Edd Merritt, Contributor

Edd Merritt

I’m growing tired of the big city’s lights
Tired of the glamour, and tired of the sights.
In all my dreams I’m roaming once more
Down to my home on the old river shore.
Miss the Mississippi and You
~ Jimmie Rogers

A couple of books got me thinking about how we depend upon and how we share a relationship with nature. One was Philip Caputo’s The Longest Road, a story of his drive from the southernmost point of America—Key West, Florida—across the continent to the northernmost Alaska coastline on the Arctic Ocean and then back again, a round trip of over 16,000 miles. One way it meant driving from a point “seventy miles north of the Tropic of Cancer” to another one, “twelve hundred miles south of the North Pole.”

The journey was a way of helping the author answer a question he had been posing for some time: “What keeps this land a country?” He comes to the conclusion that the answer is conflict.

He poses conflict as a universal trait. “Conflict is what holds a star together,” actually a tension “between gravity, which pulls a star toward collapse, and thermonuclear fusion, which releases tremendous energy that sends the star’s matter expanding outward.” It is humanity’s willful desire—maybe the necessity—to connect itself to the physical nature of our planet.

The other book may not seem to seek this same connection. However, its study and history of a place I’m familiar with were engaging. Titled The Islander: Coming of Age in the Apostle Islands, it looks at a part of our planet, Lake Superior, the great gitche gumee, the greatest Great Lake, once a place central to my family’s history. Dissecting this largest body of fresh water as a major feature of our American continent, I wonder whether one of the earth’s feature substances, water, does connect with humanity to augment what we do in terms of living our lives. And, if it does so, how?

The islands rest off the northern tip of Wisconsin. My father’s family called Duluth, Minnesota, home. It was about 15 miles west of the Apostles. In addition to hanging near the southwest arrowhead of the lake as a youngster, I spent several weeks each summer on Isle Royale, north and east of the Apostles, closer to what is now Thunder Bay, Ontario. Considering entire Lake Superior our domain, we periodically visited the Apostles as though we were fulfilling our roles as “Lake Monsters.”

My dad used this trip to help him feel he was getting away from his regular corporate duties and the routine of his job. I’m sure Caputo’s book had yet to be written, but I’m also sure that my father would have shared the author’s connection physically and emotionally with the Great Plains and deserts where the author found himself alone in a physical landscape in which his presence was the only connection between nature and humanity.

Another central body of water, the Mississippi River, is an artery running through our countryside. Interestingly, this major outflow begins in Lake Itasca, a small glacial lake, only 25 to 35 feet deep, in northern Minnesota. Fed by several small streams, the “Mighty Mississippi” begins its southward flow, 2,340 miles, to the Gulf of Mexico. It is not, however, until the river connects with the Ste. Croix near the twin cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul that it becomes a true arterial flow of commercial traffic going all the way to New Orleans.

Water of this magnitude provides a conduit for much of our country’s commerce through its mid-section.

Given our recent exploration for water on Mars as an indication that our neighboring planet may have had and, in fact, may still contain some form of life, supports the theory that water is the blood of living nature, at least in earth’s solar system. And, humanity takes advantage of its quantity and flow to bring prosperity to a major portion of the planet.

However, now that we have a natural resource supporting life on the planet, we are confronted with the possibility of extraterrestrial civilizations bringing life from outer space as well. The universe is vast and goes well beyond our system. Astronomer Avi Loeb in his book The Extraterrestrials says that his contemplation of the birth stars led him to wonder “how civilizations might eavesdrop on one another.” His eye of space is something he calls Oumuamua, the first interstellar visitor from somewhere in the vast galaxy. He and fellow investigator Matias Zaldarriaga decided to eavesdrop on extraterrestrial radio signals that seem to emanate from an oblong cigar-shaped rock that had never before been seen as an interstellar object. It did, by the way, disperse radio signals that make NPR’s look newborn.