Thinking Like a Watershed

The concept of a watershed has long captured my imagination.  A watershed is made up of the area that drains to a common waterway.  I don’t know why this has always been of interest to me.  It may go back to when I was quite young and my mother took us me to play along Little Cottonwood Creek near where she grew up in rural southwest Minnesota.  She taught my brothers and me to skip rocks.  She told us how she used to play along the creek and think about how the creek drained into the Cottonwood Creek which drained into the Minnesota River which drained into the Mississippi River, which emptied into the Gulf of Mexico.  I later took my daughters to play along the same creek.   

Much of my life has been shaped by the Mississippi River watershed.  I grew up in Illinois, not too far from the Mississippi.  I lived in Louisiana in the delta of the Mississippi.  Afterward, I lived in Minnesota for quite a few years and daily crossed the river to get to the University of Minnesota.  One summer I finally got to the headwaters of the Mississippi, in Ithasca State Park.  There I walk across the mighty Mississippi, thinking about how this stream connected with the river I crossed in the Twin Cities, the Mississippi I knew that separated Iowa and Illinois, and the river whose sediment created a landscape just above sea level in Louisiana.
This is what attracts me to rivers and their watersheds.  Even the smallest creek flows somewhere—it has direction to it.  My grandmother’s high rise apartment building, in Windom, MN overlooked the Des Moines River.  For more than a decade I lived in southeastern Iowa within a couple of miles of the Des Moines River.  Every Sunday I would take a long walk along the river, always thinking of being connected with my grandmother upstream. 
When I received a Fulbright Fellowship to the University of Guelph, in Ontario, I left my Mississippi watershed behind.  In southern Ontario, the land drains into the Great Lakes and down the St. Lawrence River into the Atlantic.  Soon after my Fulbright, I actually moved to Michigan, leaving the Mississippi watershed to remain in the St. Lawrence watershed.
Several weeks ago I recognized my on-going connection with the St. Lawrence in a public event.  With a grant from the Canadian Fulbright Association, a group of volunteers planted rain gardens in the Plaster Creek watershed of Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I lived for 16 years.  These rain gardens increase the infiltrate of rainwater.  This reduces storm water from rushing into the stream and also allows for the natural filtering of the water to decreases pollution.  I began this effort in 2004 with others in what was called the Plaster Creek Working Group.  Others are now leading what has grown into the Plaster Creek Stewards which involves the public in on-the-ground restoration activity somewhere in the watershed (e.g. labeling storm drains, planting rain gardens). To date seven churches, two businesses, two schools, and over 100 residents have been involved in activities related to Plaster Creek.

This particular effort was funded by the Fulbright Foundation of Canada, in recognition of how the lives and actions of those living in the Plaster Creek watershed affect our Canadian neighbors downstream.  Plaster Creek is part of the Grand River Watershed which empties into Lake Michigan and drains through the Great Lakes and out the St. Lawrence River.  The waterways and their watersheds connect us and make the need for a mutual commitment to each other necessary.  It is a reminder that rivers lead “somewhere” and that others live in that “somewhere.”
Wes Jackson says in his book, Alters of Unhewn Stone (NY: North Point Press, 1987: 155):
What if we employed our rivers and creeks in some ritual atonement?  Their sediment load is largely the result of agricultural practices based upon arrogance, tied in turn to an economic system based upon arrogance…but perhaps we need an annual formal observance in the spring—when the rivers are particularly muddy–a kind of ecological rite of atonement, in which we would “gather at the river.” Maybe we should ally ourselves by virtue of a common watershed…for a watershed can and often does cut through more than one bioregion.  There would be nothing abstract about a common covenant among people of a common watershed.
My hope is that each of us may move beyond the abstract in how we live each day in our watershed.
Photos by Gail Heffner
Dennis Moore from the Canadian Consulate in Detroit

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