Noun: story (plural stories)
• A sequence of real or fictional causal events; or, an account of such a sequence.
• A lie.
• (chiefly US) A floor or level of a building; a storey.
• (US, colloquial, usually pluralized) A soap opera.
• (obsolete) History.
• A sequence of events, or a situation, such as might be related in an account.

Source: Wiktionary

What moves you? What concerns you? Perhaps you have your own story or would like add an caption to an existing image?

We invite you to engage with the art & stories throughout Talking Water Project.

We intend this site to allow you to immerse yourself into a conversation about water through the import that art carries!



(Stories) Funeral for the Don River

@ Water's Edge

@ Water’s Edge

In 1969, a funeral was held for the Don River in Toronto. The river had been dying a slow death for a long time, and according to the Toronto Telegram, the funeral was long overdue. The river was contaminated by raw sewage, effluents from heavy industry, and high levels of nutrients and E. coli. From the late eighteenth century onwards, factories, tanneries, breweries and mills began to line the Don river. They used it as a source of power and as a quick way to dispose of waste. In 1886, parts of the riverbank underwent a massive reconstruction that involved straightening the course of the river to reduce flooding, improve rail access and increase the value of surrounding land. This was referred to by the city as an ‘improvement,’ although all that was improved was the human ability to exploit the waterway more efficiently.

People treated the Don as a dumping ground and sewer. It was valued for its ability to enhance business and industry, not for its natural qualities. It was not just heavy industry that was to blame for the death of the Don, though, but the everyday actions of Torontonians over more than a century. Like many urban rivers, it became a cesspool of contaminants from pesticides, detergents and other products. It was muddy brown some days, and bright colours other days, when dyes from the paper mill were dumped into the water.

In 1969, a group called Pollution Probe formed in Toronto. Environmental action groups were forming across North America, and Pollution Probe was the first of its kind in Canada. One of their first actions was a funeral for the Don River. They put up posters which said “Pollution Probe regrets to announce the untimely passing of the Don River and invites all grief stricken parties to weep and gnash their teeth at a funeral.” Many of the group’s members were students at the University of Toronto. Among them was Peter Love, who would go on to be Ontario’s Chief Energy Conservation Officer. Several hundred people attended the funeral. A cavalcade of cars made its way from the University of Toronto, to the Prince Edward viaduct along the Don River. Love’s station wagon led the unusual group of mourners and served as the hearse, carrying pails of dirty river water instead of a body.

A funeral service was then held on the banks of the Don. Several members of Pollution Probe wore 18th century period costumes, and told stories about the days when the river was clean and healthy. Meredith Ware was dressed as Elizabeth Simcoe, who was the wife of John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. In the 1790s, Elizabeth Simcoe had written in her diary about the beauty of the river, and its abundant supply of salmon. She also made drawings and sketches that captured a very different scenery from the current Toronto landscape. Ware read from Simcoe’s diary about the beauty of the river, and her speech served to remind those in attendance that the Don had not always been sick. Another Pollution Probe member was dressed up as “Sir Simon Greed,” a wealthy industrialist who spoke about the necessity of polluting the river in order to further the development of industry and commerce. Near the end of the funeral, Greed was pied in the face, drawing cheers and applause from the crowd.

Pollution Probe’s funeral for the Don River was an action borrowed from the tradition of street theatre, which became a popular mode of protest in the 1960s. The environmental movement was new in Canada at that time, and for many people, the funeral for the Don River would have been an introduction. Pollution Probe succeeded in drawing attention to the issue, and the event was covered by newspapers and media stations across the country. Pollution Probe could have used other means to deliver their message – they could have published a study or lobbied city politicians. Instead, they chose an unorthodox method that was meant to turn heads and get people to take notice. Their artistic action was, in part, a well calculated attempt to gain media attention, but it was also a symbolic gesture meant to stir emotions and emphasize the gravity of the issue. The performance took place in public space, and suggested to those in attendance that while the demise of the river had been caused by political will bending to economic interests, the will of the people could generate change and perhaps turn things around for the Don.

I Tried to Move

I Tried to Move

This is exactly what happened in the decades following the funeral. The Don River has seen a partial rebirth, with wetlands surrounding the river now in the process of being restored, and millions of trees having been planted along the river. Thousands of people use the river for leisure purposes, walking, cycling or runnings along its banks. Canoeing and kayaking is becoming more popular. The diversity of plant species lining the banks has increased, and there are sections along the river where it is difficult to believe that one is actually still in Toronto. Parts of the Don now look like they did when Elizabeth Simcoe painted her watercolours more than two hundred years ago.

While the water quality has improved, it could still be much better. It is not safe to swim in the Don, since there are high levels of E. coli, phosphorus and chloride, which leak into the river through urban runoff. However, thanks to the cumulative actions of individuals and groups like Pollution Probe, there is more public awareness about the pollution issues that affect the Don River. There is also a stronger public understanding of what needs to be done immediately and in the long term in order to improve water quality. Environmental groups have significantly helped to influence public opinion, making the restoration of the Don River an issue to which governments have been forced to respond. As an example of this, the City of Toronto implemented a 25 year plan in 2003 that aims to deal with flooding, and would greatly reduce the level of contaminants that make their way into the river system.

Pollution Probe’s mock funeral helped to bring attention to a polluted river. The action they performed was humorous, poignant, and engaging. It was an interruption in the everyday lives of urban dwellers, and it encouraged Torontonians to reconsider the relationship between themselves and their natural environment. The Don River still needs rehabilitation, but thanks to actions like this one, it now has a pulse.

