A Coffee Table book of articles by water quality advocates, curated by Trevien Stanger, and art photos by Mike Sipe
Book launch is planned for September 2019. Proceeds for Clean Water projects. Sponsors wanted. See below for details.
COMING HOME TO THE BASIN
— Trevien Stanger
Watersheds don’t lie.
And this river mouth speaks the truth, if you’re able to sit and listen.
Here, on this spit of land beside where Vermont’s mighty Winooski River spills its story into the larger saga of Lake Champlain, is where I’d have us sit. Here, right at lake-level, you can gaze in the four cardinal directions and behold this great basin with clear eyes. The sight is beautiful, no doubt, but the story it tells is teetering quickly from a Romantic tale of the sublime and a modern tale of supposed pastoral tranquility toward a more tragic story-– one of a vast, dynamic ecosystem and culture in decline. This book seeks to play a small and humble part in halting, and reversing, that decline.
LOOKING SOUTH, we let our gaze traverse almost 80 miles of open water; 2/3 of the lake’s north-south length. Out there lie depths of 400 ft and unknow- able acres of liquid darkness–– darkness that once hosted beluga whales and torrents of salmon in our post-glacial past. That way also plays a large role in the lake’s origin: two of the larger drainages that feed the lake, Vermont’s Otter Creek and New York’s Lake George watersheds both flow toward us from those distant lands. The lake’s water takes a full three years to fully roil and mix and flow north to the lake’s exit point in southern Quebec. If the last three years are any indication, the journey will be a wild ride, and we have essays in this book that will toss us right into that trip.
Cultural history also dots that horizon–– Fort Ticonderoga and some of the first towns settled by European colonists can still be toured there. Nearer still, and older yet, you can make out Rock Dunder, an island of great significance to the Abenaki that, to this day, exists as a living link to this whole basin’s mythological past. We’ve two stories about that island for you in this book.
TO THE WEST, across nearly 12 miles of cold blue chop, the widest this lake gets at present, you can experience the visual thrill of great contrasts–– the flat shoreline made even flatter by the explosive rise of the Adirondacks behind it. Nearly the entire western side of this lake’s basin or watershed (Watershed = the land area that drains or sheds its water to a common point) feeds rivers born of snow-melt from sharp Adirondack peaks, most notably the Saranac and Ausable Rivers.. Some of the places up there are known–– Lake Placid and its Olympic past, the Keene Valley and its ongoing cultural cominglings of hikers, snowmobiles, hunters, yuppies, hippies, and developers–– while other areas of these mountains are seldom visited, and because of that, the rivers pouring out of them are seldom sullied. Closer to shore, there are only a few towns of significant size, with Plattsburgh sitting as the only lakeside city.
Westward beyond the lake lies the Mohawk nation who, like the Abenaki here on the Vermont side, live with the ongoing quagmire of colonial erasure. Rising against that, however, is also the inspired upwelling of a traditional culture, one that seeks both political and spiritual sovereignty. The land and waters are central characters in many of their stories, and we have one of those tales of passion and perseverance in these pages.
TURNING TO THE EAST, near at hand, is this muddy, coffee-colored river flowing past–– a river that tells me more stories than any river ever has and has stolen my heart and claimed my allegiance in the process. Chugging out from beneath an old railroad-trestle-turned-bike-path-bridge, and behind that, from beneath towering silver maples and prehistoric ostrich ferns rising from the fertile floodplain, you could be forgiven for thinking we were looking up a river in Delaware or Carolina. This is Vermont’s Winooski River, a terrifically large watershed in its own right. Like the mighty Lamoille and the Mississquoi rivers to the north, the Winooski’s headwaters emerge from high country almost 90 miles to the east–– east of the balmy Champlain Valley floor, east of the rugged Green Mountains, and even further east than Montpelier, the state capitol that was once a three day horse trip from here but is now just an hour’s drive. The Winooski watershed drains over 1,000 sq miles of land, and just a few hundred years ago, it supported dozens of salmon and trout runs, featured exceptionally rich old growth forests with streams and rivers providing safe drinking, cooking, and bathing water.
