In a season of gift-giving, it’s timely to remember that the people of the Great Lakes Basin inherited the greatest freshwater gift in the world.
We are slightly more than half a percent of the population of the world, but live among 20% of the surface freshwater of the world. That’s a great asset – and an outsize responsibility.
There is nothing like them, as authors and poets attest:
In The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas, author Jerry Dennis wrote, “To appreciate the magnitude of the Great Lakes you must get close to them. Launch a boat on their waters or hike their beaches or climb the dunes, bluffs, and rocky promontories that surround them and you will see, as people have seen since the age of glaciers, that these lakes are pretty damned big. It’s no wonder they’re sometimes upgraded to ‘Inland Seas’ and ‘Sweetwater Seas.’ Calling them lakes is like calling the Rockies hills.”
In Moby Dick, author Herman Melville wrote, “For in their interflowing aggregate, those grand freshwater seas of ours–Erie, and Ontario, and Huron, and Superior, and Michigan–possess an ocean-like expansiveness, with many of the ocean’s noblest traits.”
Poet Alison Swan said, “To know Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario, one must visit them in all kinds of weather, at all times of year, and at all times of day, and even then they turn up surprises.”
Writing about what it means to be a Middle Westerner, author Kurt Vonnegut observed, “But the more I pondered the people of Chicago, the more aware I became of an enormous presence there. It was almost like music, music unheard in New York or Boston or San Francisco or New Orleans. It was Lake Michigan, an ocean of pure water, the most precious substance in all this world…Get this: When we were born, there had to have been incredible quantities of fresh water all around us, in lakes and streams and rivers and raindrops and snowdrift, and no undrinkable salt water anywhere!”
But the Great Lakes are not limitless. Frank Ettawageshik, Executive Director of the United Tribes of Michigan, once said, “One hundred and fifty years ago we had a resource in the Great Lakes region that was considered inexhaustible. It lasted barely two generations. This was the White Pine forest. The White Pine of this century is Water.”
In a time of runaway population growth, accelerating climate change and growing global demand for fresh water, we cannot take our endowment for granted. We have indeed received a precious gift. It is our job to care for it.