Further Reading


Talking Water Project|Noni Brynjolson (2013)

(Stories) Art on a Flood Threatened House

Okay, it wasn’t perfect. But it wasn’t a bad name, we first called ourselves “The riverbank loan and savings company”. There we were, four artists : Rhian Brynjolson, painter, storyteller; Sam Baardman, songsmith, photographer; Debbie Schnitzer, poet, novelist; and Bob Haverluck, who draws pictures, then writes stories,poems or something on the bottom of them. We all live on the banks of the Red river, or nearby. Together we understand the river, lakes, earth, air to be not property, not a possession, but on loan. We want to help save the river and all, for our grandchildren or yours. So we first called ourselves, The Riverbank Loan and Savings Company. Now one of us kept saying, ”When people hear that name, none of them seem to know what the hell its supposed to mean. We need a different name.”

Now don’t be thinking we spend all our time on what to name the artists’ collective. We spent time figuring out how our art might lead people to the water, if not make them drink, deeply. As well, we mused together over the delight at each of us finding inspiration in one another’s work. “All art is theft”, declared the poet Eliot and we freely stole bits and pieces from one another. It helped that we all agreed that rivers, wetlands and lakes were something to celebrate big time. Together we also saw these beauties again and again abused, endangered, needing protests on their behalf. Celebration and protest of endangered waters. Maybe that helped us agree on the name we finally settled on: River on the Run.

“River on the run” is part of a closing line from words written on one of Haverluck’s drawings. The picture is of this character, presumably an artist, looks slightly demented to me. Pointing away from himself, the artist is holding up a duck who looks outraged,alarmed or both. Perhaps petitioning the heavens. The caption reads:

Against the arguments
of the stock exchange and
the end of a gun, the
artist aims
a loaded duck. And
a handful of cranberries,
black spruce in an Algonquin
bush. A general strike .
A locomotive and a horse.
Some woman named Suzanne.
A poet planting seed catalogues.
And a river
and on the run

Against the Argument

Against the Argument

The artist, it seems is toe to toe with the ruling order, armed with a circus clown’s toy box of cultural icons and sister mother nature’s offspring? Included, are a handful of cranberries, a forest and an endangered river on the run north. On the run from her attackers . Do the assailants include Manitoba Hydro Corporation who for decades has engineered our great rivers and lakes, turning them into sad reservoirs for the convenience of ever more hydro-electric generation? Is the wounded water on the run from farm field herbicides, pesticides and industrial fertilizers, the sewage of hundreds of thousands of factory farmed pigs invading by way of field drainage ditches? Is it also mayor Sam’s and council’s willfully inadequate sewage treatment plant that harries and haunts the river? Who endangers her and all her relations and who joins in the attempts to give her more voice? Maybe artists joining together can do a little towards rivers well being. Maybe calling the artists “River on the Run” isn’t a bad idea.

Whatever little we were to do, we knew the the wisdom of doing our homework. So we read and sought out conversations with and about the different forces at work in waters endangerment and waters well being. All of us are readers and all of us relished our conversations with water biologists , researchers , activists… and as well, spokesman for factory farming of animals, for engineering rivers and lakes and for defending the dumping half treated human excrement into the rivers. It all fed the use of poetry, drawing, painting, storytelling , photography, song in the keys of celebration and protest, delight and lament.

These became the stuff of several joint exhibitions , coupled with performances in small town and city, halls and house concerts .(Susan Israel often helped us with these.) In 2010 we began teaming with other artists out of the Arts of Water Artist’s Symposia, Jamie Olievero, Scot Douglas, Ellen Peterson, Gerry Wolfram, Derek Eides and others . River on the Run’s Venues included galleries, church halls, the West End Cultural centre and hotels, hotels where we were invited to be part of three international science based conferences on the well being of the waters.

There is some readiness among scientists, ecology educators and activists to invite artist to bring their right brained angles of vision. You, as well as I, know art can offer ways of seeing, thinking, feeling , knowing the world different from empirical sciences necessarily reductionist approach. Matters of seeming fact presuppose narrative frameworks, need conversations about values and visions such as artworks can provoke. Art can articulate a deep sense of the world that helps disturb the false peace of a science in the service of “nature as a mere resource” , as a “system to be developed for human exploitation.”

Art must, to our way of thinking show forth sister mother nature in ways different from this. Different from the iconic scientist Francis Bacon, who championed learning from nature mainly in order to master her. Francis Bacon, tragically one winter afternoon, spent too long in his back yard, enthusiastically stuffing snow and ice up the ass end of chickens, caught pneumonia and died. There is nothing on record to confirm the rumour that several chickens were seen at his funeral. Who of us wants chickens, caribou and rivers showing up at our funeral just to be sure that were finally dead?
During the 2009 spring flood, we noticed a derelict house on the riverside of Scotia Street, where most of our group live. Could the house become an art piece about the river waters, that now were all the news. Sam talked to the owners. Got us permission to have a go at it. We began on a side of the house facing up the street printing out large one of Debbie’s poems

Dear human …
Thank you for the dike
it is true that
sometimes I am more full of myself
than I ought to be…
in my eagerness to river after ice …
you make shore of me. So tender when you stack..
You dike me
you really
dike me …
( remember that I do not carry
your refuse lightly)

Along the lengthy wall with the poem were numerous prints of sam’s photograph’s. Intriguing and unsettling images, near parables of river and lakes relations with humans.When folks followed the bread crumbs along that wall they found a poem by Rhian and more of Sam’s alluring photos. At the back of the house they were four feet from the dike. On the nearby sandbags making up the dike, we wrote out phrases and lines of poetry and made a few simple drawings.

