I had been telling the bride for a couple of years that we need to replace our little 20-year-old pier. She is smart with nickels and, as usual, scoffed at my hourly idea on how to spend money. So it was fitting that the wooden slats helped make my case with a loud crack as I leaned forward to help our visitors pull their pontoon up to the pier. Fully clothed, I descended into the waters of our Northwoods lake, being sure, like any dork, to hold my goofy Apple Watch above my head while everyone laughed.
I am always happy to be in the waters of our lake, so I wasn’t angry. In fact, it fills me with joy just to look at it, just as it makes me happy to gaze upon our Madison lakes.
And now we know why, thanks to a guy named Wallace J. Nichols. He turned my head when I heard him on NPR discussing his new book, “Blue Mind.” The title alludes to the state we achieve emotionally and psychologically when we are in or around water. Water, says Nichols, can bring peace to our frazzled souls. And he should know because he is a renowned scientist who spent time in the water with sensors on his head. In addition to Blue Mind, Nichols asserts that we also have Red Mind when we’re frazzled and Gray Mind when hopeless.
Nichols’ work has verified what we already know in our hearts: Water soothes us because it is from whence we came—a powerful notion for Madison and Dane County given our bounty of lakes and the vistas they provide.
Our lakes have struggled from the days when my 87-year-old dad would fish Mendota for perch by looking down into 15 feet of crystal clear water. It ruffles the peace of a Blue Mind when we gaze upon water while enduring odor, algae and weeds that shouldn’t be there. Stuff like that quickly turns a Blue Mind into a Red Mind. It also undermines our claim to be the Most Livable Place In The Universe. How can we be so wonderful when our lakes are in distress?
When I was a kid, it was a big deal for our parents to pile us into the station wagon and go explore our beaches. We loved the stone steps at Tenney Park, the exotic woods of The Willows, the Monona Lake fun of B.B. Clarke Beach Park, and the sheer joy of Lake Wingra at the Mother of All Beaches at Vilas Park. But park and beach usage has dropped precipitously since those days, as has access to our waters.
Sure, the Memorial Union Terrace, The Edgewater and James Madison Park offer open access, but not enough. The approved Olbrich Park beer garden—if it fends off the usual, insufferable NIMBYs—will bring a Terrace experience to Madison’s east side of Lake Monona. But the peace that water brings us is still most available to those with the considerable resources to buy a home on Mendota or Monona lakes.
We have 192 billion gallons of water surrounding Madison and Dane County with 58 miles of shoreline on the Yahara chain. Yet, the sad truth is that the fine work Madison has done over the last 30 years to improve bike paths, restaurants, hotels and State Street has not extended to our lakes and the parks and beaches that nestle along them.
Word is that the Clean Lakes Alliance is working on the parks and beach problems, which would be great news. Because the more we all use our lakes, the more inclined we will be to improve and protect them. And then more of us will enjoy the Blue Mind that water offers us all.
Especially if you are sitting on a new pier.
Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.