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Down by the Riverside


     There is an illness you can get from the feces of beaver—giardiasis—also known as "beaver fever," a parasitic infection of the digestive system that can cause diarrhea, stomach cramps, and dehydration.
     Once, when Ed and I were canoeing in the Sylvania Wilderness Area of the Upper Peninsula—a beaver haven—we took an afternoon swim in High Lake. How clear the water was, and—I hoped—how clean! I worried that this beautiful, turquoise-tinted lake might actually be contaminated. I feared a parasite would infest and sicken this, my only body.

     On a different canoe trip in Lake Superior Provincial Park, we surprised a beaver that surfaced right beside the bow of our canoe. The look on his face! Pure horror.
     The beaver and I stared at each other for a long moment, then he turned, slapped his tail loudly on the water, and was gone. Perhaps the beaver was outraged that I, a human, had entered his lake. Perhaps the beaver feared I would harm him or this water, his only home.

     Which, of course, is what we humans have done on so many rivers and lakes. We've left death in our wake.

     Last summer, it was another toxic release into Norton Creek, a tributary of the Huron River in Southeast Michigan—not PFAS[i] as in 2018—but hexavalent chromium, a chemical used in auto plating. The spill was caused by an employee of Tribar Manufacturing in Wixom, who repeatedly overrode the system designed to keep untreated effluent from entering the river. Fortunately for the city of Ann Arbor, which gets its drinking water from the Huron River, the hexavalent chromium was contained at the Wixom Wastewater Treatment Plant.

     But what about all of the aquatic plants and animals in Norton Creek?

     In many other places, a large-scale disaster was not averted. Valdez. The Gulf oil spill. This past February, after a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials derailed near East Palestine, Ohio, black smoke hung for days over the town. Crews released vinyl chloride into a trench and burned it off so that train cars did not explode. Now, residents and clean-up workers complain of health problems, and something foul bubbles up from the sediment of Leslie Run Creek. 

     It's enough to make you curse. Or weep.

     Yet life goes on.

     Resurgent in Southeast Michigan, beavers are felling trees along the stretches of the Huron River and its tributaries where my husband and I hike and canoe. Streamside tree trunks are girdled with teeth marks. Once-tall trees lie prostrate on the ground. Beavers are now working on a multi-trunk tree Ed and I saw while canoeing below the town of Dexter. Five feet in diameter, this particular tree will take the beavers while. But it's coming down.

     Though I usually appreciate wildlife, I'm not pleased.

     So much of the landscape where I live has already been lost to human enterprise—houses, businesses, strip malls, ball fields—I feel fiercely protective of the green spaces that remain. Riparian trees shield the river, cooling the water for certain fish species, and stabilizing the banks.
     "Damn beavers," I say. "Leave these trees alone."
     Which, of course, the beavers won't do. Their incisors will grow into their own flesh if not kept worn down. They must gnaw or die.
     We could say the same thing about humans, I guess, about our endless expansions, migrations, and incursions into territories not originally our own. We have a long history of development. "Generations have trod, have trod, have trod," the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in 1918: "And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; / And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell."[ii]
     How much more, one hundred years later, he would have mourned.
     What is a sustainable pace of growth? What is an acceptable loss of wild places? Are the waters fouled forever?
     Many scientists fear we have already passed the point of no return.

     Still, a young arborist calmed a friend of mine who was upset about trees in her yard downed by DTE and recent storms. "Trees grow back," the arborist said to my friend.

     Yes. But not this particular white oak I have stood under, pressing my palm against its furrowed bark.
     And not in my lifetime.
     May my children see it, then. And their children.

     Perhaps we humans could agree to exert only the scale of damage inflicted by beavers. Take no more than we need to feed ourselves and our small, furry families. Bite off no more than we can chew.
     Sometimes, I simply despair at the vast devastation humans have wrought. I, alone, cannot fix this mess.

     Together, however, we can insist that those who harm the earth be held accountable. We can apply the same skills, ingenuity, and intelligence that we've used for unbridled development to make wise and sustainable choices from here on out. We have the tools to repair some of the damage we've done.
     Several months after the PFAS spill on the Huron River, my paddling club met with Dan Brown, a watershed planner for the Huron River Watershed Council. Brown urged watershed users to contact state officials regularly about water quality issues. "I call my representative every Friday," he said. "Be polite, persistent, and persuasive."
     According to Brown, because of widespread public concern, the state of Michigan was the first state in the nation to do a high level of monitoring for PFAS chemicals. "We provided a new model for cooperation," he said, "approaching the PFAS issue as a whole watershed, exploring how we could deal with partnerships of communities."[iii]

     May the cleansing of the rivers and the re-foresting of their banks come about through the uneasy, outraged, yet hopeful alliance of all who dwell therein. 
     May we protect the earth, this, our only body.
     May we heal the waters that we share with all creatures, our first and only home.

Scripture: "Darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters." – Genesis 1:2 (NKJV)
Playlist: "Blue Boat Home," Peter Mayer, Earth Town Square, 2002.

[i] "PFAS" is the acronym given to a family of more than 3,000 toxic, synthetic, "forever" chemicals used to fight fires and to manufacture many household products. Toxins accumulate not only in fish, but also in river foam. After the 2018 Tribar spill of PFAS into the Huron River, river users were told to avoid contact with the foam, as well as to keep children and pets away from it. A "Do Not Eat the Fish" advisory is still in effect.  
[ii] Gerard Manley Hopkins, "God's Grandeur," The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, Edited by Richard Ellman and Robert O'Clair (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1973), page 80.
[iii] Daniel Brown, presentation at a meeting of the Great Lakes Paddlers, March 12, 2019.

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