I have been fascinated with Lake Michigan since I was a little girl growing up in Evanston, Illinois where I’d go to swim—diving into its foot-numbing waters or puddling along its sandy shores. Cooled in the summer by its lake effect breezes and warmed in the winter by its large-mass stabilizing presence, I understood that it was a precious resource even then.
I first became aware of it as an ecosystem when in the sixties, the beaches were inundated with dead alewives, which put up a graveyard stink that made it unpleasant to sit there by the lake. I knew humans were doing something dangerous, something wrong, to bring about this massive demise.
I began searching for and collecting beach glass, my precious gems, scouring sand and shore for whites, blues, greens, ambers, and—the occasional rarity—a red or a citrine. Gifts from the lake’s tumbling and pitting of casually tossed glass, turning shards of refuse into something rounded, luminous, and beautiful.
Growing up in Evanston, Illinois our drinking water was delicious—refreshing, sweet, and cool. As my children were growing up after our move to Kansas City, whenever we’d return to visit, they would run, first thing, to the tap in Gramma Jane’s and Papa Bob’s house and drink deeply. “Ah, Lake Michigan water!” they’d say. Still refreshing, sweet, and cool.
But during those years, there were intentional and unintentional spills coming from factories on the Indiana border and serious waste water overflows coming from northern Illinois cities and Wisconsin municipalities. This most precious resource, which houses along with its sister lakes, 20 per cent of the planet’s fresh water, was being abused.
What were we thinking I asked myself then?
I still ask myself: what are we thinking?