Words for Water….how do you find a word for something that is beyond the reach of words? I joined the legions of other people in getting a photo taken of myself with a word that described how I felt about the Lake and the water here, as part of this wonderful project begun by Mary Dougherty to forge common ground and articulate how important this place is to us.
There are lots of words for water, and many profound ones have already been used in this project…Sacred, Holy, Clarity, Home, Life, Love, Spirit, and Inspiration (darn, I wanted that one!), just to name a few. Looking at people holding their chalkboards, it is not just the words, but the images, the setting and the people themselves that really drive the message home that this place, this water, is deeply valued and loved.
In the Ojibwe language, nibi is water. There are other words that are barely beginning to be decipherable to me which describe a deep connection with this place and with the spirit of the water, a different relationship to the world. In Robin Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass, she describes how a bay is not a noun, (a static thing or object), but a living process, a verb. Wikwegaama...the water is currently being a bay…held within these shores. Tomorrow it may be a cloud, a raindrop, held as ice, flowing in a river. I can see this happening all around me and I know it as Truth. Other words capture concepts too lovely for our English language to bear…an Ojibwe friend tells me maamangoozhkaa is "the light that shines through the back of a wave". Thinking of that word makes me feel there were others who saw and delighted in this beauty, enough so that a word for it survived through the ages, and I am linked to them.
So now I had to choose a Word. I sat on my newly formed sand island down by the Sioux River where I paint, my Listening Point. I asked, and listened…and listened…and listened. I am so used to communicating what I feel about the water by painting with it, and letting it flow. Calling on a word felt like condensing it down through another channel, fitting it to a template that can’t contain it. I watched the waves roll in from Madeline Island, Long Island, and the South Channel in between, and gently break in a huge circular arc around me as they hit the sand formations and collided with the force of the river water coming down from the land. After awhile, a hole in the heavy clouds opened up and soft evening light shot through. Oh here it comes! This must be it!
Nothing. Golden illuminated silence. Soft waves on sand, and the last shards of ice tinkling softly.
So I let it go. Until one day I was driving around with my son and the phrase “…the One Word…Unless” came in. And it struck a chord inside, an echo from many years ago when I had first started working with kids in our school forest in McFarland, now five and a half hours south and seemingly a lifetime away. There was a small forested area next to the middle school with a group of Indian mounds next to it. It whispered to me somewhere deep inside that it wanted to be cared about again. It had been cruelly logged, grazed, the Indian mounds dug into, walked on, and disregarded. You could see the bones of the old oak savannah in some of the large trees, and in certain places, you could feel wild nature hiding in the disheveled undergrowth, waiting to come back out. It was grown over with European honeysuckle and garlic mustard…so much so that any native plant that had a stronghold once was quickly dying out. The woods wanted to feel children’s feet walking through and hear their laughter like bird songs again.
Something had to happen, an energy was waiting to be unleashed. So I delved into the project with all the pent up zeal that had accumulated in my life. The life of an artist is often overly romanticized; the inner focus we need to create can also lead to loneliness and isolation. It was a closed circuit.
No one exactly thought they needed a school forest, to bring kids outside to learn about nature from nature itself. It was a rather radical concept, and it seemed daunting to a lot of the teachers. Understandable, since they were already overwhelmed with so many things to do, achievement to boost, and test scores to improve upon. But this was the beginning of the wave that followed Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, the groundbreaking book bemoaning the fact that kids today spend so little time in nature, they have no chance to bond or care. Our superintendent, Scott Brown, understood this as an avid trail runner and nature lover himself, and helped us forge a path. We rode the wave, creating ripples of our own, and within three years we had a beautiful little woods and students of all ages were coming out with their teachers. We rediscovered a simple truth that was right under our nose – that restoration was not only about the land and the plants. It was about the people too. We simply began.
Through that whole process, I met one of my favorite people on the planet…Anne Barker, a miracle worker disguised as a 6th grade teacher’s aide. We would take the kids outside during study hall who most needed to be out there–you know, “those kids”– mostly boys, the ones who couldn’t sit still, the ones who railed against the confines of the classroom. The ones who excelled in using a bowsaw, dragging brush, building a secret fort, tracking animals, and catching snakes. The ones who ended up learning more about the life going on in that woods than anyone. The ones who cracked our hearts wide open.
Anne was a die-hard Lorax fan, who put on what had to be the most incredible preschool skit that the McLutheran Church had ever seen. Her chosen theme song, John Denver’s Rhymes and Reasons, carried the refrain "...for the children and the flowers are our sisters and our brothers, their laughter and their loveliness could clear a cloudy day….” through the air of the church hall on a fresh spring breeze and there was not a dry eye in the house.
That song became our gentle battle hymn in the war against Nature Deficit Disorder, and “Unless” our adopted motto. In a lovely inspired gesture, Anne wrote “Unless” on small rocks that were tucked into little places in the forest for kids to find. It was magical. In times of darkness, I still cue up that syrupy sweet song in my car and remember.
Now that wave has grown in intensity and I find myself in the role of the Artist again on the shores of this Big Lake, still feeling the call to teach in a new way, a new place, with new people. Anne is in the mountains of Montana, listening for a new set of instructions from the cool running mountain streams. The mission has changed, but the message is the same:
UNLESS someone like YOU cares a whole awful lot…about teaching children, protecting the water, restoring the land, or whatever it is you are called to do…Nothing is going to get better. It’s Not.
Learn more and see videos of the first two chapters of the Words for Water project here...and stay tuned for Chapter 3!