Had folks first approached the house from the north they were faced with a couple of mural sized line and wash drawings. One was of a man being attacked by ducks. One duck was attached to his lip. Another duck was fixed to his nose, another to his ear. Below this piece of Haverluck’s was the writing: The ducks gently savaged the old man from asleep to awake.He thinks , “The canards have gone beserk. Gone nutso at humans turning their lake into a toilet.” Then the old man whispers, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

One sunny afternoon Sam arrived at the front of the house to hear melodious voices from the side. He listened. It was the voice of two teenage girls. They were reading aloud to one another, every word written on the walls of the derelict house.They were mending the necessarily broken circuit between the artwork and the listener, onlooker. They were accepting and opening the package the house was trying to deliver.

The abundance of walkers, going up and down Scotia on those spring days found the art house waiting for them in ambush. TV cameras and a newspaper reporter soon appeared, giving publicity to the event. After about twelve days, a real estate dealers complaints meant we whitewashed the place as earlier agreed. However, the art house had done its job, intriguing hundreds of viewer , leaving them musing more deeply about what might better make for the well being of our relation to the rivers and waters.

Some of the work of the above artists are found elsewhere on this site. As well, the website offers more related pieces and background.

Talking Water Project|Bob Haverluck (2013)

(Stories) Pete Seeger & the Hudson River Sloop

For Pete Seeger, music and political protest have always gone hand in hand. The folk singer and activist has worked tirelessly for different causes throughout his career. He has sung in labour marches, protested the war in Vietnam, and performed at civil rights events, always with banjo in hand. Seeger loved to bring people together, and always wanted the audience to sing with him and struggle with him to make a more just world. There could be no sweeter sound for Seeger than thousands of people harmonizing to the lyrics: “Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, We shall overcome, some day.”



Seeger was a constant thorn in the side of the establishment, and he was labeled a communist and brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. He was sentenced to a year in jail for his evasive answers, since he refused to give details about where he had performed, or incriminate anyone he had associated with. Seeger appealed the case successfully and managed to avoid jail time, but he was blacklisted and banned from the airwaves, many public performance venues and college campuses until the late 1960s. The incident was a reminder of how threatening words and songs can be to those in power, and how far they will go to prevent oppositional viewpoints from gaining momentum.

In the late 1960s, Seeger began to focus his efforts on the burgeoning environmental movement in the United States. This came from reassessing his place in the world, and thinking about the issues that affected him personally. Seeger had always been interested in the outdoors, and had built his own house on a hilltop in Beacon, New York, where he and his wife, Toshi Seeger, still live. All Pete had to do was step out into his backyard and stare into the polluted sludge that was the Hudson River, and he found a cause. At the turn of the 20th century the river was much clearer. One could swim without worrying about swallowing raw sewage, and eat fish from the river without worrying about mercury poisoning. Decades of PCB contamination from General Electric and other companies in the region had poisoned the river, as had pesticide use, heavy metals, and dioxins. It got to the point where most people in New York thought it was beyond saving; a toxic chemical dumping ground instead of a river.

Luckily, Seeger was used to people telling him it was pointless to try to change things. He dreamed up an idea that seemed harebrained to many of his friends: he would build a replica of a Dutch sailing sloop – a ship that was common to the Hudson in the 18th and 19th centuries. Perhaps, he thought, something majestic and unexpected would bring people to the river, and would inspire them to help save it. It was around this time that Seeger wrote My Dirty Stream (The Hudson River Song):

Sailing down my dirty stream
Still I love it and I’ll keep the dream
That some day, though maybe not this year
My Hudson River will once again run clear.

With the support of friends and environmentalists from the region, the Clearwater sloop was built and launched in 1969. It was 106 feet long, with a wood frame and massive 3,000 square-foot sail. It looked like it was from another era. The ship became a site for environmental advocacy and public education about the Hudson River. Since it first set sail, hundreds of thousands of people have boarded the Clearwater to learn about the fragile ecosystem surrounding the Hudson.

Seeger was a constant thorn in the side of the establishment, and he was labeled a communist and brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955.

Seeger’s initial idea gave way to Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc., a nonprofit organization run by environmentalists, educators, and a sailing crew. The group organizes sailing trips onboard the Clearwater geared towards a variety of different audiences. It hosts schools, community outreach programs, corporate groups and aspiring environmentalists. Its main program is the “Sailing Classroom,” which was designed for school groups. A typical outing might involve kids being introduced to the history of the Hudson River, the Clearwater sloop, and the modern environmental movement. Each sailing trip can be designed around a theme, including history, anthropology, geography, biology, art, music and poetry. Different stations are set up on the boat by volunteers, and students have the chance to visit five of them during a three hour sail. At one station, students get hands-on experience learning about fish of the Hudson River. At another, students learn how to monitor the quality of the river water, and perform simple tests to measure salinity, dissolved oxygen, pH and turbidity. An art station encourages students to learn about painters of the Hudson River school, and make their own artworks onboard that are inspired by the river. The idea behind the stations is to get students actively involved in learning about the Hudson. Through creative ways of teaching, the Clearwater continues to spread knowledge and awareness about cleanup efforts. Their work over the past several decades is a reminder that when people work together, small actions add up and can lead to real, measurable changes.

