Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
The worst nightmare of the Ancient Mariner is being replicated in Canada. I want to understand why.
You know the whine of the Ancient Mariner1 – that he must relive the horror of a sea voyage in which all his shipmates die, and he endures a Life-In-Death afloat upon a Sargasso Sea, parched beyond belief, and . . .
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.
I have lived most years of my life upon a Spongy Sea, afloat in the boreal forest of Canada, the wellspring and font and source of one cup in five, of twenty percent of the world’s freshest water. Yet I dare not drink it. Raw.
Full many a time and oft have I plunged my face into a succulent stream and sucked the elixir of life. If bread be the Staff of Life, then water, my friends – water is the CEO and President of the Cutting Board. Without water, my dears, the ship of Earth is an Enron looking for a reef to founder on.
Water. You may remember the days, if you have lived long enough, when as a kid you shucked the sweaty baseball glove and you raced to the fountain and gobbled the mouthpiece. You may remember those days, but you bridle at the memory. You were drinking treated water, raw.
You may remember the days when you filled a glass straight from the tap and swallowed it. I remember the days when I used to dip my cup into the murk of a birch-ringed lake and drink the milky contents. Raw. No, no, never, no more.
One incident, not even ten years ago: I was helping to hustle a passel of feisty teens over a two-plus-mile portage in the Land o’ Goshen, which, in the middle of a two-week carry-your-own-stuff-as-well-as-communal-food-and-camp-gear trip, required several carries. Now, the leader of the canoe trip, whom I shall call John Jay, had a reputation. Part of it stemmed from John Jay’s belief that he was bound to provide a wilderness adventure, especially when things were running smoothly.
So, at lunch break, we learned that our canteens were dry. And it was a dry port, meaning, there was no potable water on the trail. But there were puddles. Puddles of swamp water ̶ black, and brackish, and crawling with slimy things.
Yes, we drank it. Sure, we dissolved a few pounds of chlorine in the stuff, but it was still awful. And when night overtook us, we camped on the trail, and we sent porters ahead to bring back pots of aqua. They found a seasonal stream that had flooded the port. To acquire the aqua, they waded into the muddy mess, dipped the pots, and chucked out the biggest clods. We boiled the stuff, boiled the hell out of it, and quaffed a concoction that had the colour of tea and the texture of 5W-30. Hey, it was an adventure!
No, no, never, no more. In all my excursions now into the Goshen woods, I rely on a lightweight, hand-pumped water purifier. As a departed friend used to say to me, as he bolted a belt of raw scotch, “No water, please. Fish pee in it.” It never bothered me before. It bothers me now.
It bothers me now to drink from South Sea blue waters churned up by the motorboats. It bothers me now to drink from rivers which are still dissolving the products of long ago log drives. It bothers me to drink from natural sources that are laced with beaver spit and duck poop and fiss pish.
But, ladies and germs, this is fresh water, fresh from Canada’s boreal forest, from the largest, the absolutely greatest reservoir of fresh water in the world. What has happened?
Here is what happened. In one word. Walkerton.
In 2000, in Walkerton, Bruce County, Province of Ontario, people watched their family and neighbours sicken and suffer. Many died. Others have never recovered their health.
What happened? Public officials, the people who were charged with treating fresh water and rendering it potable, failed them. Some of those responsible have been punished.
As a consequence, Canada has a dead weight suspended from its national neck. Sure, there has been a flood of clean water legislation, and the whole country has been battered by a tsunami of new regulations, but who trusts the water nowadays? Not me.
Do I blame Walkerton? Not entirely. The Walkerton tragedy could just as well happen in North Battleford, or in Kashechewan, or in Rankin Inlet. Come to think of it, it already did, to some degree. It could happen in Goshen.
The tragedy for me, the personal tragedy for me, is that I can never think of fresh water as I once did in the halcyon days of yore.
I am, now, an Ancient Mariner, and I stoppeth thee in thy happy business, compelled to tell thee this tale. For my dreams, my waking dreams, are haunted . . .
By coldwater streams once kissed by jewelly brook trout . . .
And rushing rivers brushed by the wingtips of osprey . . .
And eye-blue lakes caressed by the bottoms of thin-skinned canoes . . .
Oh, once again, good God, grant me a drop to drink . . .
* * *
Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to trust.
1 Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, his longest poem, and published it in 1798. Even today, this tale of man’s sin against Nature has immense power to move the reader.
Originally published in The Gardens of Goshen, Volume 3, October 2006