• Dan Robinson

Healing Where Life Connects: a Great Lakes Witness

“We know that life thrives where water meets the land.” -Jill Jedlicka, Executive Director of Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper

Throughout the history of the Great Lakes, life has thrived across the Basin, especially in those places where different parts of the ecosystems meet or connect.


For example, I live not too far from Green Bay, what some have called the largest freshwater estuary in the world. The Bay is fed by the Fox River from the southeast and empties into Lake Michigan to the northwest. At the other end of the Great Lakes Basin/St. Lawrence River system is the world’s largest estuary, the St. Lawrence Estuary, where the River meets the Atlantic Ocean.

Estuaries are found where the mouth of a river and its surrounding wetlands meet a larger body of water, like an ocean or a Great Lake, and life can thrive in these connecting points of water bodies.


I’ve been thinking about this idea of life thriving where different bodies meet, whether they be bodies of water or water and the land. I started down this road (or river, if you will) while watching a video

produced by the Great Lakes Commission Sunset over for Green Bay

about the restoration work being done with

the Buffalo River in western New York. The video highlights the 13 restoration projects on the Buffalo River funded by the U.S. Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) as a partnership between the Commission and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

It was in that video that I heard Ms. Jedlicka say, “We know that life thrives where water meets the land.” She goes on to say that this is true “for the ecology as with the human element of our community.” That place of connection between water and land helps life thrive, no matter what kind of life.



Soon after watching that video, I received an email from a new subscriber to the Great Lakes Spirituality Project, Evelyn Wackett, who wrote, “I know for myself when I stand on the shores of the lake, nature speaks to me. The waves beating on the shore. Watching the birds soar over the water brings me so much peace.” Again, life thrives (in this case, a spiritual life) where water and land connect.

Life, unfortunately, can also suffer at these connecting points because of human actions. It’s no secret that people are drawn to water for physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Wallace J. Nichols wrote about this phenomenon in his book, Blue Mind. According to the National Institutes for Health, 90% of the human population live within 10 km (or about 6 miles) of a surface freshwater body.

That human attraction to the shore and coast in the Great Lakes Basin has historically come with a cost in the form of pollution, sediment run-off, and overall damage to the ecosystems of where we live. The GLRI has received about $3.48 billion in the last ten years to help heal that damage, and a map of GLRI-funded projects shows them clustered along the shores of rivers and the Great Lakes, and where the rivers connect to the Lakes.


Life can thrive or it can be seriously damaged at these points of connection or intersection, these estuaries and shorelines. That truth reminds me that human points of connection or intersection between cultures and different groups of people can also be opportunities for human life to thrive, or they can be stories of violence and oppression.


Augustine of Hippo, a saint in the Roman Catholic tradition, once said that “The world is a book, and those who do not travel only read one page.” Whether we travel across the globe or to different parts of our community, encountering others from a variety of backgrounds and cultures can open our minds to new possibilities, new truths, new ways of seeing, and thus help us to thrive in our life.

However, in the history of the U.S., colonialism and violence have too often been the rule when those of European descent have encountered people of other cultures. From the enslavement of African people and their descendants, to the destruction and elimination of Indigenous nations, to systemic racism today, the connecting points between peoples and cultures have done damage and violence to life.


That’s why the stories of recovery and healing taking place across the Great Lakes Basin, for me, are also stories of hope beyond these waters and land. Yes, we have a long way to go in healing the Basin, but healing is possible, as the story of the Buffalo River tells us. These stories serve as a witness for how life can thrive even after violence and severe damage.

Healing takes an honest, fact-based assessment of the damage done; a reckoning, even if incomplete, for those responsible for the violence and damage (including self-reflection); and a serious commitment in people, time, resources, and perseverance to do the work of healing.

That last point of commitment, I believe, is one of the ways spirituality enters the picture. For many of us, our spirituality informs how we connect to a larger vision of life and reality, to the Creator, God, or the Great Mystery. Seeing ourselves as part of a larger reality, and working towards a goal greater than ourselves, can motivate us and sustain us in the hard and long work of healing. It is that healing that allows life, “the ecology as with the human element of our community,” to thrive in the connecting points, the estuaries and shorelines of our world and the Great Lakes.

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