Since it first set sail, the Clearwater has played a major role in environmental advocacy in New York, and has helped to put pressure on governments to change laws. The Clean Water Act was passed by the the federal government in 1972, three years after the Clearwater set sail. PCBs were banned in 1977, and GE was forced to spend millions of dollars to dredge up PCB-contaminated sludge from the Hudson. The river is slowing getting cleaner, and mercury levels in fish have decreased considerably. The Clearwater continues to spread awareness about the river and the role that humans play in shaping the ecosystem around them. The clean up act continues, and the sloop that Pete Seeger dreamed into being has been a big part of the movement. The ship was meant to pique curiosity and inspire action. Like one of Seeger’s songs, it started with one voice, and then grew into a chorus of folks united in their desire for change:

Come along with me
Upon this broad old river.
We will see what we can do.
For when we work together
In all kinds of weather
There’s no telling what the power of the people and the river can do.
(Broad Old River by Pete Seeger, Dan Einbender, Travis Jeffrey, Al Nejmeh, and Steve Stanne)


  • Dunaway, David King. How Can I Keep from Singing? The Ballad of Pete Seeger. New  York: Villard, 2008.


  • “Broad Old River,” on the album Fast Folk Musical Magazine (Vol. 1, No. 2), released by Folkways Records in 1984.
  • “My Dirty Stream (The Hudson River Song),” on the album God Bless the Grass, released by Folkways Records in 1982.
  • “We Shall Overcome Someday,” on the album We Shall Overcome, released by Columbia Records in 1963.

Talking Water Project|Noni Brynjolson (2013)

(Stories) A Creek & a People Restored

A little girl laughs as she splashes in the Diebold Creek that runs once more through the Kumeyaay Nation, in southern California. This creek in years past had nurtured their wetlands. In the shade of the oak, willow, and pine trees that again grow here, her mother picks the grasses that she will weave into baskets using the simple and elegant patterns her great grandmother wove.

As she picks, she remembers when she was a little girl how barren and dry this creek bed was. The area was so desolate. The creek bed had become a 12 ft. deep ravine, where water flowed for only a couple of weeks after a heavy rain. The native grasses of the wetlands had been over-grazed and reseeded with European grasses. The mighty oaks that provided the shade for the more fragile willows and pine trees had almost disappeared having been over-cut and not replaced.

Post: Restoration


Post: Restoration


She thinks about when the Spanish settlers first saw the lush wetland grasses. They assumed it was natural pasture land, instead of carefully cared for ancient grain fields. The ranchers, continually wanting more grazing land did not listen to how her wise ancestors had understood and cared for these wetlands. How they had broadcast seed, transplanted seedlings, enhanced the ground water, and controlled erosion. By using controlled burns, they cleared underbrush and opened seeds to grow. Instead, the ranchers drained the swamps, not realizing they were part of the delicate ecological balance. Then, believing the oaks were just in the way, they cut them down or sold the logging rights which were not theirs to sell.

But fortunately the story doesn’t end there. Just twenty-seven years ago Mike Connolly gave up a well paying job as an aerospace engineer, to come to the Campo Reservation, homeland of his mother. In 1990, the General Council of his band created the Campo Environmental Protection Agency (CEPA). He and six other staff members have honoured the traditional knowledge of their original environmental specialists called Kwasiiay. They followed the wisdom of the elders about placing large boulders in the stream bed to slow the water and catch the silt. Since 1992, they have combined this knowledge with modern methodologies including the use of heavy equipment to re-grade the creek bed and banks, to add 200 tons of rock, and to use geotextile materials as foundation for the rock.

And that wasn’t all. They built a nursery so they could plant and nurture native oaks, willows, cottonwoods, cypress and pines. They used these saplings in the reforestation program, not just along the creek, but throughout the community. Now people can landscape their yards with beautiful trees and plants that are hardy, and require less water.

The native trees provide much more than just beauty and shade. Acorns and pine nuts were once part of a healthy diet. It is hoped that re-introducing these nuts into their diets will help prevent diabetes and other diseases.

Post: Restoration

This creek was badly affected by years of cattle grazing. There was no water on the surface. The soil and decomposed bedrock were dry. The only permanent water was underground in bedrock fractures.

Post: Restoration

Now there is water on the surface in the stream bed, and the layers below the surface are also saturated with water.

It’s incredible how this community has turned around since 1992. What was becoming desert is now lush and the native animals are returning. Traditional medicine, food, and construction material grow and are used once more. The water table rose 20 feet, again providing adequate water for the residents. There were so few living here, as there was no way to make a living. With new jobs, and the possibilities of starting more, people from the reserve are returning home. CEPA is planning to expand the restoration to other streams on the reservation. And there’s a new initiative shared with the Western Regional Air Partnership to help regulate air quality as industrialization increases. As well there’s a wind power plant being built. The last cattle are gone, and with them the nitrates from their waste, the overgrazing, and the destruction of the baby plants so necessary for replenishing the different species.

People now dare to hope. There is a growing pride in their culture, and respect for the wisdom of the elders. The children are learning in school about the care of their sacred resources, and that the stories of the elders are not just stories but science that still works!

