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Water We All About? The Inspiration Behind Water Lines

Updated: Jul 11, 2020

I grew up near Lake Michigan, one of the vast freshwater seas of the Great Lakes. My childhood summers were more water than land with day after day spent at Big Bay, the beach closest to my home. My friends and I grabbed towels and a lunch (gushers and cheez-its mostly) from our homes in the morning, came back at night waterlogged and sandy-footed.

That beach is gone. You can still go to the bluff that overlooked it, still walk the pathway to the shore of Lake Michigan. But the water line has overtaken the pier I jumped off of as a kid, it’s swallowed the sand where we would lay our towels down and now laps at the large rocks that used to be thirty feet away from the water’s edge.

A view of Lake Michigan from Milwaukee, WI.

We all have stories like these. Small reminders of changing ecosystems. Some of these are signs of natural rhythms or progress, others signs of warning. But most of them occur in the background of our awareness, a brief observation that we sometimes say aloud, more often times forget.

This project pushes back against forgetting. How have we’ve reached this ecological snapshot, this one moment in the history of the land we live on? Has land really changed since our childhood? What was it like before we were around?

Looking NW over Lake Mendota from Picnic Point in Madison, WI.

I’m now a student at UW-Madison studying Conservation Biology and English. This has brought me to the shores of Lake Mendota, a freshwater lake in the south of Wisconsin. While it’s much smaller than the lake I grew up with, the waterways connect it to a vast network of land from cities to farms. As one of the birthplaces of Limnology–the study of freshwater–Lake Mendota is one of the most studied lakes in the country. This provides us a unique long-term history of its changes, so we can remind ourselves of what it looked like in our childhood, and long before.

In Water Lines I'll be examining Lake Mendota and its connected waterways through the history of its people and ecology. As I research this summer, I'll be sharing my findings via blogs and illustrations posted here. By sharing Lake Mendota's past and stepping out of our little window of time, we can start recognizing the drastic changes our world is experiencing, and begin to understand what unwounded waterways could look like.

This is me dramatically looking over Lake Mendota from Frautschi Point.

I’m really excited to share this project. I’ve always loved lakes, but after doing research for the Center for Limnology at Trout Lake Station last summer, I’ve gotten really interested in the science around them. As an english double major, I’m looking forward to bringing these stories outside of a scientific realm and sharing them with anyone who cares about our water.

Looking over a frozen Lake Mendota from the Lakeshore Path, January 2020.

I’m grateful to the Hilldale Undergraduate/Faculty Research Fellowship for funding this project. Thank you to Joshua Calhoun, Associate Professor in UW-Madison's Department of English and affiliate faculty for the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies for helping direct this ship. Thank you to Holding History for hosting this bookish, bloggish conversation about Lake Mendota!

And thank you to Mendota and the other lakes of the Yahara Watershed for bringing us inspiration, joy, and beauty, even despite the occasional algal-bloom stink. I’m fortunate to live in an area that documents and celebrates its lakes, and has a huge network of scientists, activists, educators, and artists working to understand and protect our waterways. My writing and drawing is only possible because of their efforts.

Follow this project on twitter and instagram @waterylines for more updates. More blog posts soon!

About the Author & Project

Julia Buskirk has always loved lakes, but after doing research for the Center for Limnology at Trout Lake Station last summer, she is particularly interested in the stories science tells about them. As a Conservation Biology and English double major, she looks forward to bringing these stories outside of a scientific realm and sharing them with anyone who cares about our water.

Thanks to UW-Madison's Hilldale Undergraduate/Faculty Fellowship for funding this project, to Joshua Calhoun (Assoc. Prof., English Department; Affiliate Faculty, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies), & to the Holding History program for hosting this bookish, bloggish conversation about waterways.

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