The Legend Of A Lake

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All during the twentieth century the lake demonstrated to the men that before nature could be tamed, nature must be known. But the understanding of such things came slowly to the men. Their ignorance was a shield against the paralyzing verities of the earth. Sometimes they fluked a profit from the lake. In 1940 a group of smelt established themselves in a drainage ditch at the western end of the lake, descendants, perhaps, of sixteen million smelt eggs planted in Lake Michigan in 1912. With dazzling speed they developed in the lake and became, along with the yellow perch, the most common fish there. At least the smelt were edible—unlike the sea lamprey, which had gotten into the upper three Great Lakes and destroyed their trout and other species. The smelt made good cat food, so they might be considered successors to the long-gone ciscoes.

Meanwhile, the yellow walleye that, with the blue pike, had withstood the relentless fishing, changing temperatures, and silt and sewage, quite suddenly went into an inexplicable decline. Both the yellow walleye and the blue pike were each yielding thousands of tons of flesh to fishermen in the mid-i 950’s. Then, in ten astonishing years, they crashed. The blue pike became too scarce to be worth fishing. The yellow walleye faded to a shadow of its former abundance. This left the yellow perch, which continued to yield good crops of flesh until the 1960*8, when it, too, began to decline in number. It spawned amid vegetation, its one great weakness in a lake where rooted plants were having a tough time surviving silt, sewage, and industrial poisons.

The early silt storms had suffocated and smothered, but they did not poison. After an estimated two billion tons of silt had reached the lake from 1850 onward, the silt changed in character. Not only was it laden with phosphates and nitrates—essential chemicals in the works of man—but it also contained hundreds of other chemicals, notably DDT . This last chemical, a few men knew, influenced the hormone estrogen, which, in turn, controlled reproduction in all mammals. DDT could cause mass sterility. Buried in bottom silt, suspended in the water, the DDT was not influenced by any of the water-purifying devices used by the men, who remained faithful to the concept that nature can be mastered. They would “save the lake,” as they modestly put it, by building a levee from Ohio to Ontario, turning the western basin of the lake into the world’s largest septic tank. They would build a two-mile-long lagoon off the shores of Cleveland and dump its wastes there. They would pump all industrial poisons two thousand feet underground. They would reverse the flow of the Cuyahoga and purify it, and then use the water over and over again.

The plans made noise and headlines, but not much else. When the people of Cleveland could no longer swim on expensive artificial beaches built for them, the beaches were enclosed with plastic, the water killed with chlorine, and the people swam again. But further offshore, a combination of sewage, dead algae, dead fish, industrial rubbish, and untreated flushings from lake freighters sent an awful stench drifting into the streets of downtown Cleveland. Winds hurled the living, dying, and dead algae onto shore, where they smothered miles of beaches, clogged the filters and screens of water-processing plants, and befouled the drinking water of many cities.

The primeval lake had demonstrated an imperative of existence that showed how every living organism had to live in some agreement with the available resources. But for the people of the lake, this imperative was long obsolete. At the city of Erie, in Pennsylvania, the people had turned a seven-mile-long peninsula into a beautiful state park. On summer weekends one hundred thousand of them packed the park and launched twelve thousand power-boats into water loaded with tannins and lignins, stinking with sewage, and foaming with oil wastes.

The people of upstate New York were slightly better off because their drinking water was flavored with the sewage of grape-juice manufacturing. The citizens of Dunkirk, however, were not so lucky; their water included the many flavors of waste taken from color printing, the brown sewage effluents from the production of asphalt, and fly ash dispersed from a power plant. The Buffalo River was so filled with oils, chemicals, and sewage that it was a river of death, lifeless and loathsome. Nevertheless, during heavy rainfalls and dredging, this muck was passed into the people’s drinking water intakes. The Cuyahoga River at Cleveland, once the host to the ebullient sturgeon, actually caught fire one day. It burned fiercely and threatened to destroy that city.

By this time the men around the lake faced an Orwellian set of contradictions. Fifty years before, they had not doubted their mastery of nature, but now they had to explain away ten thousand square miles of blundering. It made their science, their technology, look like a maniacal system that had to smash its own house to make progress.