March 22, 2021

Water, the Ineffable

As I write this, I have just returned from a morning spent carrying wood to burning brush piles at Somme Prairie Nature Preserve in suburban Northbrook (Cook County, IL), a dedicated Illinois nature preserve where a large expanse was recently cleared of invasive trees and brush.

Shore-Somme-Prairie-Nature-Preserve.jpegWe were burning the debris left on site to make way for prairie and sedge meadow grasses, which had waved over its surface for centuries before European settlers suppressed fires, re-routed rivers, and fragmented the habitat. If you could lean in close, you might detect the smell of smoke in my hair and clothes (and mask!).

The work of ecological restoration is not to recreate a long-gone, idealized vision of the prairies, oak woods, and wetlands that characterized the Illinois landscape since the retreat of the last glacier roughly 16,000 years ago. Rather, the work of ecological restoration is to restore the processes that were in place for millennia—periodic fires, natural hydrology, grasslands trod by bison; the natural regime under which species continued to evolve—and to remove the species like buckthorn and gypsy moths that we humans unwittingly introduced into places where they cause harm. Without natural predators to keep their number in check, these invasive species act like bullies on a playground: they crowd out all the others.

Part of the reason I love this work as much as I do is it places me in right relationship with the land. Philosopher and writer Bill Jordan said that “Restoration is a reciprocal act,” meaning that restoring nature also restores us, our bodies and our spirits. We become not mere abusers or users of natural resources, but caring kin.

I find it remarkable, and in a way reassuring, that philosophers and seekers from so many different faith traditions are sharing similar stories—with similar urgency. Recently, for instance, I heard Daniel Wildcat, a Yuchi member of the Muskogee Nation of Oklahoma, in a webinar titled “Indigenuity: Water.” Wildcat, also director of the Haskell Environmental Research Studies Center at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, said, “We do not live in a world filled with resources; we live in a world filled with relatives.” In other words, if we truly felt, understood, and accepted that we as human animals are utterly and irretrievable connected to all the other creatures on this planet—and to the ecosystems that sustain us—could we possibly treat them as we do?

The late Fr. Thomas Berry, a Passionist priest who called himself an “eco-logian” called us to “develop a new intimacy with the North American continent…Because the exaltation of the human and the subjugation of the natural have been so excessive, we need to understand how the human community and the living forms of Earth might now become a life-giving presence to each other.” (from Berry’s introduction to The Great Work: Our Way into the Future)

This brings us to water and to World Water Day. Is it an understatement to say that we take water for granted…until we don’t have it? Its delivery and disposal are invisible to us…until they no longer function as intended. Water is the essential ingredient for life on Earth and there are no substitutes for fresh water. Which means it’s incumbent on us, where freshwater is plentiful, to be caring stewards of this precious resource and learn to act like misers in a land of apparent plenty. And it is incumbent on us, where water is relatively cheap, to assist those who cannot afford it.

“Inalienable rights are groundless unless they are coupled with inalienable responsibilities,” Daniel Wildcat said.

On this World Water Day, then, let us ask ourselves, "What is our responsibility to the plants and animals and insects and fish with whom we share habitat? What is our responsibility to the Great Lakes and rivers and aquifers from which we draw the water that sustains us, all of us?"