This post is part of the foundation’s ongoing focus on water for the month of April, building upon our water-focused issue of the Leopold Outlook magazine.
“Soil and water are not two organic systems, but one. Both are organs of a single landscape; a derangement in either affects the health of both.”
Much in the way that the River Ganges is considered sacred and worshiped by Hindus, so too is the Mississippi River a deity for me. This river love grew from the seed of infancy, and blossomed in my adulthood as quiet as a lotus. For decades the River, and the creeks and tributaries of her vast watershed, were my playground and passage for both spiritual and geographical journeys as I traveled between Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Iowa. She is often my muse for my art and writings.
My childhood is fertile with water memories: walks along the Fox River, picnics at Keller Lake, wading in Ballard Creek, and sailing on Lake Winnebago. As a child, I questioned the water’s color and health. I continued this query as an adult, spending 20 years in the agricultural heartland of eastern Iowa and experiencing the harsh realities of recovery work in the historic floods of 2008. However, it was in 2010 that my love for the Mississippi became apparent, when I saw Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story. This documentary revealed the extent of massive agricultural run-off that pours into the river and creates the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The river, my sacred place for devotion, is also now a testament to human negligence spilling into the world.
Since that time I’ve moved back to my native Wisconsin and live near Coon Valley, the nation’s first watershed restoration project. I’ve joined the Land Ethic Leadership community and dedicated efforts to understanding and caring for the Mississippi River watershed. It is a fluid landscape. The journey is not just one of the “Big Muddy” but the journey of a planet, as water is by nature fluid. Our beloved “blue marble” is besieged by the rising sea levels of climate change. Leopold was ahead of many in 1923 when in his essay “Some Fundamentals of Conservation in the Southwest,” he asked, “is our climate changing?” Nearly a century later I explore the complexity of this very question as I progress through courses of study in environmental education. It propels me to study water phenomena here in Wisconsin and in distant places like Bangladesh.
While similar in size to Wisconsin, the population of Bangladesh is 30 times the size of ours, yet with a mere third of the freshwater resources and significantly less capacity to prepare for and respond to natural catastrophes. In a changing climate, Bangladesh faces massive threat from rising sea levels and critical challenges to water accessibility for its residents.
Observe how little useable water exists on our seemingly watery planet. Our bodies are 60-80 percent water, hence our great need for it. Though 70 percent of the earth is covered in water, the vast majority of this water is not accessible for our use. Salt water makes up just over 97 percent of all the water on Earth. The remainder is freshwater, but of this freshwater less than 1% is available to us from lakes, rivers and groundwater; the rest is locked in ice. Of all available freshwater resources, the greatest percentage is consumed by agricultural and industrial use. Water quality also complicates access to needed water, as does the spatial and temporal variations in water supplies — simply put, where is water when? This is relevant in terms of potable water distribution and the extreme effects of drought and flood. More than 50% of the world’s population lacks basic sanitation and access to clean water.
In his essay “Come High Water” from A Sand County Almanac, Leopold remarks: “The same logic that causes big rivers always to flow past big cities causes cheap farms sometimes to be marooned by spring floods.” He explores responses to the influx of water—the enthusiasm of geese and carp, the philosophical detachment of birds and mammals, the calm assurance of paddling meadow mice. His perspective taking feels relevant and applicable to the harsh and complex realities of large-scale flooding. Floods prompt questions of water quality, as flood waters contaminate. They also prompt questions of spatial-temporal variations since flooding is, by nature, too much water in one space at one time.
Many coastal regions and river basins are desperate to prepare for untimely storms and flooding that have long-reaching community impacts. This year due to an unusually warm December, my southwest Wisconsin community suffered sudden rain (instead of snow) and this led to historic flooding down the Mississippi River. As I read of flooding in other countries, I realize my experiences with flood recovery work in an affluent Midwest town gave me a false sense of authority. Other nations have fewer resources—money and/or skills— to prepare for and recover from flooding.
Countries like Bangladesh are over-populated, demanding response to more victims. In these places, where the flood plain is wide and intricate, primary problems include erosion and groundwater contamination due to arsenic and seawater intrusion. This salination of groundwater significantly impairs the rural agricultural landscape, especially of the char dwellers who live on the silt and sand islands of the outer coast. Their primary protection from the rising sea are mere embankments of mud and sticks that erode under the pressure of the rising sea. Each year approximately 26,000 people lose their land in Bangladesh. When char dwellers no longer find land on which to live, they become climate refugees and relocate to the slums of Dhaka, which means giving up their rural agricultural life and navigating a foreign urban life also subject to flooding.
In Come High Water, Leopold reflects how flooding provides opportunity for solitude, but in densely populated areas like Bangladesh the reality is frenzied and catastrophic, providing opportunity for resilience. We are the paddling meadow mice. Leopold’s “riverbank library” of “an unpredictable miscellany of floatable objects” represents a lifetime of belongings, destroyed and lost. Can we envision our beloved Shack as a tin-roofed dwelling set up on a char at the Bay of Bengal waiting to float away with the next cyclone or flooding of the Ganges?
I am left quiet at the immensity of the situation. I also note the resilience of Bangladesh, the goodness of the human heart, and the efficacy of land ethics. I sit with the relevant questions: How might the conservation lessons of Coon Valley be applied to the char of Bangladesh? Conversely, what can we in the United States learn from the resilience and challenges faced by developing nations? How do we cultivate a land ethic on a global level? I remain poised to see how the land ethic adapts and evolves our single landscape within a world of climate change.