By Eric Fisher, Tri-State Watershed Alliance Board Member
| I’m not sure how I came to be a watershed activist. I guess you could call me a reluctant environmentalist. Several words come to mind as I try to retrace the steps that have led me to where I am today…awareness, values and imagination.
In retrospect, I would characterize my early life as being rather oblivious to environmental concerns, despite a huge number of cues along the way that should have gotten my attention. My parents actually received “Mother Earth News” when I was a child and we lived on a woodsy farm where they practiced a pretty sustainable lifestyle. The word they used at the time was “stewardship”…not so in vogue today, but they were conscious of the chemical revolution that was already well underway in the 70s and were quite radical in the way they managed their land and our diet. Most of it went right over my head.
I remember being in 4-H and my friend Tommy was in FFA…he prepared a display where he was standing proudly in a “grassed waterway” in a picture…I still didn’t get it; I couldn’t understand who would care about a little erosion, it just seemed like nature to me, I guess. Maybe it was the blinders of the times. It seems like a lot of us were infected…the Cold War seemed so much more threatening than some weird-sounding chemicals or some dirty rivers. Heck, I remember even being a litterer myself! Though I hunted and fished, it never occurred to me that a trend was underway that could threaten those hobbies. As I grew older, I really began to take on an identity as an entrepreneur and my career as a real estate investor began in earnest. It would be too black and white to say I didn’t care, I made many good choices, honesty in my dealings, compassion for less fortunate, etc., but I have to say that I was not much concerned with the environment; throwing away enormous amounts of recyclable materials, copious use of dangerous chemicals and completely antagonistic toward such concepts as recycling and conservation.
Then I got interested in kayaking. When you kayak a river for a good long while, there occurs a sort of intimacy that would be hard to describe to an outsider. You are one with the water in time and space, and you travel with it through its home and habitat. The water is talking at certain points along the way, working its will on obstructions, pausing at ebbs to caress marsh grasses and welcoming newcomers as creeks and streams add their part to the growing parade of life. This magic can be rudely interrupted, especially in Indiana, by the likes of tires, shopping carts, mud, smells, oil, concrete and scum. I think these offenses began to awaken a sort of sadness in me…I became AWARE of a problem.
Ironically, my real estate career had led me into the inner city; rehabbing old homes in forgotten neighborhoods and reselling them or making them into rental property. My exposure to the problems of inner city decay made me aware of another problem that is correlated with the plight of our waterways — land use. I saw from the victim’s side the consequences of our constant thirst for land, the flattening of our city, and our urban sprawl. As our commercial strips got longer and longer and our friends kept moving further and further out, I became convinced that the isolationist and automobile-based direction that we were heading was not conducive to a good city life…I began to feel attached to downtown Fort Wayne and began to buy and rehab historic brick apartment buildings that were probably on the way to demolition. Somehow, I just felt attached to the idea that the right way to go was not to continually separate ourselves from our “problems” by moving away from them, but instead to take ownership of our community, to VALUE our community and work to reestablish dignity and responsible “stewardship” of what we already had before just pushing it away and building something far way.
Somewhere in there, my observations of our rivers and my experience of our inner city began to work itself into a shift in values for me. The idea of continually growing my real estate empire and earnings became “bogged down” by my increasing valuation of being a responsible member of my community…how much money can a guy spend anyway? I have to say that my studies in philosophy affected me as well. I learned about the concept of “charitability,” that is the effort to be open to an opposing viewpoint and to propose to one’s self that that viewpoint might be offered by someone who means well and who is well-informed, and to use your imagination to empathize with its proponents.
All of these experiences have caused me to imagine that my predispositions could be in error; and environmentalism has been a part of that. As I have considered the perspective that economic development should stop at the edge of responsible environmental stewardship, I have had to admit that it makes sense. We simply can’t make choices on the basis of increasing efficiency and standard of living (as measured now) alone. I have begun to imagine a world where we use our new-found technological abilities to win back our lost ground…literally. We will HAVE to live in cities that stop kicking the can down the road and work around the inconvenience and expense of sending clean run-off to our creeks and ditches, we will HAVE to feed ourselves without the abuses of CAFOs and factory farming, we HAVE to get by on fewer carbon emissions…if we view it as necessary, if we change what we VALUE, we will certainly find a way. I can IMAGINE it.
It’s kind of fun, really. Since I’m downtown, I don’t have a lot of grounds on my real estate, but what I do have, I have begun to handle differently. Firstly, this American myth of turf grass has got to go…it’s absurd. We spend millions of dollars on chemicals and gasoline to maintain a virtual wildlife desolation. Every year I decrease my amount of lawn and increase my space for low-maintenance, high habitat, beautiful landscaping. At my business, my partner and fellow workers work to decrease waste and toxicity by arranging for scraping and recycling, cutting down travel, and other conservationist measures. We haven’t arrived by any means, but it feels better.
Imagining a clean Maumee river can be a challenge. Her banks are eroded from ever increasing amounts of flow, her water is often opaque from silt or algae, and her destination, Lake Erie, is in serious risk of becoming a “dead” lake again. My awareness of rivers landed me on the board of directors of the Tri-State Watershed Alliance…and being on the board has increased my passion and imagination for future generations that will value responsible, sustainable watershed practices.