Death and Life on a Great Lake
In the trackless hour of first light I still hear it, the tide that roused me every morning that I knew happiness as a child. Before day had fully roused, I was up, walking the glitter left in its wake. Afternoons, I dove through its waves. Evenings, I followed the gulls winging their way to the west, towards the trees whose roots drank deep, all of us inhabitants of an amplitude that extended as far as the eye could see. Winters, I returned to its gothic choirs to hear the creaking chants that rose from cold, green-tinctured depths. The lake was my home, my friend , the keeper of my soul.
I was seven when my parents first rented a bungalow a few streets back from the Ontario shore of Lake Erie. My siblings and I were indefatigable at the public beach. Undeterred by crowds of lawn chairs and soggy sandwiches, we claimed the possibilities of dolphins, mermaids, porpoises. And, by week’s end, had ourselves been claimed by that place.
In a time of blue moons and miracles, my parents purchased one of the lakeside homes. Each June thereafter, the eight of us returned to “our lake,” ravenous to be freed f rom city sidewalks and city schedules into the horizonless sanctuary where sea met sky. We tucked ourselves into bedrooms that slept two apiece, in twin beds jammed against opposite walls thin as the slats they were made of, and windows were flung open all day to the breezes that sailed up from the beach through the cottonwood on the front lawn.
Before us, the sea. Behind us, the hum of the dryer on the back porch, the running of the Canada-Pacific trains behind the slender rose hedge; the tiny grocery at the corner with its capacious candy rack and Loto tickets; the Laundromat, and the hardware. This was the sum of our world, and it was sufficient.
We joined the generations whose children grew rangy by the lake, left to make careers, and returned to pass it on to children of their own. Like layers of compost, we became part of the beloved landscape, its tales and characters and lore. The pink flamingoes that appeared one night on everyone’s lawns; the bedraggled knife sharpener who showed up at backdoors at dinner time; the mad artist who lived like a hermit by the point, the ghosts that transgressed the graveyard wall to haunt the drive-in theatre on nights of the full moon. A place of roots and tides, of ravishing storms and tranquil dusks. Daily it fed that place in the heart, the well we hardly know exists, as it fills with the stuff of meaning and memory.
The days passed in the rough and tumble of beaches everywhere – in digging and sailing, squabbles and crushes, sticky hours on the porch with a book. But the margins guarded a more private, privileged intimacy, a wordless conversation that led me unerringly to a realm that even now I call mystery.
The lake never forced itself. It was simply there — graceful, separate, sacred. I took to its silent invitation like a monk. It offered itself, and I accepted. And what did this acceptance entail? I entered into its separateness, its presence, with a faithfulness of the heart and an openness that I have never known since.
I sent into that communicative silence threads of wondering, big questions I hadn’t known were inside of me. They were less about God (for now it seemed I was in the presence of something akin to God), than about my place in an ineffably profound, barely glimpsed, reality. Gently the lake absorbed my questions. Sometimes it mirrored them; sometimes shifted them, never disappointing my constancy. From the vantage of the years, I realize that it was at the lake that I first learned to pray.
Inevitably August arrived, and we six children were compelled to return to the world. But as the station wagon pulled down the rutted lane and back to the city, I felt inoculated, comforted, knowing that the lake would always be there, and that I would always come back to my place by its side.
It was true that many mornings we found dead fish washed up on shore. Some days the algae was so thick that the boys had to rake it into great heaps down the way so that the babies could wade into the shallows. It smelled when there wasn’t a breeze. The necklace of bones and bits of trash that washed up after a storm drew flies, and though high tide rinsed it back out, we learned to find other things to occupy ourselves with until the shore was clean.
At night, we could see the brilliant ember across the lake on the American shore. Invisible by day, it was the slag ovens from the Bethlehem Steel plant. The plant worked day and night casting iron into beams for skyscrapers, armor for tanks, and uranium fuel rods. Though on the Canadian side we were shielded from the worst of its effects, by the mid 60s people were beginning to talk about the disappearance of the fish, of dead zones at the bottom of the lake, the toxic effects of phosphates and sewage being dumped indiscriminately all the way from Cleveland to Buffalo. The lake’s bacteria count began to make the evening news; beaches on the American side closed for days at a time.
In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act. The U.S. and Canada signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. The Environmental Protection Agency, in its infancy and bright with an American optimism that our foreign involvements hadn’t tarnished, swept into action. It declared Lake Erie a priority project and commenced its redemption.
Between 1972 and the mid 1980s, more than $8 billion was spent to restore the lake. Consumer legislation capped household detergent phosphate levels. Factory pollutants were strictly regulated. Lakeside sewage plants were constructed to treat waste before returning decontaminated water to the lake.
One of the more innovative solutions to the lake’s dead zone was the introduction of zebra mussels. The mussels are filter feeders that remove much of the algae from the water. By 1985, phosphate levels in the late had been reduced by two-thirds, and much credit went to the mussels. The algae subsided. Fish and the mayflies – harbingers of clean shorelines and a healthy food chain – returned. The lake became the EPA’s poster child. Swimming and boating, fishing and river travel resumed. This renaissance had an air of manifest destiny to it, confirming confidence in our capacity to reverse environmental damage with American “can-do.”
