A Purpose in Liquidity
By Tamia Nelson
June 12, 2001
We took the pack canoes out on our home
water late last Friday. It was a lovely evening: cool, clear, and
still. The moon lolled in the southeast, only a couple of days past
full but already lagging nightfall. In less than two weeks, it will
rise invisibly with the sun. Guided as much by our noses and ears as
by the moonlight dancing on the ripples, we paddled our little boats
slowly around the margins of the 'Flow. Now and again, a splash from
near the shore revealed the presence of a muskrat, and from time to
time a loon yodeled in the far distance.
We were gone only a couple of hours, but we returned to our cabin
refreshed and happy, our sense of place and purpose renewed yet again.
Note that I didn't say we returned home. We didn't. We
couldn't. We'd never left. The 'Flow is as much our home as the small
frame camp in which we work, eat, and sleep. "Home water." That says
Well, not quite all, perhaps.
The 'Flow isn't a wilderness. With the exception of one small
enclave of public land, it isn't even especially wild. It's one of
many aging, multiple-use reservoirs on the "best-dammed little river
in the world." All along its shores, tiny shacks jostle for pride of
place with 4,000-square-foot split-levels, nearly all of them on
manicured quarter-acre lots. There's none of the fecund untidiness of
a natural landscape. Timber sea-walls protect valuable waterfront from
the wakes of passing powerboats, and jets-skis bob at docks in front
of signs invoking the "Peace of the Water."
It's not exactly Golden Pond, let alone Ultima Thule. And yet,
every spring, life returns to the 'Flow. Even before all the ice goes
out in April, waterfowl of every description break their northward
journey here. Once we saw an Arctic loon, very far from its native
western waters. This year, two northern shoveler drakes paddled
up-river, resplendent in emerald green and rusty red, their long bills
and small bodies advertising their identity. They were soon joined in
mid-channel by wood ducks and mallards, while mergansers fished in the
near-shore shallows and wild turkeys watched from the slope beneath
Beaver, too, continue to cruise the 'Flow, and somehow find enough
trees still standing on the landscaped lots to sustain them. Muskrats
forage happily among the shoreline rip-rap for snails, while river
otters compete with the mergansers for fish. And beaver or shoveler,
wood duck or arctic loonwhether long-time resident or "foreign"
visitoreach bird and mammal that we see finds a place in my
natural history journal. Not many cabin-dwellers bother with this sort
of "guest book," I suppose, but I do. That's how I keep in touch with
the osprey pair that once nested in the tall white pine towering over
a nearby bay. Their pine came down in a winter ice-storm three years
ago, but the ospreys still drop by every spring nonetheless.
As spring gives way to summer, however, the osprey pair and most of
the waterfowl move on to less congested waters. Some always remain,
though, and broods of young mergansers and Canada geese are still
common sights, hugging the shoreline to avoid the jet-skis and other
powerboats. They don't always succeed. A few hours before we put our
pack canoes on the water, we watched helplessly as a teenage couple
amused themselves by trying to run down a family of geese. The
goslings, I'm happy to say, found shelter under a rare overhanging
tree, along with one of the parents, while the other adult managed to
get airborne just before being struck. We took note of the boat's
registration number, of course, but we didn't bother calling the local
Conservation Officer to report the incident. We've learned not to
waste our time. New York's Department of Environmental Conservation
(DEC) doesn't deem the 'Flow "significant habitat." In consequence,
its wildlife aren't judged worthy of protection.
I have a hard time understanding this. While waterways vary greatly
in productivity, and reservoirs are often comparatively unproductive,
the 'Flow and its environs are the year-round homes of many
legally-protected species of plants and animals. And they're important
to still more. In a busy and crowded world, no habitat can now be said
to lack significance. Such is the power of bureaucratic tags, however,
that this inescapable fact is universally ignored.
I admit that I'm no stranger to the game. For years I prospected in
advance of contractors and public agencies, digging in farm fields,
highway margins, and cellar-holes for relics of past habitation. What
was I looking for? For "significant" archaeological resources. I found
no skeletons, no gold coins, and no ancient camp-sites. What I
did findhundred-year-old kitchen refuse, patent medicine
bottles discarded in a privy pit, scraps of nineteenth-century
hardwarewere invariably judged "not significant." The
contractors and agencies rejoiced. Their projects went through on
schedule, and everyone was happy, including me. I cashed my check and
went prospecting elsewhere.
So I'm in no position to point fingers at the DEC. They, too, have
their priorities, and their paychecks naturally come first. Protecting
the 'Flow and its wildlife isn't even a close secondquite
It's high on my list, however. This, too, is understandable.
The 'Flow is my home. It isn't wilderness, and it isn't wild, but it
plays host to an incredible diversity of life. And it's still
relatively clean. In a world with six billion thirsty human mouths,
that's not insignificant. Already the nightly news hints at plans to
pipe water from the Great Lakes to the booming cities of the arid
Southwest. In Texasand in New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska,
Kansas, and Oklahoma, as wellfolks are mining "fossil water,"
tapping irreplaceable reserves first laid down when beaver the size of
black bears were digging the spiral burrows known today as "devil's
corkscrews." This water-mining can't go on forever, and it won't.
What, then, does the future hold? The handwriting's on the wall.
Even today, many canoeists in England, William Blake's "green &
pleasant Land," now paddle their boats in circles on flooded quarries.
And, no, they're not resentful. They're glad to have any opportunity
to practice their sport, however circumscribed. In an island nation
with a population density somewhere between Haiti and India, lakes,
reservoirs, and rivers are all valuable resources. Fresh water is
allocated to the highest bidder, and a lot of folks, including many
canoeists and kayakers, are priced right out of the market.
It could happen here. Indeed, it will happen here, probably within
the lifetimes of many readers. That being the case, all freshwater
habitats are "significant" nownot only to you and to me, but to
the loons I hear calling in the distance as I write these words.
Two years before he died, Rupert Brooke, the "golden young Apollo"
of British poetry who was spared the ordeal of the Dardanelles
Campaign by a fatal attack of blood-poisoning, wrote a charming poem
about a fish's view of heaven:
One may not doubt that, somehow, Good
Shall come of Water and of Mud;
And, sure, the reverent eye must see
A Purpose in Liquidity.
"A Purpose in Liquidity." This makes sense, doesn't it? Fish would
certainly think so. And loons. And the mergansers splashing in the
And me? I think so, too. In one way or another, in one sense or
another, all the world's waters are home to each and every one of us,
whether we're year-round residents or only passing through. That's a
good thing to remember.
Copyright © 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights