Love Letters to the Lakes: Public Comments from the Heart

Jeff Kart
IJC
September 10, 2019
love letters main

“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Not everyone can write a sonnet like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the famous English poet responsible for those lines. But not everyone has the science or legal chops to craft a powerful public comment on Great Lakes water quality, either.

Poetry and public comments don’t usually go together, especially when it comes to consultations under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. The IJC has been holding public meetings this summer to gather input in places like Traverse City, Michigan.

That’s where writer Anne-Marie Oomen of nearby Empire, Michigan, mixed art with sound to deliver a short program on “Love Letters to the Lakes,” enlisting the help of area musicians to deliver a message to Commissioners and others.

love letters presentation
From left to right: musicians Steve Carey and Glenn Wolff, readers Anne-Marie Oomen, Kelly Thayer, Bronwyn Jones and Joe VanderMeulen. Credit: IJC

Oomen says the presentation, with jazz music and spoken words, was mostly improvised.

She gathered 86 love letters after sending a call to the literary community in her region, then picked out “magical” lines to help sum up the submissions.

“We don’t always know what to do,” she said of local artists, “because our way of communicating is different from lawyers and scientists and technicians and government regulators.

“We just think differently, and yet we are a pretty big voice and we want to say how much these lakes mean to us and how much we want to see them protected, in every way.”

The letters include musings on how people met the lakes, what they love about the lakes, how the lakes have affected their lives, threats they see, and calls for action to restore and protect the waters. Altogether, the collected love letters total 26,000 words.

 “We will have to show you love, relentlessly, without ceasing, like waves,” one reader said during the presentation.

Added another: “We must persist to protect your water, shores and dunes for all future ‘gatherers.’”

The idea for writing love letters to the lakes came from Liz Kirkwood, executive director of a Traverse City nonprofit called FLOW (For the Love of Water), who heard of a similar project in the Toronto area.

“I knew that we had six brand new Commissioners (on the IJC) and I thought to myself, ‘What would be something memorable?’” she recalled.

Kirkwood, part of the planning committee for the IJC’s July 24 public meeting in Traverse City, suggested the idea to Oomen, who was more than happy to oblige. After all, Oomen has published several books including a recent collection of Michigan nonfiction called “Elemental,” so she knew who to contact.

“It made sense to me,” Oomen said. “This idea of expressing our love for the lakes is better than ranting at government officials or complaining about rules and regulations. Rather, we take a kind of high road and say ‘We’re declaring ourselves as loyal to this lake.’”

Oomen says her email inbox filled up quickly after she sent out the call for love letters. She read some and teared up because they were so heartfelt.

“I don’t think I would have gotten nearly the response if I said ‘Write a letter expressing your concerns.’ I think there was something about the sincerity and romanticism of writing a love letter that appeals to people.”

All 86 letters, including one from Oomen called “What Did You Do?”, were compiled and given to Commissioners as part of the presentation. All the letters, which also include a few from children and one written in the voice of a dog, are available for download at IJC.org.

Kirkwood, who describes FLOW as a Great Lakes water, law and policy center, says her organization often uses art to convey concerns.

“(As humans,) we have this literal connection in our DNA because we’re mostly water. But sometimes we don’t know how to express our love for the water. Using art can be a way to tap into that.”

Jeff Kart
IJC

Jeff Kart is executive editor of the IJC’s monthly Great Lakes Connection and quarterly Water Matters newsletters.