The Cedars of God and Our Conservation Challenge

When mildly adventurous hikers leave the road in the University of Wisconsin Arboretum and walk along the south shore of Lake Wingra, they will pass a prairie full of big blue stem, white wild indigo, and stubborn sumac. Next, they will pass through a stretch of low red maple and tamarack grading into alder thickets, dogwood, and cattails on one side and hickory-maple forest on the other. Further along, past a series of soft, chatty springs, is a grove of hemlock. Planted between 1943 and 1964 to simulate a more northerly Wisconsin forest, the trees absorb the sounds of the surrounding forest and distant parkway, creating a quiet and meditative space, like a small cathedral.

Trees have been associated with the sacred since time beyond mind. Many cultures have “world tree” stories and symbols: Yggdrasil in Norse mythology, the Kabbalah in Jewish traditions, the Bodhi tree in Buddhism, the Tree of Immortality in the Quran, and Grandmother Cedar in Ojibway traditions.

Cedars also have a place in the cradle of Western Civilization. Cedrus libani, the Cedar of Lebanon or Turkish cedar, was used in nearly every aspect of human life – homebuilding, shipbuilding, medicine, beautifying cities and gardens, religion, and mythic storytelling – leading to the name Cedars of God for a small protected grove of these trees.

After surviving exploitation from the Phonecians, Egyptians, and Romans all the way through to the British in World War II, climate change now threatens the species in its native range. The Cedars of Lebanon are deeply revered; their use has been and continues to be necessary for the survival of culturally diverse people in the region divided by conflicts as old as the cedars themselves. We face a similar cultural challenge in our relationship to water – how do we come together to protect critical resources that people value for utilitarian, aesthetic, and spiritual reasons?

In June, with nearly 1,000 others, I traveled to Minneapolis for the US Water Alliance’s 2018 One Water Summit. The Alliance’s mission is no less than changing the old adage about whiskey for drinking and water for fighting to something more collaborative, and even festive (there was a Water Bar, in addition to the standard whiskey-serving variety). The One Water Summit provides a national forum for conversation about water management and policy, and specific examples of how people are working together across cultures and divides to manage water sustainably and equitably. Sessions ranged from arts, culture and water to combining forces across urban and rural communities and innovative financing for water-related projects.

Over the course of the three-day event, I could point to many memorable moments, however one in particular stands out. Every year, the Summit ends with presentations by representatives of organizational, regional, and national delegations to the Summit – nearly 50 of them this year. In what felt like a 30-minute rising tide at the end of the event, delegations spoke about key issues and actions they would take in the coming year. Issues ranged from the value of indigenous knowledge, to the value of science in moving us forward and the risks of stopping at reductionist science. People talked about the challenges of white privilege and the challenges of every belittling and blindness that can occur when difference is present. People also expressed hope that conversations at the Summit would strengthen actions back at home, such as developing collaborative urban and rural water infrastructure projects that bring impact investors to the table and empowering communities through shared planning and installation of decentralized green infrastructure projects like rain gardens and riverside parks. Most importantly, all voices were given the space to fill the room with possibility and potential pitfalls.

The North Central Region Water Network, in collaboration with the Soil and Water Conservation Society, the Iowa Soybean Association, and the US Water Alliance, looks to accelerate and deepen the momentum from this year’s One Water Summit. While there were nearly 1,000 people at the national summit, many more of you in the North Central Region are needed to transform the research questions we ask, the way we teach, and the way we manage our land and water. We hope you will join us as we continue that conversation at the North Central Region One Water Action Forum, December 11-13, in Indianapolis. This event aims to continue the process of fostering mutual respect and more unified approaches to water conservation and stewardship.

The conservation challenge belongs to all of us. As the Cedars of God and water crises from Flint, Michigan to the Gulf of Mexico are showing us, there is no guarantee we will succeed. However, the choice is ours. Let’s choose wisely.

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