The Kumeyaay are learning again that water is sacred and want to keep it alive spiritually. Their Creator came from a place of water, and built the land up from water. People are made from dirt and water and as part of creation are caretakers of the earth. Their tradition teaches how to live in harmony and at peace with each other, all other creatures, and creation. They leave enough nuts and grain for the other animals, manage the land, keep it healthy and productive, store water, and respect all life. Living intentionally, and with respect in creation, the Kumeyaay are showing that people can affect the environment in a positive way.

Talking Water Project|Bev Ward (2013)

(Stories) Laughter that Works: a Children’s Story

“Everybody hop on,”

Baruti calls, as the children start the merry-go-round. Round and round they go till Kagiso gets dizzy. The laughter doesn’t stop as they pause to let her off. And then away they go again.

“Mama, Mama,”

Kagiso calls as she runs off to find her mom in the vegetable garden. She proudly asks to help carry water from the storage tank that she and her friends were just helping to fill as their merry-go-round powered the ‘PlayPump’.

Post: Celebration


She is glad her mother doesn’t have to walk the 5 km. for water morning and afternoon, and has time for other things, like growing her favourite vegetables. Kagiso loves school, and remembers the times she could not go, because she also was needed to carry water for her family or school.

Running to the tank, Kagiso looks up at the large poster with the reminder on it to wash their hands to prevent sickness. She thinks about the days she missed school, or listened to the cries of her little brother when he was sick. How wonderful it is now to have clean water to drink, and enough water to wash.

She has heard her mother say that the PlayPumps were invented in Africa by Africans for Africans. Kagiso wonders what she might be able to invent to help her village.

Suddenly she hears Baruti calling his father.

“Come quick, Papa. The ‘PlayPump’ is stuck.”

Post: Celebration

Laugher @ PlayPump

He’s glad his father is one of the village men trained to fix it.

But Baruti never wants to sit still and already he’s calling the children to come play tag while they wait.

One of the men tests the water for bacteria while the children run. They draw a sample from the borehole that goes deep enough into the earth to provide safe drinking water.

Soon the men have found the necessary parts that are provided free of charge for the pump. And the merry-go-round is ready to go again. They call the children back and the laughter and water once more bubble up.

Talking Water Project|Bev Ward (2013)

(Stories) Hugging Trees, Hugging Water, Hugging Life

“Ya don’t know watchya got till its gone.”
goes the song.

Not so for Amrita. Amrita, a young woman who lived in the village of Khejarli, a drought burdened area of India. Khejari was also the name of the great shade tree which grew along with others near Amrita’s village and beyond. There were also food plants, grasses, flowers making this and similar places, oases. Oases, abounding in water, gazelles, songbirds and rose breasted quail. For Amrita like her family and others, the trees were like ladders leading up to and down from heaven. Trees like water and animals were a gift of God (Vishnu). They were to be treated with gentleness and respect. Never to be shown violence. Amrita, like her sister believers of the Hindu Bishnoi way, knew by faith nourishing experience that water’s gifts to life were inseparable from the water drinking, water holding, water shading trees. These green ladders were both a sign and the stuff of of a graceful earth and heaven. But not only were these trees a constant green shout of the Holy presence, they were a demand for their care and protection.

Cartoon: Trees


For Amrita, like the other children learned that the growing trees were family members.And each child would find a tree they would be especially close to. A tree they would talk with of heartfelt things. “Such intimacy with a tree?” Many westerners might smirk or snicker.

Toronto psychologist Lois Kunkel, who works occasionally with women in her childhood home of Liberia speaks to this in yet another context. Many Liberian women had suffered repeated sexual violence during the civil war. Following the war, many were beside themselves with the terrors that filled their minds and hearts. To begin their healing , many were encouraged by elders to seek a tree to sit with. In the intimate company of their tree, to speak the sorrows and the sweet sighs of their hearts. And so many began their mending.

Was Amrita fifteen or sixteen years old when the local ruler, Maharaja, decided to expand his great brick fort to better secure his domain? Hardwood trees would be needed to fire the brick kilns for this grand project. The year was 1754 ce.( What we call Canada was in diapers, the US wasn’t ready for short pants and Britain wasn’t yet calling herself Great.) The god-like Maharaja ordered his soldiers to go to the forests near Khejari village and cut down the trees needed to burn in the brick kilns. On the morning the soldiers entered the forest near Amrita’s village, Amrita and another young women were gathering herbs in the forest. Soon soldiers appeared and began to chop at the trees with their axes, everywhere Amrita and her companion could see. And from out of sight, also came the thud, thud sounds of iron on wood and the sounds of trees crashing to the ground. God’s tall green blessings were being savaged and destroyed everywhere around. As Amrita ran from one soldier to another begging them to stop, her companion ran toward their nearby village.They in turn alerted other nearby and distant villages. Soon the villagers came running to were Amrita had fruitlessly try to explain the dearness of trees to the soldiers. They arrived to see Amrita standing between another soldier and the the tree, he had chosen to topple. She was hugging the tree as if her life depended on it. No, she hugged that tree to herself as if her village and all she loved depended on it, was gathered up in that one tree. Before that loyal soldier chopped down that tree, he chopped Amrita down.

Cartoon: Trees

Tree Holding Sun

Everybody holds on to something, or somethings, as if their life depended on it. That is how Amrita and many around her held on to the trees which embodied the Holy’s gift to them and their children’s children. What is it that we hold on to? Not only Amrita, many other adults and children held on, hugged the trees and were murdered that day. The killing only ended when the Maharajah arrived in shame, offering apology and a royal decree of new law prohibiting the cutting of any live trees in that region of the country. That law protecting the trees and forests remain there to this day.