And so the years piled up. Nothing challenged my own assurance that my bond with the lake would remain as it had always been. Through college and graduate school I came back with my books and journals. I sat at a table on the porch and wrote short stories, articles, letters. In time, I brought my husband, and soon, my young son. There is a photograph: he is a year old, standing with our spaniel in the shallows, reaching towards the horizon. The future was before us, so many years when I would be able to pass on to him the mystery and beauty of the place that I held dearest to my heart.
Within a year of that photo, my father died. My mother sold the beach house, breaking the hearts of her children and eradicating the firmament of our family’s life.
The same year, the algae returned. This time, worse than before. Once more, children were stumbling over dead fish as they raced to the shore in the mornings. The problem seemed inexorable, a heartbreaking turn for those who had lived through the 70s and 80s. How could a lake die a second time?
We read that new farm fertilization methods were causing phosphate runoff. Climate change had raised the lake’s temperature. But the worst culprit – astonishingly, regrettably – was the zebra mussel. Lauded thirty years ago as the miracle cure, the mussels, it turns out, actually encourage the development of the toxic Microcystis algae. By feasting only on nontoxic green algae, the mussels remove competitors to the Microcystis. In the process of digestion, the mussels excrete the beneficial algae’s phosphorus, which in turn provides the Microcystis with a real-made meal.
The base of the food chain that supports Erie’s fish is becoming decimated. Each summer the Microcystis bloom increases, producing lake-water concentrations of microcystin, a liver toxin. In 2011, the summer’s algae bloom, mostly the poisonous Microcystis, sprawled almost 120 miles, from Toledo to past Cleveland, and produced Microcystin levels 1,200 times World Health Organization limits, tainting the drinking water for 2.8 million consumers.
Once more a dead zone covers nearly a third of the lake’s bottom.
From our illusory footing in the mundane, we are briefly, stunningly, swept out to sea, into the depths of mystery. Some rupture in our attention (or our narrative) reveals another, larger life, with its own habitat and wildlife: its subtle energies and synchronicities, its impossible yet oddly credible sightings. The cosmos opens itself to us, filtered and magnified with revelations. Who could guess that a retreating glacier 7,000 years ago could have scooped out a crystalline pool that would hold everything essential to life? Or that a river in Brazil, a mountaintop in Nepal, a puddle in a French child’s backyard, could wheel the whole of consciousness on its axis?
But it does. And we are forever changed.
Because it is otherwise almost impossible to believe, we create stories and poems about these events that slash a path across the quotidian. Man has always made of water exquisite orders of worship: sacraments of baptism and purification, the Wudu ritual of Islamic prayer, the immersion of Ganesh during the annual festival in his honor, the micveh and the Norse “death ship” burials, to name just a few.
It is essential that we do this, because in time we discover that trying to hold water in one’s hand, attempting to contain the holy, is like trying to take passion hostage.
The holy is a motile habitat, utterly dependent on a certain slant of attention. And we, clumsy creatures in the end (and far less in control of ourselves than we like to believe), have a habit of breaking what is dear to us, of killing what we hold sacred, and doing the same to others. The death of the holy is the end of innocence. It is the birth of ambiguity.
A lake dies, a house vanishes, skyscrapers are felled. We have seen loss decimate our beloved places these past decades. In the aftershocks, we Americans find ourselves in transition from the confidence stance of youth to something darker and more difficult. We are uneasy still with the integrity of uncertainty, the place of no easy answers, of no sure-fire results. We have not yet made peace with the scars of our bad choices, our aggressions, our morally-doubtful blind spots; with our guilt.
In the face of loss, it is easy to decry, to grieve, to rage at God or at one another. I know; I have done my share of all these.
But there is another way, and I am learning it not through science, nor ecological activism, but through story.
On a recent cross-country flight, looking down on my lake from 25,000 feet, I was given the choice of watching cooking demonstrations or The Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s adventure of a young man fleeing shipwreck and struggling to survive against the elements on the Indian Ocean – elements which include a Bengal tiger inside his lifeboat. Who could resist? I chose Pi.
In the story, Pi has lost everything – family, homeland, possessions, solid ground. Tossed about by killer waves under monsoon skies, he has not a minute to waste on loss if he is to stay alive. A former student of religions, Pi is suddenly pitted against unrelenting destruction. He jerry rigs a floating raft to keep him safe from the tiger. He eats dry crackers and when these give out, learns to fish with his hands. He searches for light in the heart of terror, for hope in the face of growing despair. In the midst of the maelstrom, he issues his ultimate question: is there any force in the universe more redemptive and meaningful than brute instinct and the might of raw nature?
Watching this lush, fantastic tale, it was impossible not to see that Pi’s struggles are ours. Yoked to our insubstantial vessels, we want to believe the best about ourselves, that we are creatures capable of love, sensitivity and intelligence. But when the myth of permanence breaks down in the face of destruction, war, abandonment, we quickly lose our “higher” selves, and the coherence of their ethical systems. We encounter the flip side of mystery. And in this encounter, we are challenged to face our own ultimate question: Is life just a drama of Darwinian competition? Of predatory practices and the cannabalizing of limited resources? Or is there in us a power that can counteract the dark version of existence? In the thick of ambiguity, can we rediscover a vision that extends the longing for life to all?
