Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it

Norman Maclean

By Mike Shaw

Just upriver from where Talmadge Creek was dumping oil into the Kalamazoo River, my great grandparents, Edward and Lucretia Quada, farmed 80 acres. My Grandma Shaw grew up on this farm, and my father and his brothers swam in the river as boys at a spit of sand they referred to as the “B.A.B.”

Before they ran out the screen door of summer, the aunts would inquire in mock confusion, “Now, what does that ‘B.A.B’ stand for again, boys?” Their ready reply always was “Best American Beach” until they arrived laughing under the cool shade of the willow tree down by the river. It was fairly obvious that the first two letters stood for something else—since upon return, their swimsuits were never wet.

My father used to spend two weeks each summer on the farm, and he has a few good stories to tell. Like the one about how my great grandfather decided, at age 80, to re-roof the barn and strolled across the high beam like a tightrope walker with nothing but 40 feet of air underneath.

Grandpa Quada was a lifelong Democrat—unusual for a farmer from Marshall—and at the Calhoun County Fair, he relished harassing his friends at the Republican Party booth.

They would point out correctly that the Republicans were going to win anyway, but he would always have the final say: “Oh yeah? Well, what happened to Dewey?” (Thomas Dewey was heavily favored to win the 1948 presidential election, and The Chicago Tribune printed the notoriously-inaccurate headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” before the official results confirmed the opposite.)

I don’t know what my great grandfather would say about the spill. How it would have affected his way of life. Obviously, he’s passed on his way now, but from what I’ve learned about him, I think he’d be mad as hell. All I know, these stories from the past, seem one more step removed from me. They too, seem drenched in oil.

Trying to comprehend the causes and effects of spilling up to one million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River makes my head spin. Images of wildlife and riverbanks covered in oil haunt my imagination.

I get angry at spiller Enbridge Inc., yet I also understand how my choices as a consumer support this industry. Still, there’s no doubt about two things: Enbridge should clean up its mess, and our society needs to move itself as quickly as possible towards cleaner sources of energy.

What will be the long-term effects on the inter-connected web of riverine life of plants, insects, mussels, crayfish, frogs, snakes, turtles, fishes, muskrats, mink and birds? What about the people who make their home on the river? Is the life of an eastern box turtle or a great blue heron or a smallmouth bass or a kingfisher or even a water strider in the end just disposable to us?

We harness the latest technologies long before we even begin to understand how to use them responsibly because our main focus is on something other than sustainability.

One hundred miles downriver here in Saugatuck—even before the oil-spill disaster—the Kalamazoo River had long been tarnished in the local lore: as in, you might glow in the dark if you fall into that river, or my friend Billy told me his uncle caught a two-headed catfish with three eyes last year.

In some ways, this way of speaking about the river serves as a reminder. It means, The toxic PCBs still linger. It means, The paper companies never took full responsibility. It means, Catch and release. Yet, in other ways, this lore signifies a sense of futility: What’s done is done, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

And yet, despite its tragic history, the river is still a place of tranquil beauty. Out there on the river, away from all the roads and towns, there’s an indelible sense of timelessness.

The way the tall grasses along the river’s edge sway and whisper in the wind.

The way the endangered lake sturgeon—creatures that can grow up to eight feet long and live up to 150 years—have used the river for millennia as a nursery. The way, in the spring and fall, the river and its marshes serve as a place of refuge for tens of thousands of migrating Canada geese and sandhill cranes.

There are some immediate things we can do about restoring the Kalamazoo River to its original state as a clean and healthy river system. For starters, as we understand the fragile and interconnected beauty of the entire scope of life on the Kalamazoo River—its marshes and swamps, its wetlands and bayous—we begin to appreciate the value of these resources. Once we value the river for what it is and what it could be, restoring a clean and healthy river system flowing freely to Lake Michigan becomes a priority.

It’s not going to be quick or easy though. We’ll have to be able to pay attention over the long haul, because a full cleanup of all the oil and PCBs is going to be a process measured in decades.

Maybe there is no use in crying over spilt oil. Who knows? It’s more of a question of education, appreciation, values, dedication and responsibility to ourselves and the people of the future, the citizens we may never meet.

Right now, the headlines look at least as bad for the Kalamazoo River as they did for Harry Truman before the 1948 presidential election; but he won the election despite the odds. Surprising and unbelievable things can happen when citizens pay attention and work together.

Together, we will find the right levers of change to restore the Kalamazoo River to its original health. My Grandpa Quada wouldn’t have it any other way.