In India in the 1980s and 90s , when their was a push to lumber the diminishing forested areas, or to cut them for massive dam projects, the tree hugging ways of Amrita and the folk of Khejari came to life again. The new resistance movement was called the Chipko Movement . Chipko means “to hug” or embrace. The story of the Chipko movement can be found on this site.


For further information:

Talking Water Project|Bob Haverluck (2013)

(Stories) River Landscape, River Inscape, River Escape

The river was never just part of the landscape, it was where Stanley and the other children played, swam, skated, and snared rabbits along its banks for mom’s stewing pot. The river was where you could see the marvel of thousands of pickerel and jackfish journeying to spawn in the spring and then returning to their other home in Lake Winnipeg. (The tenth largest fresh water lake in the world.). Much of the well being and life of this first nations village had this little river, Fisher River running through it. Like many other first peoples‘ communities built on lakes and rivers, the waters and their shoreline was and is the lifeline. And so was this river to the young boy Stanley, who like many other children, was taken from his home and sent to a residential school on the other side of the province.

Cartoon: Postcard

A Love Bond!

For generations, residential schools, it was argued readied first nations children for living in the dominant society. Children were not simply to be taught courses of learning: english language and literature, math, science etc. They were to be taught a different way of life and made to unlearn the life they had known. Children were not helped to build on the good things they already knew. Children were often punished for speaking the language and therefore the love, they learned at their family’s knee. The language which was so crucial to feeling, seeing, thinking, remembering their world of relations. Residential school usually meant not only learning to forget who you were, but to forget the pleasure in who you were. How incredibly difficult to know the goodness of your “being” in such a “bullydom”.

But sometimes, a person is given to find a place, a time, a doing of something that helps them remember deep down with pleasure who they are.( Such pleasure does not exclude times of sadness, or loneliness.) At the school,where young Stanley went , there were what was called “free time”. Students could go into town on who’s edge the school was located. They could buy a trinket at the general store or perhaps have a coke at the Chinese restaurant. Instead, Stanley and his friends Gus and Arnold would go across the fields into a bush where a little river ran. In the late summer and fall, the river ran clear like the river at home. But this river had more shale rock than limestone and granite. While the bush had no spruce trees, it had lots of poplar and willow. Red and yellow. In places there was tall grass and reeds, and where the water was quite, there were marsh marigolds. Familiar birds: Finches, Song Sparrows, Chickadees, Nuthatches, Grosbeaks and Sparrow Hawks. Sometimes, the terror of mice, the Snowy Owl. It wasn’t home, but, the river and all was enough like home to help remember home, and who you really really were.

Sometimes Stanley and the others would snare a rabbit. Light a fire. Roast pieces of rabbit on sticks. By the rivers of Babylon, they sat down, ate rabbit by that river, and remembered home. Listening to the river sounds, tasting food from the river shore, and in Cree telling stories of times with uncles and aunties. Stanley remembered being with his mother in the kitchen, helping his father chop wood and build new steps, The sitting by the river, eating rabbit by the river re-membered Stanley. Joined him again to the goodness he was given and to which he belonged.The river landscape, he once lived, became for a time loud and tasty inside. Home was nearly inside him, was inscape. And it let him escape the forgetting.

Rivers, like rabbits can keep more than our body alive. For sacrament, symbol nourished creatures, rivers and their lively water can slake many kinds of thirst.

Talking Water Project|Bob Haverluck (2013)

(Stories) Dam Tobacco Creek

Cartoon: General


Over much of the prairies that became farmland, there were little sloughs, potholes surrounded by bush and grasses. There were marshy wetlands where the spring run-off would sit, only slowly draining over a period of weeks and months . This meant that near potholes and wetlands that planting and seeding was often delayed or impossible altogether. If the crops were to have twelve weeks or so of frost free growing and harvest, the sooner the farmer could get on to the land, the better. Therefore, draining the sloughs, cutting out the surrounding bush and cutting channels to drain the wetlands offered not only more land, but the promise of early seeding, and a good fall harvest. Before the 1980s, less than a hundred years after immigrants and their descendants flooded prairie “farmlands”, the vast majority of the sloughs and wetland had been drained. Not only did this mean early seeding, it now meant that ever more massive farm machinery didn’t need to negotiate with the trees or troublesome wet areas. This would save time, gas and money. A no brainer!

In early 1980s, a handful of farmers had been talking, who farmed on the Manitoba Escarpment, a high land in south central part of the province.These included Gordon Orchard, Les McEwen, Bill Turner and a dozen or so others. Peristent concerns were the eroding top soil, lack of soil moisture into the growing season, wiser use of fertilizers and herbicides. Conservation practices that had proved successful nearby, and elsewhere, were intriguing . This included the planting of tree “shelter belts” to gentle the force of winds and store some of the later needed spring moisture; reduced tillage; and the use of small dams to hold back the corrosive rush of spring run-off and land damaging storm rains.