The Winooski watershed today however, like the other major drainages in Vermont that flow into Lake Champlain, is a beautiful mess. This summer, with my newborn daughter, Fern, in my arms, we explored many of the cold, clear, stunningly beautiful creeks and streams that pour clean and true from the mountains near my hillside home. Watching Fern splash her pebble toes and giggle with her acorn nose was a joy, and I know how fortunate we both are to have such places to explore when so many millions of fathers and daughters do not.
Up in that forested high country that births so many of the mountain streams of this basin, with no one upstream from you save a few hikers and a moose or two, you could well imagine this water through which you wade is the cleanest water surging anywhere on this compromised planet. In some sense, you’d be right, but the water doesn’t stay that way for long. As these streams join others to form smaller rivers, and those rivers carve through the final few miles of flatlands before joining the Winooski, the waters pick up all manner of our cultural shrapnel. Be it an overcrowded and over-fertilized dairy farm, or an underfunded public storm drain system, an old dump site, or a stretch of railroad bed drowning in herbicides–– it’s clear that our main-stem rivers take a beating, even here in “green” VT. Could we fix this? What would it take? We have several essays and stories in this book that try to float some answers.
All that said, these rivers and the lake they feed are also, when we’re honest with ourselves, Home. For many of us, we don’t simply live in this recent polit- ical entity called “Vermont”–– we live in these watersheds, and we live in this Basin. (Basin = an apt metaphor or image for the bowl-shaped terrain of this place, with the mountains forming the upper edges and the low point in the middle where the water flows into and settles). And to truly call this Home, and feel at Home, and to embrace all the responsibility and weight and joy that comes with that requires that we look about us with honest eyes and willing hands. There is a reason that both ecology and economy share the root of eco, which comes from the Greek word ekös, which means “home.”
To be at home here, to “come into the watershed” and “become native to one’s place,” as Gary Snyder says, is itself a process. For those with Abenaki or Mohawk blood coursing through their bodies, as well as their cultural stories and traditions flowing through their minds, a connection to this place is indigenous
to their very being, and we’d do well to listen closely to their words. But for those of who are immigrants or settlers, whether fifth generation Vermonters with our names etched into the aging village tombstones; or New Americans flung here from far-fling (and sometimes war-torn) lands trying to hold onto the culture of ancestral lands while learning this new one; or just suburban refugees from the apathetic placeless limbo of strip-mall-and-sub-development complexes carpeting the American landscape–– we all have a lot of work to do. This work, I believe, is not just to claim this place as home, but also, as the mythologist Martin Shaw admonishes, to have this place claim us. To swear allegiance not to a flag, but to a river, and to all of the human and more-than-human beings with whom we share this Basin–– beings with whom we share relational nodes of reciprocity and interconnectivity–– our Basin of Relations.
But we’re not there yet. We’re not even here yet. And this river mouth tells us much. Essays in this book are in conversation with that telling.
FINALLY, LOOKING NORTH, we confront some of the harshest images that this water mirror has to offer back to us. One of those larger rivers to the north, the Mississquoi, is a sort of living laboratory for the often reckless biochemistry experiment that is industrial dairy. That river and its tributaries are used like large sewage pipes for all the waste that is created and all of the excessive fertilizers being utilized to get us cheap milk and cheese. Those excess nutrients spill into the lake with the near constancy of a gasoline generator humming in the night. And in the day. And the night again.
As these rivers pour into the lake they mix into a few very shallow bays, such as St. Albans Bay, and the resulting overdose of phosphorous in particular kicks off one of the most dramatic feeding frenzies of the plant and bacterial kingdoms: we get blue green algae blooms, or more accurately, cyanobacteria blooms. Our warming climate serves only to exacerbate the problem. These blooms are toxic: toxic to drink, toxic to swim in, and, it’s being discovered, toxic to breathe in.
