Note: This post originally appeared in the Bridgton News, July 2014.
It was about four years ago that I wrote an Earth Notes column from our new home in Bangor. We had just moved to a house on Brewer Lake and I described living on a lake for the first time. Even though I spent many hours on lakes conducting water quality monitoring with Lakes Environmental Association (LEA), there was something different about experiencing the daily rhythms of a lake.
Over the years, there were special moments that stand out: an otter hauled up on the ice; a garter snake tucked under a gnarled shoreline tree root; a funny-looking dandelion growing in historic lake-bottom clay; a sunrise over the water where I lost myself in the color orange. But the lake really took hold of me in the every day. As I was writing my dissertation, with long, long hours spent at the computer, I would occasionally look up and out at the water to find a different landscape than the one I observed 3 pages before. The change could be subtle, produced by the sun moving across the sky or by a loon who floated into view. Sometimes the change was dramatic, especially during freeze and thaw, the liminal times of year when every moment offers the promise of a radical difference. Over time, Brewer Lake taught me about change, how to stay present in a moment when the whole world shifts.
Time for change. Last weekend, Brian and I moved out of our home on the lake. After 4 years of commuting, we decided it was time to live within biking distance to Orono. I feel the place where Brewer Lake took hold as a slight tightness in the space between my lungs above my heart. I notice this place, this bodily affect, when I remember that I no longer live there. It is becoming a more familiar feeling in this life of permanent change.
More change. Lakes are sometimes described as jewels on our landscape. I used to think of them this way too, because they are so precious and so shining. Having lived on one, this metaphor no longer fits my experience. Jewels are too solid, too stable, too resistant to change. As Nietzsche once said, all language is inescapable metaphor for how we create our experience of the world. So what is a lake if not a jewel? For me, a lake is a gathering place, a dynamic coming-together where the world is made in a bodily ecology, one that includes humans but does not put us at the center. A lake is not a jewel in our landscape but a material participant in the collective gathering.
When a lake changes, everything changes. John Muir was right to notice the interconnected threads of our universe. We notice these threads more in times of dramatic change. The ice must freeze before we can skate, ski, or ride our favorite snowmobile routes. The lake freezing is a change that allows these other materials to gather together, like skates on ice. One needs the other to become itself. If you have tried to skate on grass, you know this is true.
These daily, seasonal, yearly variations are so expected that we don’t always appreciate the dramatic ways our lives shift in response. We go from skaters to swimmers in the course of a few short months. We are so drawn together in this ever-shifting ecology that the difference becomes routine. But what of a change we might not expect? What happens when we cross a so-called tipping point where new materials, like phosphorus or milfoil, enter the scene causing irreversible change? How does the lake, as gathering place, draw us into new arrangements as the world makes itself different? What new threads ravel together and which begin to fray?
In the Lakes Region, we don’t know the answer to these questions. Staff at LEA are trying to figure this out and, more importantly, trying to find ways to work with lakes and with many others, to prevent this kind of material change from happening. But much like we could never hold a lake in our hand like we can with a jewel, we’ll never be able to control change. The world just doesn’t work that way. Allowing ourselves to be gathered by lakes, with lakes, in our mutual becoming, we might find ways to change together sustainably.