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Reading the Water

My favorite passage from Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi is the part in which Twain writes about learning from his river boat pilot how to “read the water.”

“The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book,” writes Twain,

a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day. Throughout the long twelve hundred miles there was never a page that was void of interest, never one that you could leave unread without loss, never one that you would want to skip, thinking you could find higher enjoyment in some other thing. There never was so wonderful a book written by man; never one whose interest was so absorbing, so unflagging, so sparkingly renewed with every re-perusal.

I grew up on a tiny Michigan lake, punctuated with small boats. There I learned to read lake water: how the color changed when a thunderstorm was brewing, how the surface riffles warned of wind puffs that could flip an unwary sailor, when to mistrust the ice.

When I married into a family of hardcore canoe trippers, I learned to read rivers, too. Our most memorable trip was a 21-day adventure down Alaska’s Noatak River. Seated in the bow of the lead canoe, my role became “scout”—likely because I had the best eyesight in the group at the time.

Now, four people on their own crusing down a river in the middle of six million acres of wilderness need to know everything the water can tell about currents, rocks, rapids, rising levels, and safe places to pull out. Every day before we set out, we would discuss what the water was telling us about what lay ahead. We learned when we could relax, when to be vigilant, and when to change plans. 

Much like the Noatak River, our natural systems are changing rapidly from one moment to the next. We need ears and eyes—“educated passengers,” so to speak—that can read what our waters, our soils, our forests, and the communities that depend on them are trying to tell us.

The Wisconsin Academy undertook two initiatives in the last year in an attempt to capture and collate what is being told: one initiative, a retrospective and prospective analysis of the waters of Wisconsin, and, another, an exploration of Wisconsin’s climate and energy status. The evolving product of countless discussions and collaborations, these initiatives have given us tools to help all of us better read the signs of change and potential risk around the next bend in Wisconsin’s future.

Disappearing rivers and expanding algae blooms tell us one story; wild swings between a year of drought and a year of torrential rains tell another. Eagles in the sky and healthy fish returning to urban streams tell yet another story. These stories are really just chapters in a larger story of our intertwined relationship with the natural world and how we choose to live with it in Wisconsin. The more we learn to read and understand this story, the better we can navigate immediate—and potential or future—hazards and find the safest and most beautiful passage through a time of ecological and cultural transition. 

As a nonpartisan organization working at the intersection of the sciences, arts, and letters, we’re eager to bring scientific analysis and cultural context to the issues we face here in Wisconsin and in the world at large. We hope the articles in this special double issue of Wisconsin People & Ideas will spark your curiosity and challenge you to examine these topics in new ways. 

In this issue we take a look at the waters of Wisconsin, a decade after the Wisconsin Academy issued its first generation of landmark recommendations to safeguard Wisconsin’s freshwater ecosystems and water supply. We also consider Wisconsin’s role as an energy consumer, and how energy choices are shaping Wisconsin’s landscape—both literally and figuratively. And, we tell stories of Wisconsin innovators in the vanguard of fresh energy solutions. They’re not only reducing our carbon footprint; they are the “scouts” looking downstream for ways to navigate the challenges and opportunities of our times for a better passage on the way to sustainability and resilience.

Mark Twain lamented that “the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river” once he had learned to read its navigational language. I find that the more I know, the greater my awe is for the complex life support systems on Earth and our role in them. The elegant interconnections that cycle air and water and energy through the biosphere have new stories to tell every day, if we’re willing to hear them.

Tell us what you are “reading” in the water, the skies, or the pulse of your community, and how it is shaping your future. We’re all on this journey together.

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Jane Elder recently retired from her position as Executive Director of the Wisconsin Academy. She brought to the Wisconsin Academy a strong background in public policy leadership, nonprofit management, and involvement in Wisconsin arts.

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