Living Waters


(This 938th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on March 15, 2009.)




Margaret Wooster's new book, Living Waters: Reading the Rivers of the Lower Great Lakes (SUNY Press) is simply wonderful. Everyone interested in the natural history of our region should read this inexpensive paperback. Although I have spent most of my life in this region, I learned a great deal from her account and I found my copy so interesting and well written that it kept me up all night.


What is so remarkable about "Living Waters" is how Wooster has been a player in so many of this region's activities over many years. She brings to her writing first hand knowledge of not only the nature of the region but also the history and science that supports our great heritage and the politicians and industrial leaders, who care too little about the future and have done so much to ruin it.


Each chapter explores a region with its particular values and problems. Here we read about the region's rivers: Niagara, Buffalo, Genesee, Oswego, and St. Lawrence. About Lakes Erie, Ontario and Onondaga. About Scajaquada and Cattaraugus Creeks and the northern Adirondack watershed.


The depth of Wooster's treatment is quite remarkable. I wrote some time ago about Scajaquada Creek and followed the creek with Larry Brooks from Hoyt Lake to Niagara Street to identify some of its scenery and problems. Here I learned much more about this stream. In a chapter titled "Portrait of an Urban Creek", Wooster traces the Scajaquada's long underground and finally aboveground path all the way upstream to Cheektowaga where she raced developer's earthmovers to visit the spring from which it began.


In one of her typically moving passages she describes this spring as "a depression in the earth, maybe a foot in diameter and ten inches deep, with fine sands at the bottom pulsing and bubbling like oatmeal boiling in a pot. Cold, crystal clear water overflows the brim. We can feel, deep in the spring's bottom sands, the mysterious heartbeat of underground forces - the birth pulse of young Scajaquada. It is the first spring I have ever seen bubbling straight from the ground and it is breathtaking, surrounded by its own micro-ecosystem of tiny plants and snails. The aquatic species that live here may exist nowhere else on earth. Headwater springs play an irreplaceable role in their contribution to biodiversity since the abundant species they host often have small geographic ranges and therefore, over time, survive based on their adaptation to local conditions."


Wooster talked with Native American historian and healer Moses Shongo about the source of the name Scajaquada and the configuration of the original creek where it emptied into the Niagara at Black Rock. She describes this rock as "a 300-foot-long, 5-foot-high formation of ebony-colored chert" that was blasted out of existence in 1824 to make way for the Erie Canal. She also tells of the excellent fishing that was known here: "4-pound pickerel and lake trout; herring said to be so plentiful that three casts of a net would fill a barrel."


Wooster's prose makes us care about this creek today and worry about its future at a time when ill-informed "solutions" to its problems are being considered by politicians.


The facts about our waters are daunting. Wooster refers to the United Nations World Water Assessment Program, which estimates that one in six people, or a little over one billion people, currently lack access to adequate drinking water. Their report also raises questions about water quality in the future. "Will it be drinkable? Fishable? Swimmable? Over half of the world's lakes and estuaries are now too contaminated for fishing and swimming." That even our Great Lakes are not immune to these problems is underscored by Wooster's learning about "a young beluga whale in the Gulf of St. Lawrence with ten times the level of PCBs in its body than what would qualify a hazardous waste site by Canadian law."


There is much that is discouraging in this important book. Our stewardship of our waters in the past has too often been deficient, too often even purposefully and criminally wrong. But Wooster's near poetic essays make evil deeds at least palatable and the splendid example of her own commitment clearly indicates a brighter future for our living waters.—Gerry Rising