now include the realization that simply drawing a ring around our most beautiful places or beloved species and saying they are protected undermines the cornerstone of all ecological teachings —that everything is connected.

Looking back, we shake our heads at the ignorance and greed of those who harvested without limits. But is it any less ignorant of us to expect technology to have created a world without any limits? Whether we are talking about the number of pine trees or the capacity of the ocean or the atmosphere to absorb CO2, without dire consequences, our world is finite. Perhaps this is the most important lesson the river has to offer.

Today we celebrate the efforts to “Save the St. Croix,” championed by Wendell Anderson, Gaylord Nelson, and Walter Mondale more than fifty years ago. It is a natural inclination to also look downstream towards what our collective future could become. I hope my daughter will be able to look back fifty years from now and see that this was the turning point where people returned to learning about and trusting the natural sciences. That from this point forward, we modified our choices, allowing us to humbly fit within a sustainable niche on our planet. That throughout those fifty years our population gradually decreased, and our enjoyment of life greatly increased. That our idea of wealth transformed from consumption of material goods to a greater appreciation of human relationships, nature, and the arts. That we continued to hold the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway as invaluable, intact, and wild — realizing access to such places is vital to our wellbeing. +++

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The Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing blog covers a range of integrative health and wellbeing topics. For more information about our blog, contact us at csh@umn.edu