The Gift of Water

by Ken Kelley

At age 80, having entered my ninth decade, I have many years to remember. My memory

tells me that none of these decades has been as environmentally dramatic as the most

recent decade. Spring storms now bring a kind of fierceness with them never before

witnessed. Worldwide, we have witnessed increasing amounts of precipitation and life-
threatening flooding. Warmer temperatures and rising sea levels are shrinking the ice

caps, and rising levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere are undeniable. For short-
term economic gain, we thoughtlessly and carelessly damage our environment,

sometimes irreversibly, to accommodate mineral extraction, fuel production and

manufacturing of various kinds. Even our spiritual and cultural traditions are under assault

—witness the current Standing Rock Sioux protest movement in North Dakota against

construction of an oil pipeline.

Though some of us still doubt the very existence of global warming, I do see indications of

necessary change. More and more of us are recognizing the dire reality of our present

situation, and, locally, I see efforts to direct us away from our path of destruction.

Our children are our greatest asset, and they will bear the brunt of the coming changes;

also, they may play a large part in saving us from ourselves. Third grade students at

Marquette’s Sandy Knoll Elementary, under the direction of visionary teachers Nancy

Usitilo and Jodi Miller, have long been engaged in classroom work and extracurricular

activities that teach them how water is integral to all facets of human existence. Using the

book Paddle to the Sea, these students explore the Great Lakes Basin, learning not only

about the basin’s geography and history but also about the effects of human activity on

the lakes’ shorelines. Working in pairs, the kids launch their own handmade miniature

canoes, and they follow their boats with the help of interactive information carved on the

boats. A recently acquired world map will soon visually display the canoes’ separate logs.

Their canoes have recently turned up not only at various points in the Great Lakes Basin

but also in such far flung places as Oregon and Ireland.

To introduce the kids to the concept of land stewardship, Jodi Miller created a booklet

titled Lake Superior in My World. One of the practical results of their learning is that

Sandy Knoll third-graders have “adopted” the beach at McCarty’s Cove. Several times a

year they visit the cove to make visual observations and record data. Nancy and Jodi

believe that when the children learn to love something, they will take care of it. In the

words of Barb Dioun:

In the end we will conserve that which we love,

We will love only that which we understand,

We understand only that which we are taught.

The third-graders learn the “Leave No Trace” principle and put it into actual experience.

The school year for these kids culminates with a class trip to Pictured Rocks National

Lakeshore, where a ranger-led program further supports healthy human interaction with

the environment, emphasizing stewardship of that environment.

This learning continues in the middle school years with a newly developed joint program

sponsored by the Superior Watershed Partnership and Music for All Kids. Middle-
schoolers will present an informative musical tutorial to the third-graders at Sandy Knoll,

who will then prepare a similar program for kindergarten and first grade students—kids

teaching kids. All of these efforts stress the importance of water and its relation to our

environment and the web of life.

Finally, the Cedar Tree Institute is building on these public school efforts through its

interfaith Northern Great Lakes Steward Initiative. Volunteers are invited to become

environmental water stewards. Over the last four years, the Cedar Tree Institute has

coordinated Boy Scouts, Native American tribes, faith communities and at-risk youth in a

similar effort, planting over 10,000 northern white cedar trees along stream banks and

wetlands. A threatened species, the white cedar is regarded by Native peoples as sacred

and as environmentally critical for tribal existence.

The efforts noted above are small in comparison to the size and scope of our coming

problems, yet they comprise a necessary and hopeful beginning, and these efforts draw

in—as they must—our youth, who of necessity will have to confront current and past

generations’ environmental misjudgments and malfeasance.

Editor’s note: This column was written by a member of the Northern Great Lakes Water

Stewards, a faith-based initiative, establishing collaborative partnerships to monitor,

restore and protect the lakes and streams of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

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