Prior to this, the federal government had been investing tax dollars into research and local innovation in varied conservation practices for the well being of land and water. For decades the government ‘s Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Association had been acting on the the need to re-think the “bigger, faster,more and more” mantra. Bigger and bigger acreage, faster and faster on to the land, more and more fertilizer and herbicides was the “common sense” approach. Such farm practices had fueled the dramatic payback from sister-mother nature of the 1930s dustbowls. They also were contributing to the sickening of the soil and severely damaging the wetlands, potholes and creeks whose essential well being meant the long term sustainability of prairie agriculture. The PFRA had been researching and rehearsing farming practices and tactics that were both conservational and productive. These drew on the minority practices of farmers here and there across the prairies.( For example, Les and Bill’s own dads had long been grassing their water channels with thick matted broom grass.) With good timing, the PFRA’s Harry Hill came to join this gang of enquiring young farmers around Gordon Orchard’s kitchen table, atop the Manitoba Escarpment.

Cartoon: Postcard

Warning …

Together they walked the land, these headwaters of Tobacco creek. Tobacco Creek, in many a spring and summer storm it spit, no, poured torrents of devastating water into the plains and Morris and Red River below…taking topsoil as it went. They examined three near forgotten little dams constructed by a local municipality decades before, which confirmed this ginger group’s growing sense of the workability and wisdom of small dams. With the help of PFRA and local know how, the emerging Tobacco Creek Watershed Association began figuring out where the dams would be placed and which kind.

The first small dam was built on Les McEwen’s farm in 1985. By 1996, the initial project of fifty-two dams were completed. This series of small dams did and do the important job of slowing the flow of Tobacco Creek and its tributaries. A storm that might pour torrents of water for three or four hours might now be slowly released over three days with the use of Dry Dams. Gated Dams hold back water for two weeks and longer allowing the farmer to retain some water for animals or needy field crops or pasture. Several dam types researched by the PFRA meant appropriate small scale constructions adaptable to the particular character of the terrain. These structures not only meant happier soil and friendlier water for the farmers on whose land they were constructed.Rivers and lakes downstream benefitted from water with less soil and fewer algae feeding nutrients.This cluster of little dams also means that fields, riverbanks, roads and bridges are being largely spared of devastating assaults of flood waters below the little dams of Tobacco Creek watershed.

Local governments and beyond can now see the wisdom of investing in such configurations of small dams and not needing to be continually replacing roads, bridges, culverts after yet another ”storm of the century.” Nevertheless, the dominating “common sense” is still “ faster on to the land, bigger and bigger acreage, more and more chemically addicted agriculture and soil”. The question of who benefits from such a mind set gives way to how can more fast drainage ditches and channels be built. Nevertheless, the wisdom of Tobacco Creek watersheds little dams are there to see and are in the process of being added to in a another area of the watershed.

How did the Tobacco Creek watershed project manage to happen? It happened because a number of small seeming separate groups and activities came together, co-operated to take on a a recognizably shared problem. The problem was to work with the good water of the watershed, allowing it to nurture the soil and its growth, and help the water regain its earlier manner of not flushing the soil downstream in flood torrents.

For further information:

Talking Water Project|Bob Haverluck (2013)

(Stories) Water, Water, Water

Following Sunday worship, Bill an elderly member of the congregation would often visit with Ian, the minister. Bill lived in the L’Arche community, a community for specially abled adults . (It’s been said that there are two kinds of people: those who are disabled and those who are not yet disabled.)

One Sunday, Bill says, “ Ian, I would like to get baptised.”

And Ian asked, “Why would you like to do that Bill?”

“ I think it will refresh me… and Ian, could we have lots of water.”

Baptism Sunday soon came. The baptismal fount was brimming with water. There was soon water, smiles, words of blessing splashing everywhere. It was a gladsome day.

Cartoon: General

Falling Water

A few weeks later, word came from Bill’s L’Arche home, that his health was very poor. He was not able to leave his bed. But he would like Ian to come and visit. An hour later, Ian was welcomed in and shown to Bill’s bedroom door. At Ian’s knock, Bill’s “Come in” was heard through the door. As the visitor opened the door, he saw a room of watery blues. The carpet was blue, the ceiling was blue, and walls with many pictures of lakes and rivers were blue. The bedspread was green.

In bed, Bill was holding the bedspread up under his Ian approached , he said, “It’s good to see you Bill. How are you doing?”

In reply, Bill just slowly pulled back the covers to show dark blue sheets and said, “WATER, WATER, WATER!” And laid back with a smile.

Not many days later, Bill died. At his funeral, Bill was remembered as a Celebrant of WATER, WATER, WATER. A celebrator of water in a world, largely indifferent to its importance for Bill, and the rest of us. …

Ashes to ashes,
dust to dust,
water to water.

This is a version of the story, I remember Ian telling me as we sipped several ale together on a cold October day in 2005. Ian’s fine collection of spiritual meditations on water has a slightly different version. See Ian Macdonald Living Waters Toronto, 2006. So maybe this version is most truthfully told by both Ian &Bob, like several of the other stories we near brothers tell for and on one another. Bob Haverluck Jan.14,2013)

Talking Water Project|Bob Haverluck (2013)

(Stories) Chipko Movement

Cartoon: Trees

Fire of the Sun

You would have heard it repeated at village meetings, seen it written on banners, heard it chanted on marches : “Trees mean water, water means bread and bread means life.” This was one of the mantras of the one and two and fifty people who eventually became thousands of defenders, and tenders of the forested watershed of the Ganges (Ganga), and other great rivers of India. Villagers who lived on the hill sides and valleys of India’s Himalaya mountain watershed long sensed that the goodness of spring, creek and river waters. These waters on which they depended were themselves dependent on the well being of the forests. But by the 1950‘s, the life giving waters and forests were much in jeopardy. However, organized opposition to further degradation of these woods and fragile waters were also appearing. “Trees mean water, water means bread and bread means life.”

