There are moments or places where one feels blessed and thankful to be alive. One of mine is swimming in the Snohomish River. It is a summer tonic, an invigorating bath, and daily baptism. Even though I hardly stay in the cold, mountain fed waters for long, there is a feeling of absolution after jumping in. If a polar bear plunge kicks off a New Year, then a summer swim solidifies the resolution.
Surprisingly, it is rare for locals to swim in the river. I know of no other nearby family or person who regularly takes a plunge in the clear, summer water. We occasionally see a boater or jet-ski ply the water, yet even these watercraft recreationalists hardly get their feet wet. To them, the river is more of a medium or surface for joy rather than a pleasure in of itself. Instinctively, I get it. Creature comfort comes from staying on top of the water not in it. Our lizard brain calls out, “I could die in there!” And it’s right, yet that reptilian reaction thinks too much and sometimes we need drop a Class and get in touch with our amphibian roots.
Occasionally, my bewilderment at what my neighbors are missing out on has gotten the better of me, and I’ve asked, “What’s wrong with you? Sorry, I mean why don’t you swim in the river?” Their answers–no surprise–are based on expected discomfort and real, albeit unlikely, danger of the current and cold temperature. Some locals, of multiple generations, even say it’s too polluted. “Don’t you know they dump sh*t in there.”
Yes, we know, and better than most. It so happens that the previous owner of our farm treated the river as his personal landfill. Tractors, implements, tires, pipes, bottles, wire, plates, and livestock meds were all dumped in the tidal influx of the riverbank.
It’s a sad truth about farmers, and human society in general. We treat water, especially rivers, like a sewer system. Quick to wash our hands of life’s dirty deeds: out of sight, out of mind. On the Snohomish, affluent enters the stream via city, treatment plant overflows, breaches and leaks from an agricultural slurry pond (A large pool of collected waste; usually from a dairy farm with a 100+ cattle held in relative confinement), and runoff from animals (including humans) defecating in close proximity to water.
Listing a few of the possible source contaminants almost makes me feel like swimming may not be such a great idea after all, yet isn’t that the real shame of it? That we’ve slowly ruined our water quality and, consequentially, our perception of it. Here in lies the lasting damage. Over time, water can take away waste by dilution, filtration, and deposition, yet it cannot wash away a society’s delusion that it is dirty and not worthy or respect or reverence, and thus, we continue to spoil what remains.
It’s ironic that many faiths believe water and rivers can cleanse one’s soul to the point where they are born again, or washed of sin, as these very rivers are now some of the most polluted in the world. Are we blind to the contradiction? Are we blind to the correlation? Are we destined to wash ourselves and find salvation in our own polluted feedback loop. Or, can we truly be blessed and purify both?
I remain optimistic and cannot give up hope that we can keep water clean. We have to. There is no “special interest” in water. There is no separate water system like bottled water, or us versus them scenario where that stream is gross, but not mine. It affects us all; it is our body, sustenance, spirit, and life. We cannot wash our hands of it or be born again when its very essence is vile.
So take action. Do the little things that make a difference. For instance, buy products that are biodegradable and not toxic. Think before you pour it down the drain. Keep your fuel tanks and engines, septic tanks and sewer lines, and pets and personal waste contained and in good working order. Support companies and farms that use natural or organic chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides (or better yet, don’t use them). Defend the Clean Water Act and help make it stronger. And most importantly, go swimming!
The Snohomish River is still clean and safe for swimming. Fortunately, because its length and drainage basin size, there is not a huge amount of area for development and pollution. However, late summer months like August have the highest percentage of waste due to livestock and the paucity of rain. Keeping animals out of the river and adjacent streams would improve this factor.