Living Groundwater

My walk along the beach near Cornucopia, Wisconsin this February was likely the coldest pilgrimage of my life. I stepped out of my car on the shore of Lake Superior to see a single-file line of bone-chilled sightseers struggling against steady gusts hurling -20 degree wind chill against a backdrop of featureless frozen tundra-like ice. We had come to see the Superior Ice Caves.

The Ice Caves form along a series of undercut cliffs, carved out by the pounding waves of Lake Superior in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Made of porous sandstone, the cliffs weep groundwater, which freezes into spectacular formations in winter: icy white stalactites clinging to a cavern roof, amber stalagmites rising spear-like from the frozen shore, glacier-blue flows oozing from a crevice, translucent rippled armor thinly clinging to a red sandstone face.
While these ice formations occur every year, viewing them requires winters cold enough to freeze Lake Superior thick enough to walk on—an increasingly rare occurrence. Superior is the largest body of freshwater in the world, and the last time the caves were accessible was 2009. While cold winters are necessary to see the caves, the real ingredients are groundwater and sandstone.

Springs of Living Water

Groundwater is a mystery to most of us, an invisible resource we depend on. In the Scriptures, groundwater is a source of life: Moses drew water from the rock in the desert wilderness (Exodus 17:6); Jesus tells the woman at the well that He is the spring of living water, and that all to come to Him will never thirst (John 4:14).

Groundwater is also paramount to our earthly life—it is literally the source of our drinking water, irrigation, and trout streams. It is also hydrologically connected to the water table in our rivers and lakes: as the groundwater goes, so goes the surface water.

Unfortunately, surface water has been in trouble lately. Two hundred miles to the south of the Ice Caves, a lake once known for trophy bass fishing nearly went dry in 2006, stranding fish in stagnant pools and docks on dry land.

Broken Cisterns

Some blamed regional drought; others implicated high-capacity wells, capable of pumping more than 100,000 gallons of water a day—enough to fill 2,500 bathtubs, which placed end to end would stretch over two miles. That’s one well for one day.

In 2012, there were over 400 applications for new wells in Wisconsin, nearly double the number the year before, on top of over 4,000 already in operation. This boom has been largely driven by irrigation for large-scale agriculture (in this region, potatoes), but also for mega-dairy operations. Much has been written on the hi-cap well issue.

Ostensibly, demand for cheap goods is driving the hi-cap well surge. Who doesn’t like to see cheaper milk and potatoes? Except they are not cheap—the real cost is born by dying fish and rural families whose wells are contaminated with high nitrate levels linked to large dairies and hi-cap over-pumping.

Although the Ice Caves are protected, a few misplaced wells there could (in theory) erase this natural wonder completely; a badly placed and managed mega-dairy could (in theory) turn white and amber chandeliers into manure-cicles via contaminated groundwater.

In a very real way, our society’s thirst for cheap milk, produce, and natural gas is poisoning our neighbors, human and non-human alike. Our water-hungry ways have hung them out dry. Jeremiah tells us:

my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that cannot hold water (Jeremiah 2:23).

Ironically, the broken cisterns in this case are the wells themselves. Or, more specifically, our love of money over our love of land and neighbor.

New Cisterns

Recently I went to my local grocery store, and a brand of milk caught my eye that I had previously avoided due to its higher cost. It featured organic pasture-raised cows. It also featured a picture of a local farming family—and I recognized the brother of Father Greg, a member of my Christian community.

Father Greg’s family portrait now sits prominently in my fridge, and I pray over the fruit of their labors each morning in my cereal bowl, giving thanks for the meal, and for their stewardship of the land. If the disciples on the road to Emmaus recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, can we recognize the face of our neighbors in our grocery purchases?

May we pray for the grace to choose love over money, for our hearts to be washed clean of our broken cisterns, and care for both the water of life beneath our feet, and that which springs forth in our lives through Jesus.

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