I dipped a thermos bottle into the Nile Mile Swamp, headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay and historic hiding place for the infamous, Civil War era, Loomis Gang. This site also launched many successful fishing trips, stories and childhood dreaming from my Grandpa Steele’s 12’ aluminum boat as we navigated upstream through the twists and turns of life hidden in waters that I took for granted. I say this because back then I had little interest in how a watershed functioned or how my actions affected water quality downstream, some 400 miles away.
The simple task of transporting a vessel of troubled water on a 9 hour watershed pilgrimage to the meeting in Staunton, Virginia seemed to heighten my environmental awareness as songs from Rascal Flatts, Reba, Marshall Tucker, and Shinedown blared out of my truck’s CD player. It felt good to have the sun in my face (for a change), coffee in hand and a little “man-time” to figure out how I would use this liquid in my keynote address to inspire an audience of passionate water-keepers.
It’s been a long time since I trekked to Joel Salatin’s neighborhood and bought his original pastured poultry pamphlet. I don’t remember seeing all the new houses, new strip malls, massive distribution centers and impervious surfaces. The farmland along the Rt. 81 corridor looked heavy on the beans and corn with pastures still overgrazed as apparently no one has invested in grazing infrastructure after the government’s “plant fence row to fence row” mantra. It’s funny to see animals confined in a dry lot or in window-less houses surrounded by hundreds of acres of plant fodder being trucked in and waste hauled out. This action seems reminiscent of a scene from the Keystone Cops which plays right into the theme of trying to clean up the bay.
“You can’t have your cake and eat it too” phrase came to mind, as the career, conservation chieftain bellowed out presidential executive orders, mandates, TMDLs and more “transparent” agricultural programs to clean up my water while ignoring the populace in suburbia as well. I drew an icy stare as I chuckled and whispered, “I guess she hasn’t milked many cows on ten dollar milk”. I didn’t drive all the way to Virginia to be preached to with unfunded promises. The thing is, Ms. Bureaucrat didn’t realize there was a passionate farmer in the room when she delivered more initiatives that tell me what to do in a system without the support people that do the work of relationship building. It’s unfortunate but I’ve seen this agenda a thousand times with the same result—Stir and splash the milk around in the bucket only to find when it stops moving it looks the same as before. Ironically, that’s just what I was thinking when she rolled her luggage out the door for yet another declaration meeting and missing what the farmer would say about the importance of local conservation stewards that evening.
The audience had no idea I was carrying this motivational baggage with me as we ate a banquet of local lamb, vegetables and spirits. Hooray, finally another organization that gets it! I assembled my family of props which included the sacred water, a fishing pole, my grandfather’s portrait and a few slides of my mentors. As I took a drink from my thermos and tasted its sweetness and purity, the only thing I saw through this power goblet were the dedicated faces of people charged with protecting this simple fluid of life. This warmth resonated like being with family and reinforced my message of programs without enough local people is stupid. Yep, I said that.
My tale of finally realizing the importance of water quality weaved the audience through a complex web of personal experiences, observations and A-Ha moments. The most “slap your face” moment was visiting with a Chesapeake Bay waterman trying to make a living, harvesting from the water that I provided upstream. It was disconcerting to hear that this “farmer of the sea” had to shut down his operation after a 1” rain because of pollution and sediment. Never will I forget the tears and scars I saw that day or the helplessness I felt in providing inspiration to other dwellers and businesses of this watershed and foodshed on the merits of water cleanliness. Telling these real stories somehow connected us to a greater mission beyond agriculture while giving the confidence that people will make the difference, not all the money, mandates or government programs in the world.
Not long after the applause of that evening and consequent post driving, tool-belt induced, “wall to wall” buffer laced presentation of what on the ground conservation looks like in farm country, I decided to follow the river upstream from where I was. I ended up staying in Harper’s Ferry during a nightlong deluge of rain and wondering what the river might look like at sunrise.
I grabbed a cup of coffee at the Mega-Sheetz truck stop in the wee hours and headed towards Antietam with a goal to experience the battlefield at dawn. Apparently my farmer’s clock was off as I meandered into Shepherdstown, West Virginia. It was there I saw a little sign next to the university that said, “public river access”. There was a significant draw for me to this streamside after all the water quality initiatives I heard about and the curiosity of seeing the results after the big rain. The sun rose over the skeleton of an ominous bridge in the distance and here I was, a 5th generation farmer and conservation advocate, on the banks of judgment day.
The Potomac was surprisingly calm and my new friends would be proud of their work as the signs of topsoil loss were non-existent this morning. I threw a smooth stone over the surface and counted 10 skips as the water rippled with movement and then returned to normal. It was then I realized how one person can have a positive ripple effect, but you can’t be afraid of throwing a few stones.