Giving Water a Voice: Community Love letter to Lake Superior


Mary Dougherty's dedication to clean water and her love of photography came together in her most recent project, Words for Water. Mary is an author, artist, and environmental activist based in Bayfield, Wisconsin. Her deep love and appreciation for Lake Superior inspired her to begin a project that captured her community's relationship with water. Words for Water was rooted in collective storytelling, and the process reflects that. To create this series, Mary asked members of the community, "what are your words for water?" and asked them to write their answer on a chalkboard. The responses created Words for Water.

"There's a saying I like that goes, 'You’ll find your vocation at the intersection of the world's greatest need and your own greatest passion.

' That, for me, where this project comes from. I truly believe the world needs clean water, and I love storytelling. I love photography. This project it doesn't deplete me; it makes me super happy because I'm in that intersection."
-Mary, Words for Water, Bayfield, WI

13680534_1014085398699431_3499582290956328218_n_(1).jpg"I live in Bayfield, Wisconsin, which is one of the most far northern little tiny towns in Wisconsin on Lake Superior. My family started coming up here to visit the Apostle Islands in 2000.

I remember exactly the moment when I first saw them. We were living in St. Paul, Minnesota and we had a little sail boat. We decided to sail it over from the Duluth Harbor because my husband kept telling me, 'Mary, we've got to go to the Apostle Islands.' But I kept thinking, 'Wisconsin? Really? I don't know.' 

I had fallen asleep on the boat because I get seasick. I woke up as we pulled into Justice Bay, just off of Sand Bay, and I literally felt ... I don't know if you've read ‘Alice In Wonderland’, but when she goes down the rabbit hole and ends up in a completely foreign place, that's what it felt like when I climbed out of the cubby. 

I looked around and I could see 20 feet straight down in crystal clear water, and we were in the middle of nowhere. 

I fell in love. I fell in love with the Apostle Islands and Lake Superior just as intensely as I fell in love with my husband when I met him, or met my kids, or my dog. It was that sort of really visceral response. I was home."

13735704_1014085912032713_6222759164189543269_o_(1).jpg"We hadn't moved here yet, but we got to the point where we found ourselves spending more and more time up here. We realized that our home was here now, and that we were leaving our home each time we went back to St. Paul. 

So we started to look for ways to live up here and an opportunity came up to buy a restaurant. We thought, ‘What the heck?’ That was a funny decision. I had worked at a Taco Bell when I was 14 and all I thought was: ‘Restaurant work sucks.’ But I'm a really good cook and people were like, 'You should open a restaurant!' 

Have you ever noticed in movies now they'll have a sad person, someone that's really depressed, and the answer's always to buy a restaurant? Like, ‘I'll nurture people. It’ll be good for my soul.’ But then you're like, 'Oh Jesus. There's sales tax, liquor licenses, and employees that show up totally stoned all the time.' But it got us up here, so I don't regret a minute of it."

13873098_1014087792032525_7313907452570767609_n_(1).jpg"Because of the landscape here, I was always looking out at the horizon. You know, just looking out at where the land or the water meets the sky. It was some strange way of grounding myself. I started to realize that when I went back into the city I would be searching for the horizon and I couldn’t get to it. All I could see were stop lights, target signs, neon lights, homes. It started to unsettle me for some reason. There's something about my pull to Lake Superior, it sounds really hokey, but it was like an elemental pull to be here. I miss it when I'm not here. When I've been out traveling and I’m headed back, I know just where I’ll be able to catch my first glimpse of the lake, and then I’m home. I don't know what it is but it's something very strong.

Now, there are challenges living in a tiny remote town in Northern Wisconsin, let me tell you, but it's pretty amazing that I get to go the beach, and I stand there, and I just think, 'Oh my god, this opportunity is one in a million.' You know, it’s more than one in a million. It’s more like one in 10 million people to have this experience of all that fresh clean water. Fresh clean water is an endangered resource in this world. If there's one primary thing we need to value, I believe it comes down to freshwater. Humans, animals, plants... water is our common ground. It's what we all need to move forward together, and it's what we all need to survive.

So when I think about how 10% of the entire world's fresh surface water sits 8 blocks from my house, I feel a certain amount of responsibility. I feel a calling to figure out how to speak for it in my little tiny voice. I want my kids, and my grandchildren, and your kids, and your grandchildren, to have something to hold onto because the world's changing so fast."

13626514_1014088358699135_8176431751293513859_n_(1).jpg"I'd never done anything in the environmental world before. I’m coming from totally outside of that movement. So doing this project was new… I had to figure out how to do it. 

My husband and I were sitting around the kitchen table, and we came up with this idea of getting lots of people to speak in their own words, and then allowing me to collectively stitch them into a story. That idea became Words for Water. I didn’t want to use anyone's names, or what they do for a living, or what kind of car they drive, or where they live. Humans, we can differentiate ourselves however we choose to but really at the end of the day we're not that different. The only thing we leave behind are our stories. The stories that get passed down to the people that were listening to us when we were here. So we wanted to introduce back the idea of thinking and acting collectively, knowing that you don't have to say it all. The chalkboard became important in that because the chalkboard represents the fact that we're just here for a minute, but our voices can all add up together. 

People always say, 'Well someone already used my word.' Or, 'I want to say so many things.' Its been really fun to tell people, 'You're right. Your word has been used, but you know what that means? That your word is so powerful because it's living in 25 other people that live in this community. That's a big word.' Or just say, 'You're right. You can't say it all. You don't have to say it all because no one person can say everything that needs to be said.

'I don't have any training in this, but individualism seems to be the least stable way to build community.

There is safety in numbers. There's strength in numbers. There's enormous comfort in knowing that you don't have to say it all, someone's got your back, they'll fill in the blanks for you, and you'll collectively figure it out together. It takes all the pressure off. Individualism was effective for certain things, but especially now that we’re moving into this uncharted territory where resources are become more scarce... You know there never were limitless resources, but there was a perception there was. That perception is gone now. We've got to work together."

13876409_1014089822032322_7336426065838319593_n_(1).jpg"I am passionately and completely in love with storytelling. I think that storytelling is what's going to change the world. I think that's what we're missing. We have to tell our stories, the stories of who we are now, and who we were before to give the generation that comes after us context and connection. That information is really important in community. It provides a tether back to where you came from.

For me, the intent of Words for Water is to lend our voices to our community. And when it comes to the environment, we should broaden our definition of community beyond our family and friends out into the community of the world, which is plants, animals, water, air. As we speak for water we're really speaking for ourselves because we can't exist without it.

I don't know if you've ever seen when the wind fills a sail, and the boat gets going? I kind of view all these words, and these pictures, and these chalkboards - they're these little breaths of air that are filling the sail of something that's going to move us to where we need to go together. My job is just to create the space where people can contribute their own little burst of air to move us forward."