Like other major bodies of water in our nation, notably Lake Erie and parts of the Gulf Coast, these blooms can become a really big deal quite quickly, costing communities massive sums of money and having significant impacts on public health. When Toledo, Ohio had a particularly bad outbreak a few years ago
they had to shut down the entire city’s drinking water system until the bloom cleared–– there is no rule that I can find that says Vermont can’t one day face a similar future. With over 200,000 people in the Basin who depend upon the lake for drinking water, it’s not hard to imagine how disruptive, and tragic, it will be if we squander this life-nourishing abundance.
Can you imagine? A population living on the shores of a once pristine lake that can no longer drink that water because of our own neglect and inability to right our course? I can too. But I don’t want to, and we don’t have to.
But to look north is also to look to many other possible futures. The water that we impact in the Basin does not stay with us forever –– these waters, like most in this world, are bound for the sea. This lake, counterintuitively, flows north, spilling its content slowly but surely through Quebec’s Richlieu River and into the truly giant St. Lawrence River (which drains all of the great lakes), and it is this mighty river that is destined to meet and mix with the cold Atlantic waters 300 miles to the northeast.
Why should we care where the water goes once we’re done with it? It is often said of ecology that it’s important to remember that “we all live downstream,” and to a large degree this is true, as we are always impacted by the decisions people made upstream from us, either literally on the land or figuratively in the past. But, we might do well to recall, we also all live upstream. Even as we struggle to value our own natural capital and local beauty, we should not destroy the water and livelihoods of others downstream from us, either in those rivers or in that great Ocean toward which they are bound, or in the greater future we will leave to our children. And just as we begin to learn as children that we should treat others with respect, and treat them how we’d like to be treated, so too must we apply these basic ethical precepts to how we treat our downstream neighbors.
FINALLY, TURNING A SLOW 360o, we survey once more the 587 miles (!) of the lake’s shoreline. We contemplate the 435 square miles of its surface. We count over 70 islands and wonder about their histories and their experience of being surrounded by this water. We try to imagine the nearly 7 trillion gallons of water flowing and plunging and mixing before us. We consider the 54 public beaches and the joy and economic benefit they bring. We float above the over
300,000 acres of flood-mitigating, life-nourishing wetlands that ring the lake and follow the last reaches of every river. We hold in mind that this Basin is home to over 500,000 people, millions of individual plants and animals and fungi, and we then give a special nod to those among us who are children, for it is they who will be inheriting this legacy we are creating with every passing day and with every decision we make. It is they, and their children, who will live downstream from our decisions.
Above all else, it is becoming clear that while the challenges we face here are similar to those being faced by thousands of communities across this continent, there is also no one else experiencing these exact repercussions in this exact place. There is only one Champlain Basin. As such, we can also surmise that no one else, from nowhere else, is going to save us or our lake. The solutions we need, and the art and science and photographs and stories that will nourish us to discover and implement those solutions, will not be delivered from D.C. or Silicon Valley, or even from some sort of return to an Edenic Indigenous paradise. Solutions must come from us. We are, right now, this Basin’s people.
And like or not, we’re in this together. We’re all, at varying scales and in varying degrees, in relations with one another. And this book, of essays, stories, and photographs seeks to play a role in this great work before us by revealing and elucidating the waters that connect us as ties that bind. These words and images will not solve our problems as such –– no book can do that–– but it is our hope that all who engage with this might receive, like the land receiving a refreshing rain, a flowing set of reminders, provocations, and invitations to come home to this Basin.To play a role in slowing the destruction and in expediting its resto- ration. To remember, as in re-member, that we are not isolated as individuals, and nor as humans, but that we are members of this one and only flawed and fleeting and miraculous place that we call the Champlain Basin. That we are connected, all of us, in this, our Basin of Relations.