“The way to love anything is to realize that it may be lost.”
-G. K. Chesterton
In retrospect it was foolish to believe she could be immune, especially since all four of her sisters have been afflicted. She is so much younger than they are, I told myself, and not nearly as shallow. Everything she receives she gives to them. Always she has kept her cool. Nevertheless, she is succumbing to the very same fate. And it now seems her decline is occuring even faster than theirs.
Almost as long as I’ve been conscious of my own existence, I have been conscious of her. The first time she took me in, I was but a boy. She held me, rocked me, comforted me. She could paralyze me with a single touch, but every time that I have gone to her with some hurt of body or mind I have come away with my pain diminished. She used to frighten me until I learned that it was respect and not fear that she required for our relationship to deepen.
Before I knew what love was, I loved her. I have always been in awe of her. For hours I used to sit by her side and just gaze upon her, enchanted. Although I live far from her now, I still see her in my dreams.
I am hardly the only one who has loved her — many have fallen under her spell. I loved her jealously as a boy, but the older I grew the more I wanted to show her off. But not just to anyone. Trusted friends and family. When I became a man, I realized that my protectiveness could actually cause her to suffer more. Although there would always be a few who would wish to take advantage of her — some see only a body when they look at her — many more would love her if they came to know her. And if they loved her, they would protect her.
I have not seen her for almost a year now, but just the thought of her — knowing she is there where she has always been — soothes my spirit.
And that is also why the news of her present condition cuts me to the quick.
To my shame, I am partly responsible for her condition. My actions, though small compared to those of some, have helped to bring on this rapid change in her. Sadly, even visiting her can speed her decline.
Now I’m not sure any or even all of us can save her. When I was last with her, one touch told me something was wrong. She had spiked a high fever. I tried to convince myself that it was only temporary. Deep down, though, I knew. Despite all she has survived at the hands of men, all the insults she’s taken, this is one threat she can’t absorb. And yet I know that when I see her again, she will not betray her condition. She will appear as beautiful to me as ever.
Still, I will know that inside she has changed. You see, my fears have been confirmed. The tests are back, and word has spread far and wide. There it was on the front page of the newspaper on Saturday: “Even Lake Superior warm this year.” But it was the subhead of the article that struck fear into me: “The surface is about 20 degrees warmer than usual, and its temperatures could reach a record in August.”
A deep sadness followed my fear. It wasn’t quite the great lake’s obituary I was reading, but it marked the passing of the body of water I’ve know most of my life. She will never be the same. Not in my lifetime and not even in my grandchildren’s lifetime.
I must have heard about the 2007 study that showed her summer temperatures were warming twice as fast as air temperatures over the last 30 years. I must have read that, but I must have wanted to forget it, too. I’ve not wanted to admit that the lake that has been like a member of my family is leaving us. But I have to face the truth squarely—we all do if we want to slow her decline. Now the scientists say my beloved lake is trapped, like her sisters and tens of thousands of lesser lakes, in a self-perpetuating cycle: the warmer the air and water, the less ice forms; the less ice, the warmer the water gets; then less ice forms next winter …
When I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, we used to find patches of snow beneath the hemlock trees near her shore when we went berry picking — in July. Even in August our feet would grow numb if we stood in her waters for longer than a few moments. My sister and cousins and I used to be able to spot colored rocks on the bottom as easily as if we were looking through glass, but now the lake bed at many of those same rocky beaches is covered with slimy brown algae.
Like the industrialists who thought she could take and dilute all their toxic effluent, who believed that she could bear any violation and not be much changed, many of us believed that her size and depth would protect her from this latest threat — at least for our lifetimes. But it turns out we were wrong. Our saturation of the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses, our pollution of the air with heat-absorbing soot, has raised the temperature of the entire planet, and not even Lady Superior’s icy depths will make her immune. It’s not that surprising, really, when you consider that the greatest temperature increases have been in the Arctic and Antarctic. She’s a big girl, but she’s very sensitive.
The lake that literally and figuratively helps to define our state and two others, the body of water that in many ways defined my childhood if not my whole life up to this point, the lake that millions depend on to sustain them, the largest freshwater lake (by surface area) in the world, the cleanest and deepest of the Great Lakes (she could hold all the water of the other four Great Lakes with room for three more Lake Eries besides), the vessel that holds 10 percent of the fresh water in the world, the sweet water inland sea that inspired countless poets and songwriters from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to Gordon Lightfoot … is rapidly warming. By the end of the century, scientists say, she’s likely to lose several feet of depth because of increased evaporation and reduced ice formation. No doubt she will also lose a good deal of her mystique as climate change takes its toll.
How these rapid changes will effect Wisconsin and the region as a whole (Lake Superior hosts the busiest inland port in the country, one of the best cold-water fisheries in the world, and over 3.5 million tourists visit her shoreline very year) remains to be seen, but we can expect the changes to be significant and costly.
The changes to our psyches will be profound. But don’t take my word for it. Look what’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico. Already the damage to the gulf is causing widespread psychological anguish for the people who live along the coast. News agencies are reporting droves of people seeking help from mental health professionals to deal with their losses — not just of their jobs and way of life but of the body of water that has become like a family member to them.
But unlike an oil spill, which will eventually be stopped and — though it might take decades — cleaned up, the effects of global warming are here to stay. Climate change can’t be entirely stopped, but it can be significantly slowed.
The lake the Ojibwe call Gichigami or “big water” has taken some big lumps over the years, from the clear cutting of old-growth forests that blanketed her shores a century ago to the introduction of sea lampreys and 20 other species of invasive fish; from asbestos, oil, mercury and sewage contamination to cancerous coastal development. But all of that is nothing compared with the threat climate change poses.
There is only one thing we can do to slow the warming and premature aging of Lake Superior and her four sisters: sharply curtail our use of energy and the fossil fuels used to produce that energy. Will it be difficult? Certainly, but it’s still possible to do it while producing sustainable, good-paying jobs and reaping enormous cost savings and other benefits in the process. It’s not a matter of way, it’s a matter of will.
Do those of us who live in the states and provinces that border Lake Superior love her enough to muster the will necessary to save her? We’ve already managed to pass the Great Lakes Compact, a significant achievement when you consider the numerous interests who would like to exploit the Great Lakes. The next logical step is reviving and passing a version of the Clean Energy & Jobs Act here in Wisconsin and enacting strong energy and climate legislation in Congress that puts a cap on all carbon. The cynics tell us that neither is going to happen until after the November elections, if ever. But stranger things have happened … like the deepest, coldest lake on the continent becoming 20 degrees warmer than normal.