If you’re familiar with Thomas Berry’s work, you’ll know where his passion for protecting our planet started. He explains that when he was a young boy, there was a meadow close to the place he called home. To him, this meadow represented all that was good and all that should be protected. His relationship with the meadow would become a foundational piece of his work. He would use it to explain the abstract concept of a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship – simply put: anything that harms the meadow is bad and anything that helps it flourish is good.
Last year, Peter Brown, my supervisor, asked me if I had a similar sort of “revelation” or “narrative” about how I came to care so much about people’s relationship with water, which is the focus of my research. I admit that I didn’t give it much thought at the time, but after a meeting with some members of the Great Lakes Commons where we were planning a gathering, someone said something that sparked emotions in me; emotions towards water that I didn’t know I had. See, the land acknowledgement that settlers (a group that I am part of) give at the beginning of a gathering is often seen as a sign of respect and recognition towards Indigenous peoples right to land, but it should also be meant as an acknowledgement of gratitude to the land for providing us with a place to gather (and much more). This is what Waasekon (Edward George, a water advocate, community organizer and ceremonial helper from the south-eastern shoreline of Lake Huron, Saugeen First Nation) explained to us during our meeting. He added that before this gathering we were planning, participants should create a personal water acknowledgement based on this deeper concept of a land acknowledgement.
When I look back at some of my earliest childhood memories, they involve water. I remember the pond in my parents’ backyard where goldfish would spawn every year. I would catch some of the babies, put them in a bucket to observe them and later release them in the pond. I remember sneakily telling my grandmother that my sister and I were allowed to go walk in the pond when she babysat us and receiving a scolding from my parents when they found out. I remember taking walks with that same grandmother after heavy rains and finding worms that had escaped the soaked soil on the sidewalk and picking them up to put them back on the now dry soil. I remember visiting my aunt and cousins in upstate New York and playing with frogs that lived in puddles in their backyard. I remember my 4th-grade teacher, Madame Hamelin, taking us to her house on the shores of Laval and letting us play with tadpoles in the water.
I also remember the first time I went to sleepaway camp when I was about the same age. It was my first time getting in a kayak. I couldn’t believe how freeing it felt to paddle as fast as I could down the small streams, feeling the cold water splash from my paddle onto my warm body. From every family vacation I’ve taken, I can remember a moment that involved water: from the large ponds close to hotels we stayed at in Florida to Ausable Chasm in Vermont, just a few hours away from Montreal.
Water comes in many forms and we experience them all here in Montreal. I, of course, recall how excited we were as children for the school to close due to a snowstorm and be able to play outside all day. I remember my father building forts in the winter with me. I also fondly remember going to build snowmen with my university friends when the school work became too stressful. Of course, I have some less fond memories of water as well. There was the time I was at the water park with my family and a child my age drowned while we were there. Or the time I went to a friend’s family cottage for her birthday during black fly season. At the end of a day spent in the water, we all counted our black fly bites and I proudly had a record 19 bites. There was also the time I went kayaking in Lac Simon and the water level was so low that most of the trip ended up being portage. My arms were sore for a week. Let’s not forget the ice storm that hit Montreal in 1998, when we were trapped indoors for weeks. My aunt was visiting from Columbia and she was stuck in our little ice town until the weather decided to let her leave.
I also have a clear memory of when I realized that water was an important part of my life, even if I had never given much thought to it. See, I live in Montreal, an island on the St-Lawrence river. I went to a high school that was just along the shore. Every day on my way to school I would see the water. When I went to Cegep in downtown Montreal, I missed the water, but I would still see the pond in my parents’ backyard every night. It wasn’t until summer of 2015, when I went to Lethbridge, Alberta, to do research on variable rate irrigation that I realized how lucky I had been to grow up surrounded by water. Lethbridge has a semi-arid climate. The summer days are warm and dry; the nights cool with clear skies. The city is split in two by the Old Man River, which flows down from Calgary, the capital of Alberta. It’s glacier water, so it’s a beautiful clear blue. But this river, it was nothing like the river I had grown up on. I could see the other side, and on some parts, I could even walk across it because it was so shallow. Still, every morning, as I drove to work I admired the river and the coulees around it that were so foreign to me. Often, I would take walks at night to be close to the river and try to spot wildlife like beavers, owls, and bats that all sought comfort on the Old Man’s shores. It was during that summer that I realized how lucky I had been to grow up on an island, with water surrounding me. It was in this arid weather that I craved more than anything to go back to the shores of the St-Lawrence. It was also that summer that I realized how we, humans and other species alike, are all drawn to the shores, to the water that gives us so much and receives so little in return.
So my acknowledgement to water starts with an apology. I apologize for having taken you for granted for so long. I thank you for always being by my side, even when I wasn’t aware of how special you really were to me. I want to thank you for giving me all these memories with friends, family, and of course with you. Thank you for using your strength to bring us all together by your shores. From the warm summer days spent walking by your side, to the cold winter days when the snow is just the right consistency to build a snowman, I am grateful to you.
Here’s what I’ve learned by giving myself the time to think about my relationship with water. Establishing the right relationship with the world we live in starts by showing gratitude for what we have. Now, when I walk along the Lachine Canal with my dog and I spot a great heron, I am grateful that this water body is providing food and shelter for this great bird, and giving me a chance to catch a glimpse of him. In the winter when the temperature is so low that the cold air freezes my lungs with every breath, I look at the scintillating snow and I’m grateful that it’s protecting the small plants on the ground and sheltering them from the intense winds. On those days, I look at the trees and I thank them for showing me how to stand tall and endure this frigid weather. I want the water to know that I am grateful for all that she does for me, and I hope that I can be a good friend and give her something in return, even if she tells me that she’s fine.
*Laura is a Ph.D. candidate in the Economics for the Anthropocene Project (E4A) in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences at McGill University. To see her profile, please click here