People, like water, must flow somewhere

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Mesabi Tribune.

All water flows from one place to another. Water moves from high ground to low, through peat and sand, slowly cutting mighty stones into sediment. Then it changes form. Evaporates. Falling back to earth, water begins anew.

I grew up in the St. Louis River watershed, specifically the Sax-Zim bog that drains into the southbound river as it approaches Lake Superior. My family roots tap into the Embarrass River watershed, which flows north to Hudson Bay. And today I call the Mississippi River watershed home, walking most days past the Prairie River as it begins a long journey to the Gulf of Mexico.

Indeed, in northern Minnesota our water flows in all directions. So it is fitting that we have become the hub of a debate about the future of water amid climate change, new technologies, and resources.

Here we must consider Ranae Lenor Hanson’s new book “Watershed: Attending to Body and Earth in Distress” (2021, University of Minnesota Press). Hanson’s book is no textbook on hydrology. In fact, “Watershed” serves as a deeply personal memoir that speaks to these broad issues through timely metaphor.

A climate story told by a retired instructor of writing and global studies at Minneapolis College might seem a predictable affair, but Hanson’s book is full of surprises. 

Watershed: Attending to Body and Earth in Distress“Watershed” begins as a soft-focused memoir about a northern Minnesota woman and her growing relationship with the land. And yet Hanson does not cleave to any fixed narrative on the contentious matters of copper nickel mining or environmental policy. Rather refreshingly, she deals in observable reality. The story takes an impactful turn when Hanson details harrowing experiences with a would-be school shooter and her own diagnosis with a dangerous disease. 

Her personal tales test the weight of doing the right thing even when it’s hard. In this, she describes the crucible of our times. As we look beyond ourselves to concepts like “community,” “nation,” and “world,” we observe a proving ground for our very species.

As I was reading Hanson’s account of the life of a Type 1 diabetic I remarked to myself in sympathy, “I really, really wouldn’t want to become a diabetic.” And, neither did she. Yet as Hanson continues with the story, you realize that the same could be said of climate policy.

No one wants to conserve energy or give up convenient plastic packaging. We want goods to stay cheap and plentiful, and to eat the foods we grew up with in the quantities we please. Americans love our cars and trucks: big, powerful machines that roar with the boundless strength of unending supplies of gasoline. 

And yet, as climate change continues on its present path — perhaps irreparably — we will be forced to let these things go, just as the diabetic unhappily loses the biological ability to process certain foods. 

This isn’t good news; it’s trauma. It’s grief. We must heal. Those of us who grew up in the age of rampant consumption may never fully understand or embrace this new world. 

And yet today’s children will live the bulk of their lives in an uncompromising new reality of a warmer and less hospitable earth. But they do not have to die before their time. They need not give up the most important aspects of human society. Hanson’s writing implores us to do all we can to help the next generation now, no matter the pain of loss.

“Watershed” covers ground most any denizen of northern Minnesota would recognize, with a global perspective few of us attain. It takes us on a journey from childhood, when our surroundings are taken for granted, to adulthood, when we begin to understand the world we have inherited. It is this world, and all we have learned of it, that we bequeath to the next generation. 

“In this moment, before the next wave of collapse, we are alive,” writes Hanson. “This is the moment we have. Now. This is the only moment we have. What is the opening, here, at this time?”

In a sea of books about the environment and personal health, Hanson’s “Watershed” demonstrates the remarkable degree to which they are the same topic. 

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, June 27, 2021 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.