There is deep wisdom in honoring what cannot be captured, tamed, controlled. I am learning that this is an essential human exercise. For when we understand that holy things we love are drawn from a mystery we cannot control, we begin to discover our ethical obligation towards those which we can. At our best, we are put here to foster. The religious imagination expands along lines of metaphor, epiphany, paradox. The water that blesses us can in turn be blessed, even as it slakes our thirst.
In loss, we begin to see beyond the holograms of our obsessions the woundedness of the world, and the woundedness in us. Just as we hold tight our cherished icons, we discover dead zones within, dark places that drive us to kill for our perceived survival and wound those who float through our waters. We dump our toxic material indiscriminately, irreparably hurting those who happen to be downstream.
I have come to see Pi’s 227 day sea journey less as his curse than his blessing. He endures every one of the hero’s archetypal trials: death, starvation, thirst, hallucinations, despair. He surrenders to uncertainty, frightful dangers, days and nights filled with rage, terror, and grief. But he is also granted glimpses of transcendent beauty, the radiance of infinite night skies, the miracles of the deep. As an inner passage, his journey carries him from innocence to mature consciousness, from darkness to dawning intelligence. He is transformed from a being acted uponto one who acts. He becomes capable of ethical choice, and with this come a depth of insight that no worldly event can destroy.
The religious imagination teaches that transformation demands that we grow beyond iconic attachments, surrender to a larger sense of belonging in the world. Pi tows us towards this epiphany, and into the force of those values to which we would do well to commit ourselves: forgiveness, compassion, trust.
Here is the question Pi’s story moved me to ask as I flew through several time zones: Once we encounter the holy, such as I have in a lake, in loved ones, in story and art, how are we to put ourselves in relation to this force in such a way that, where we are able, we heal and enlarge its presence in the world? How are we called to “BE” with something as vast as water?
Pi survives, is rescued, marries the woman he loves — and is forever changed. The power that changed him was within him. It was his imagination. We are not, in the end, irrational numbers in infinite seas.
The paradox of loss is that it compels those of us who remain, battered but alive in our small boats, to use our imaginations in the serious work of evolving new insights into the complex relations between all living things, and the never-ending process of cause and effect. Further: loss nudges us to use these insights to become accountable for our lives and our actions, to create contexts for accommodation and compromise (as Pi did with his tiger, Richard Parker); to lay hold of the power of forgiveness and healing for the sake of life itself.
In his life boat – his floating theatre of life — Pi learns to love deeply the creature that could most readily have torn him to pieces. We must do the same.
We need to turn and do this most difficult thing: to look at ourselves and the practices that are sustaining our own toxic consequences. We must acknowledge our unconsciousness and indifference. When we can see this, we step into a place beyond ego and instinct, and are met by the power and radical vulnerability of the Other, those living things that lack the tongues to cry out – our threatened trees, and lakes and animals.
No longer passive observers grieving losses that we as individuals feel powerless to prevent, we enter the chain of cause and effect as agents. Like Pi, we are capable of turning our broken hearts, our shipwrecked lives, to account by choosing to harness imagination and ethics to enduring life.
The lake of my memory, remains. A small patch of sand and sea on the Canadian shore of Lake Erie is my eternal sacred ground. A holy place. A thin place. Beautiful as nothing else to those who have loved it. I grieve that I will never again be its daily intimate, but I must become its steward. The sacred informs the mundane. I can read the reports, scan the environmental updates from New York State, and support efforts of groups like Healing Our Waters, a coalition of non-profits in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, who are working with local scientists, the EPA, the Canadian government and others to monitor and restore the lake and protect it from further destruction.
Time supports our experiences of the “holy.” And the holy honors the singular — the boat, the lake, the tiger alive today. To walk the borderland between time and the sacred is to tolerate the ambiguity of existence; it is to balance the one in us who acts and the one who is still capable of being broken open by mystery.
I belong to a Facebook group that calls itself “Crescent Beach Lovers.” Every morning I click into a photograph taken by someone who still wakes there – its shore, sunsets, cookouts and engagement parties, its lakeside weddings, football games, sailing races, bonfires, and quiet walks. Its contemplative views and its blessed remoteness from every Superzip and Walmart, every power suit and marketing campaign in the nation that I call mine.
I keep a handful of its sand close on my desk, a few photographs, and a new respect for the reality and transformative power of suffering.
I can remember. I can tell stories.
I can still hear it, though I have not lived beside it for more than thirty years. And I fully expect that I will continue to hear it from my small boat until I return, in my own time, to mystery.
Kathleen Hirsch’s work has been published by Orion, Five Points, The Georgia Review, The New York Times, Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and many other publications. Hirsch was a staff writer for The Boston Phoenix. Her books include: A Home in the Heart of the City, and A Sabbath Life: One Woman’s Search for Wholeness.