The Poetry of Water

Have you heard the news? The hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico is the biggest it has ever been this summer. More than half of Iowa’s waterways remain impaired. Iowa’s legislators can’t seem to agree on means for funding practices that would help.  It hasn’t been a great year for water quality so far.

It isn’t that we don’t understand the problems or the solutions. There is plenty of information out there. Lots of smart people are speaking about the science of water quality, studying the impacts of agriculture, discussing economics issues, and monitoring water. This information is important and necessary.

It’s more that we still lack the will to create lasting changes to allow for cleaner water, more habitat and healthier soil. Perhaps we need to move beyond the technical and economic talk and express the poetry of water.  Throughout our history it has often been a well-turned phrase, public speech or essay that has motivated action in others.

Back in 2008, when Jerry DeWitt was first appointed as director of the Iowa Learning Farms, he and I went on a tour of the ILF partners who were hit hardest by heavy rains and flooding. When he got back to his office, he wrote an essay that began, “Yesterday I cried for the land. Today I must speak for the land.” You can read the full text on p.3 of the archived Leopold Letter newsletter: http://publications.iowa.gov/18617/1/LeopoldLetter2008Summer.pdf

What followed was a poetic expression of Jerry’s emotions in seeing fields eroded down to bedrock—not your typical academic writing. For several weeks after that essay was published, it was brought up in meetings, including the Soil and Water Conservation Districts annual meetings, and during random conversations. It became a call to action.

Who is writing poetry for water?

Jerry showed that aptly expressed words get things done. Words make us uniquely human but poetry is what speaks to our higher angels. Writers like Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold put language to good use on behalf of lasting, life-altering environmental change.

Who among us isn’t familiar with Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) that moved us with its craft and motivated us as a nation to change our use of pesticides? Or think of all the folks who became conservationists or wildlife specialists inspired by Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac (1949) with his essays on the land stirring a conservation ethic. I was only seven years old when my older brother read me Dr. Seuss’s new book, The Lorax (1971), and nurtured in me a life-long desire to speak for the trees. The poetry of these authors and so many others have inspired generations to think and live in the world differently.

We don’t need any more ordinary prose. We are bloated with words today. Everyone seems to be “expressing” themselves on social media and other online outlets. Could a Carson or Seuss or Leopold get through all of the word pollution today?

Our lakes, rivers, streams and underground aquifers need more poetry in the tradition of Carson, Seuss and Leopold—writing that expresses feelings and ideas that allow you to see beyond what is right in front of you to get at a deeper truth or beauty.

Only the best among us are brave enough to write poetry for poetry is too important to be left to professionals.

Two Black Hawk County watershed projects, in partnership with the University of Northern Iowa’s Environmental Literature class during the spring of 2017, brought us poetic stories of people in their watersheds. The work is called “Beauty Outside Our Doors” and is available as a free PDF download.  The essays are personal and purposeful and speak to a greater truth about the state of our environment in Iowa.

It would be great if every watershed improvement project in Iowa could take Black Hawk County’s lead and do a similar project with the residents in their watersheds.  It would be inspiring to see similar books written across the state.

BUT, you don’t need to live where there is an active watershed project in order to speak for water. Each one of us is called to find the poet inside of us and let people know the truth about our waterways. We are water and water is life. Clean water is essential to our existence. We ignore this at our eventual peril. After you write your piece, share it with whoever will listen. It is time for life-altering change. The water (and all of life) is counting on us.

Jacqueline Comito

Who Owns Any Creek?

“Who owns Cross Creek?”

That is a line from one of my favorite films, Cross Creek. Released in 1983, the film is based on a memoir of the same title by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the author of the classic children’s book The Yearling. The film is about her life as owner of an orange grove in Florida and all the local residents of “the creek.”

“Who owns Cross Creek?”

This line popped into my head when I was talking to Ann about our winter workshops. It was clear from the brainstorming activity that many of the farmers and landowners were more knowledgeable and caring about questions concerning soil health than water quality.

When I pointed that out to Ann, she said, “Soil health happens on the land they own and they directly benefit from it. It’s personal. Water is a part of the common good and is less tangible.”

The common good is often a hard sell economically. No one owns the water. So no one is really responsible. Or everyone is responsible?

Let’s face it: when it comes to water quality, we have been slipping in through the back door, so to speak. As Marty Adkins points out in his previous blog post (Reducing Nutrient Losses While Building Iowa’s Soils and Economy), generally the practices that improve soil health also improve water quality.

That’s true. Cover crops are a good example. They are good for soil health, especially where land is highly erodible or degraded. On the water quality side, they play a major role in reducing both phosphorus and nitrogen loss. It is difficult to show a direct return on investment with cover crops in terms of soil health, and it could cost billions of dollars annually to implement the 12 million acres of cover crops needed every year to improve water quality (The Nutrient Reduction Strategy: Creating A More Resilient Iowa). That kind of investment is going to require a seismic change in attitudes toward water quality if it is going to happen.

In his 2012 book, Navigating Environmental Attitudes, social psychologist Thomas Heberlein argues that the way to change attitudes is by changing social norms. Norms are different than attitudes because they are tied directly to behavior, whereas attitudes are based on values and beliefs. In order for norms to change behavior, they must be focused on and activated by how society shapes what we do—i.e., what shapes the status quo. Norms influencing environmental behaviors do change, but it takes years (decades) for norms to emerge, change and strengthen. For norms to function, individuals must feel responsible for their acts.

I am not saying that farmers are deliberating doing wrong—they are following the norms within our current agricultural system. While many farmers could add more conservation practices to their operations, it is the system itself that needs changing. Policies over the last several decades have intensified row crop agriculture and led us to our current water quality and soil erosion challenges. The long-term vision for Iowa must include policies that more readily allow for a diversity of cropping systems and land use (Expand Beyond a Two Crop System, Clean Up Our Water).

Poor water quality is the unintended consequence of agricultural norms that aren’t sustainable. To change this is going to require a seismic change in attitudes.

As we try to implement Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, we need to do a better job of helping farmers see where we are, how we got here, and where we need to go. As we heard from one of the speakers at ISU Extension and Outreach’s Agriculture and Natural Resources spring inservice training earlier this year, “Farmers don’t need any help to stay the same.”

In 1983, I couldn’t have imagined how the answer to a question posed at the end of a loved film would become one of the central questions of my career. It has. Who owns Cross Creek? Or any creek?

Here’s how Rawlings responds to her haunting question:

“Who owns Cross Creek?

The red-birds, I think, more than I, for they will have their nests even in the face of delinquent mortgages…It seems to me that the earth may be borrowed, but not bought. It may be used, but not owned. It gives itself in response to love and tending, offers its seasonal flowering and fruiting. But we are tenants and not possessors, lovers, and not masters. Cross Creek belongs to the wind and the rain, to the sun and the season, to the cosmic secrecy of seed, and beyond all to time…”

Jacqueline Comito