The important achievements of the emerging Chipko ( Hugging the trees) movement in helping protect the forests of the Himalaya watershed had many dramatic moments. Yet, underlying them were years of undramatic and seemingly insignificant and fruitless work. Like other movements of social and ecological transformation, there was much groundwork done before any visible flowering forth. In this case, followers of Mohatma Gandhi were instrumental. In the 1950s leading up to the galvanization of a Chipko movement was the spread of idealist community workers to numerous mountainside villages, nurturing education and community . There were also the Gandhian ashrams or spiritual retreat and education centres. Common to both initiatives was the respect and encouragement given to all. Not least were the “untouchables”, the poor, under-educated and the more-secure being encouraged to help build vital village democracy and society.

Chipko Movement

Chipko Movement

What began locally, became regional and then a national movement, took its first dramatic leap in confrontative opposition to the cutting down of local forests. Forests were being sold by distant government agencies to the benefit of distant economies. Of course public relations spoke of shared national interest. Aside from a few short lived local jobs and benefits, the local communities received little from what they understood to be their ancestral forests. Traditionally, the ancient forests were a key source of food, fodder for livestock, fuel , fertilizer, and fibre for cloth based crafts. The forests were understood to be the base of a modest, but livable forest economy. Over time, it was increasingly realized that true sustainability meant selective harvesting and re-planting with indigenous broad-leafed trees (eg. ash and oak). Replacing indigenous mixed forests with their associated ecology with plantation monocultures of eucalypts or chir-pine were soon recognized to be of little benefit and of large cost to the life bringing environment. Another Chipko mantra, “What do forests bear? Soil, water and pure air.”

After endless appeals to protect forests from mass cutting,the government were beginning to honour the idea, but in practice, continued ignoring it. So local communities began more dramatic actions. In 1977, when another round of government auctioning of tracts of forest were begun, a group of village women broke through security to disrupt the auction. They were arrested, and jailed for fifteen days in Tehri jail.

Months later, contractors came to cut the trees they’d “legally” purchased at auction. The women and other villagers were prepared for the loggers arrival. Many were resolved to put themselves between the axes and saws and the trees. February 1, 1977 was the first mass “tree hugging” action. Whenever loggers approached a tree, a group of villagers were there to hold the large tree in their embrace. Over several days only a few trees were cut. The protesters used no force against either the loggers, nor the police who were soon called in. On the final day, one hundred armed police were ordered in. As the villagers, young and old hugged their trees, the words of Gandhi were shouted back and forth through the forest: “No matter what the attack on us, our hands will not rise in violence” ; and “The policemen are our brothers, our fight is not with them.” The police moved among the trees wrapped and ribboned with humans large and small. Before the police were police, before the loggers were loggers, they were “neighbours” (from far away) given to see what their kindred were peaceably desperate to protect. Seeing, really seeing that, the police left. Soon, they were followed by the loggers. On that day, in that way, the Avani forest was saved. Likewise, several forests were protected until the government itself cancelled the contracts.

Cartoon: Old Man & Woman

At Water’s Edge

The government itself was becoming increasingly conflicted on the matter. In 1977, amid ongoing economic pressure to sell off forests for international dollars, the Indian government added two ecologically important constitutional amendments. Imperatives every constitution would benefit from. These further added to the widening sense that the Chipko movements were being a most “loyal opposition” in the broad interest of the whole nation. Article 48A: The state shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country. Article 51A : It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife, and to have a compassion for living creatures.

What Chipko activists had repeatedly claimed was increasingly being acknowledged by government to be true. The de-forestation of the Himalayan watersheds underlay the devastating flooding of the great agrarian plains. Floods with their devastation of topsoil, rivers and irrigation could be much diminished by protecting remaining forests. Further, the government must institute massive tree planting of broad leafed trees. Unless broad leafed trees were used, the rich and deep humus necessary for healthy soil creatures would not be nurtured. Then the soil lacked the depth and qualities to sponge up the monsoon rains and slowly release them, fresh and clear into the creeks, rivers and aquifers.Such insights were increasingly integrated into government policies and some practices. And so at last in the late 1970s and 80s, there was a convergence of ecological vision, ecological political activism and a degree of government receptivity in matters of forest protection and thoughtful re-planting. Yet ongoing pressure from businesses and government administrators passing off narrow self-interest as national interest persisted and required ongoing creative encounters.

One of the early actions of one group of village women setting out to stop an army of loggers was to enter the forest ahead of them. Around each living tree, the women tied a silk thread bracelet. When the axman raised his ax, he would see there a recognized declaration of a sister’s love for a brother. Her declared brother was in this case a wondrous life giving tree. The axman was required to decide whether or not he would demean and destroy that declaration. Inseparable from the silk tree bracelets was the vital religious ritual that underlay them. These like the love embrace of trees drew upon the resonant myths, symbols and ritual practices that still fused the unconscious, if not the conscious religious-cultural practices and teachings important to many. These symbolic actions, embodiments of ecological vision and values, pre-supposed the chipko activists able to draw upon “dangerous memories” and a resilient hope for a loving bond threaded throughout all creatures and creation.

For further information:

Icon: Link(s) Sunderlal Bahuguna

Icon: Link(s) Thomas Weber. Hugging The Trees:The Story of the Chipko Movement (New York, 1988).

Talking Water Project|Bob Haverluck (2013)

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