“Spirituality = hidden connectedness of the planet.”
-Dr. Margaret Wooster
Dr. Margaret Wooster dropped this lovely equation on me just as we were about to say goodbye after our recent Zoom conversation. The formal part of the interview had already ended, and we were discussing various pieces of what we had talked about for the last 45 minutes. But that’s the end of our conversation. First, let’s start at the beginning.
Quartzite Falls on the Slate River in Michigan's Upper Peninsula (photo by Dan Robinson)
Dr. Wooster is the former head of Great Lakes United, a community planner, environmental activist, and an author, who just this fall came out with her latest book, Meander: Making Room for Rivers, which shares stories and experiences from her time working to protect the rivers of western New York state around her hometown of Buffalo, NY.
I interviewed her last fall, and I had wanted to follow up on a theme we only touched on briefly then – dealing with the struggle and inevitable heartache that comes from working to protect a spot on this earth, including the Great Lakes. Instead, our conversation turned towards hope.
Wooster told the story of Scajaquada Creek that is buried underground as part of the sewer system near her home. But the Creek then enters a cemetery where it literally springs to new life at the surface, with the help of 30 underground springs. What was once thought to be dead is alive again, it seems. “That's what gives me hope,” Wooster said. “How little we see. How little we know and that's both bad and, it's not good, but at least it's a possibility that maybe we don't really know that there's some hidden connections, some possible resilience, something left over and now I think that all the time.”
First, You Have to See
Wooster also told the story of a group of middle schoolers she accompanied on a river restoration outing to Buffalo Creek. The students weren’t excited at first to be there, but as the time wore on, they enjoyed the day more and more, including a trip to a waterfall during lunch where they could splash around. “When we got to the waterfall, they were like, elated,” Wooster said. “It was a beautiful day. They took off their shoes, they were jumping around. It's a beautiful, but safe, low waterfall.”
“This girl found this (pocketbook) mussel. And it turned out to be a species that the DEC (New York Department of Environmental Conservation) says is locally extirpated and has been since 1995 or something.” Because of the girl and others finding this mussel, Wooster continued, “The DEC revised their list and took it off the extirpated list.”
We often don’t see because we’re not looking, Wooster added. “So I think that's what I've decided is my purpose in life, to help people see the wonder, the mysteries, the greatness of what's here.”
Sometimes We Choose Not to See
The Genesee River runs from south to north, a border for the western quarter of New York State, and empties into Lake Ontario at the city of Rochester. According to Wooster in her book Meander (pp. 123-126), the Holland Land Company purchased over 4 million acres of land west of the Genesee River from an American speculator, Robert Morris, in the 1790s. Morris had purchased the rights to the land from the state of Massachusetts. The original people on that land, however, were the Seneca Nation, who were forced to sell “the rights” to most of their land in the Treaty of Big Tree in 1797.
The Holland Land Company immediately hired Joseph Ellicott to survey and subdivide the land into 6-mile square townships, and then smaller sections within the townships, in order to sell it. The work ignored, “existing flows of land and stream except when those patterns interfere with the regular and orderly method of land disposal.” (p. 125)
The owners of the Holland Land Company never visited the land they purchased. That willful choosing to not see how the land and the water flowed together, to even not see the place at all, served the Company’s profits well. The choice not to see has historically served those who colonize. As Wooster said in our conversation, “If you’re invading a place and taking it over, you haven’t co-evolved with that place, so, you know, it almost suits your purpose to be blind to it and impose your vision.”
The consequences for the Indigenous people of a place, the land, the water, all the life there can be devastating when the colonizers choose not to see. “There were just so many sturgeon and salmon and lake trout,” below Niagara Falls, Wooster said. “So there was this plenitude, and people just took it for granted and killed randomly. Just like we did the buffalo, we killed the fish. There was a lot of extirpation happening with settlement, and part of it was to get it out of the way and part of it really was random acts of violence, I would say.”
Everything is Interdependent
During our conversations, Wooster often quotes the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which seeks to ensure the “chemical, physical, and biological integrity” of the Great Lakes. This concept of the integrity and health of the Basin, she said, shows that “everything is interdependent.”
As is often the case with her, Wooster likes to tell a practical example of this. “These wonderful Pocketbook Mussels can make this little fishy-like thing out of their mantle. It's very realistic, and other fish come to get it to eat it. And the mussel sprays that fish with all of its baby mussels. And then those baby mussels are fed and getting oxygen living off this fish. But they don't hurt the fish... They fall off eventually and make the next generation of mussels.”
However, the mussels are struggling because of pollution in the river and dams keeping fish from traveling up the river. “So, there's the chemical, physical and biological integrity,” she said. “Those mussels can't exist unless the stream is all connected, unless their host species, in our case, small mouth bass, are present.”
Wooster’s first book was titled, Somewhere to Go on Sunday: A Guide to Natural Treasures in Western New York and Southern Ontario. ”I was sort of commissioned to write that book. It wasn’t my idea. And so I didn’t really think of myself as a guide, but I do now. I feel like I’ve lived here long enough that I know about where things are and how things work,” she said.
Speaking about her hometown and region, Wooster said, “I feel very committed on the one hand to leaving it better than I found it here, and also to sharing what I know with anybody who will listen.”
Or anyone who is willing to see that spirituality = hidden connectedness of the planet.