Giving water a voice: a 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 answers on a chalkboard.
"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, is 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 Dougherty | Words for Water | Bayfield, WI
“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 these islands. We were living in St. Paul, Minnesota and we had a little sailboat. 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 dogs. It was that sort of really visceral response. I was home.”
"Once we realized that Lake Superior was our true home, we started to look for ways to live up here full time, not just visit.
I’ve always loved to cook. I love having people in my kitchen. I’d invite people over for dinner and they’d say, ‘Mary! You need to open a restaurant!’ And then, as we were looking for a job to bring us over here, an opportunity came up to buy a restaurant.
It was called Good Thyme. I fell in love with the building first. The building itself needed a lot of help—nine months of restoration, in fact—but it had promise. I remember walking in and seeing that it had curved tin walls. Curved corners! They don’t just make corners like this. I thought, ‘God, someone at one point loved this building enough to take the time to round the wall.’ It was just a symbol—one of those things that someone loves enough to do something just a little bit extra. So we decided we would do a bit extra, too.
My only restaurant experience ever before was working at Taco Bell at 14 years old. I went into it kind of idealistic, I guess. Have you ever noticed in movies now they'll have a person that needs direction, and the answer's always to buy a restaurant? Like, ‘I'll nurture people. It’ll be good for my soul!’ It just seemed like a good idea to take the leap.
But then, it’s like, ‘Oh Jesus. There's sales tax, liquor licenses...’ You know? We opened during the recession. I had four young kids. It just got hard. I had taken this thing I loved and turned it into something else. I got too buried, too head-down.
And so my restaurant years turned out to be short-lived. Four or five years. But having the business brought us to our home, and it taught me a lot about myself. Right after we made the decision to close, I didn’t know what was next. I had to stand in that uncertainty, and that was pretty scary to me.
Around that time, I remember walking on the beach with my dogs. We walked by a piece of old driftwood that I had walked by literally hundreds of times before. But I looked this time and I saw a raven in the wood. It's very distinct. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, the world is so magical. This area is so magical. It’s going to to be OK. I’ll find what’s next.’
Even though I didn’t know what to do, I did know that I loved this place. I knew that I saw things in the natural world that really got me. And I thought, ‘Well, I'll just start reminding myself of those things I love,’ and I started taking photos. I was also finding my way back to my love of cooking at home, and I started a food blog, 'The Cookery Maven.' That really re-awakened my love of photography and writing together."
"Because of the landscape here in Bayfield, I am always looking out at the horizon. Looking out at where the land or the water meets the sky. It has some strange way of grounding me. I know it sounds hokey, but there’s an elemental pull to be here. I miss it when I'm not here. When I've been out travelling 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.
Now, there are challenges living in a tiny remote town, but it's pretty amazing that I get to go to the big lake, 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 get 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, just when I was looking for what to do in my own life after the restaurant closed, I started to think about how 10% of the entire world's fresh surface water sits eight blocks from my house, and I felt a certain amount of responsibility. I felt a calling to figure out how to speak for it in my little tiny voice.
I had been doing my photography and my writing on my blog, so I had started to use my voice that way, but I'd never done any environmental advocacy work before. I’m coming from totally outside of that movement. So it was strange to be called to it, and I had to figure out how.
Then one night 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 about our collective love of water and the need to protect it. Lots of people’s voices together, not just me or my voice, because together we can do bigger things. There's strength in numbers. There's enormous comfort in community—in knowing that you don't have to say it all. That someone's got your back, that they'll fill in the blanks for you and you'll collectively figure it out together. It takes all the pressure off.
So I thought I’d use photography and words, and collectively stitch all those voices into a story. That story became the project Words for Water.
I started taking photos of people in front of our big lake, holding a chalkboard with their words of love for the 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. We can differentiate ourselves however we choose to, but really at the end of the day we're not that different. I wanted to re-introduce that idea of thinking and acting collectively. The chalkboard we all held represents the fact that we're just here for a minute, but our voices can all add up together."
"For me, the intent of Words for Water is to pull together the voices of our community. And from an environmental perspective, the project suggests that 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.
My hope, too, is that people will translate that to action. Like say, ‘Maybe I should go talk to my city councilperson about water,’ or, ‘Maybe I should call down to my legislator and ask them what's going on with some bill that I heard had something to do with water.’
Helping people to figure out ways that they can lend their voice to water in a way that will have substantive impact in their lives, and in the community.
Words for Water opened up so much in my life. As my writing and photography got more environmental, my love of food started to evolve, too. My love of this area and the natural world here—I couldn't remove food from that. My life is feeding my family and friends. So I got really committed to small, local food. It's not that local food tastes better. It does, but that's not really the point. The point is that all food comes from somebody's home, and if we want to be good members of our communities, we have to recognize that everyone has the right to love their home and keep it safe and healthy. Everyone has the right to open the door and breathe good air. To turn the tap and not worry about getting sick. I started to see all my loves—food, water, and home—start to weave together. Now I still write my blog. I wrote a new cookbook. And I work for water in a variety of ways up north.
Words for Water was dreamed up at my kitchen table, but it has a life of it’s own now. 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."
-Mary Dougherty | Words for Water | Bayfield, WI