The meaning of water

The view from a kayak. The bow and an oar are in the foreground, the lake and the bank with trees is ahead.

I went kayaking last week. That might not seem that big a deal. But it was my first time kayaking alone. And it’s the first fun thing I’ve done for myself and by myself since my last day of employment on May 5 2023, closing out 18 years of employment with the same university and 30 years of university employment overall. Being on Griffy Lake in the early morning, with light fog lifting off the smooth water like ghosts lifting into the sunlight, I reminisced about my first academic encounters with lakes 30 years ago as a college student.

One of my most positively memorable college experiences was going on a mid-fall weekend field trip with my limnology lab class. Among many stops we made that weekend, we visited Green Lake, east of Syracuse, NY. In a boat with a couple classmates, I lowered a black and white weighted secchi disk the size of a dinner plate into the water and measured the water clarity. Green Lake is unlike other long, glacier-scoured lakes in upstate New York. Because it’s a very round and deep lake – 195 feet deep – it’s one of just a few meromictic lakes in NY; the water column doesn’t completely mix top to bottom in the spring and fall. With clear blue-green water, the bottom of the lake is easily seen by the thick white calcium carbonate deposits coating everything.

An overhead view of Green Lake. It is a comma shape, round with a tail, and is teal in color. It is surrounded by some woods, there is a golf course to the left.
Green Lake, New York

I had enrolled in that limnology class because of the instructor, Dr. Nelson Hairston; he had taught the general ecology course I had taken as a sophomore the previous year. Early in my freshman year, I had bottomed out, burned out, and had breakdowns because of a traumatizing event I experienced on campus. I had lost faith in myself and others to keep me physically and emotionally safe. In a culture of keeping things like that secret and without connection to adequate social, psychological, and academic support, I scraped by as a shell of my former self. I thought I was to blame and brought shame to everything and everyone associated with me. I got Cs in my introductory biology courses.

Committed to soldiering on and throwing darts at anything I thought would bring me academic, social, and psychological redemption, I picked biology courses for my third semester based on descriptions that sounded interesting to me. Enrolling in that 200-level ecology course with Nelson was a shot-in-the-dark survival effort to pass. To pass. To receive a passing grade. And to ‘pass’ as a 19-year-old woman at a prestigious university who has it together and who isn’t suffering internally from shame, self-doubt, disillusionment, fear, and social isolation.

I wouldn’t wish these experiences on anyone – experiencing something terrible freshman year and becoming completely unglued. But those events facilitated a new beginning for me when I tried Nelson’s ecology course as a last ditch effort to stay in college. Academically, that 200-level ecology course began to restore my sense of belonging in college, my interest in biology, my GPA, my own intellectual growth, and my degree progress. I became involved in social and academic relationships that were therapeutic and supportive. I started to feel happy again as I began to trust the people around me and to believe in my own resourcefulness, capability, and competence. I re-engaged in my own welfare and growth. I had the resourcing and encouragement to become willing to engage in exploratory experiences like taking further ecology courses, including Nelson’s limnology lecture and lab courses.

I joined Hairston’s research lab as an REU student, studying the seasonal egg hatching patterns of diapausing copepods (small zooplankton). I spent hours outside of my classes with people in the research group: other undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, and faculty “in the flow” about lakes and copepods. I came up with the lab joke “I can’t copepod” when life started feeling unmanageable. I snorkeled for the first time as a college student to the bottom of a completely cloudy pond to gather copepod eggs. Dear readers, I could not see a damned thing in that pond. I stood on the same pond in January with blustery arctic winds whipping across the ponds research facility trying to auger through a foot of ice to gather more copepod eggs. I spent a day cruising down Cayuga Lake on a research trip sponsored by Hobart and William Smith Colleges. I gave my first research talk and wrote my first academic paper as an undergrad with Nelson’s guidance.

A clear, oblong body with antennae. At one end is a clutch of eggs that are darker balls.
A copepod, a freshwater zooplankton Skistodiaptomus pallidus

Taking that 200-level ecology course was a sliding door moment for me. It changed my life trajectory, my worldview about my own power and place, and my associations and affiliations. It was the start of a new self-narrative. I can connect the dots of that ecology class to my pursuit of a PhD in ecology and all the academic employment I’ve held since as a graduate teaching assistant, instructor, teaching center fellow, instructional consultant, and assistant dean. The professional titles and peer-reviewed papers serve as monuments and memorials to moments in my university-affiliated life. However, those observable achievements hardly capture the stories and relationships behind them: the origin stories, the dragon stories, the coming-of-age stories, the hero’s journey stories, and the phoenix rising stories.

A blue heron stands at the edge of the lake, the trees behind it have full green leaves on it.

Water is part of my origin story. I’m actually terrified of deep water. I hate having my face underwater, even in the shower. I was terrorized as a three-year-old by that huge drain in the deep end of the pool under the diving board. In elementary school, I had a terrifying experience in a friend’s backyard pool when I got disoriented and couldn’t right myself from a flip turn. In high school, I was embarrassed that I didn’t feel safe or competent swimming laps during gym class (same for my college’s required swim test for all freshmen). Lakes and oceans have creatures in the depths that I can’t see. Water holds my leviathans.

Two people are in a canoe. A girl about 7 is facing the camera, she has brown braided pigtails. A man is facing the other way with his head looking at the camera. There is a sailboat in the background. The picture has a yellow-tinge to it.

And yet, my relationships with others in relation to water have brought repair and return to self, similar to my experience being in Nelson Hairston’s limnology class and research group. As a kid, I went canoeing with my folks on Lake Nockamixon in Bucks County, PA. My Barbies got to take their own boat on Cayuga Lake while on a family camping trip near Ithaca, NY. It was an academic-spiritual experience to put my hand in Lake Mendota, a birthplace for the field of limnology, when I visited Madison, Wisconsin for the first time as part of presenting at the CIRTL Forum in 2008. In the summer of 2022, I fished for the first time ever, and unsuccessfully landed a catfish, on a small, man-made lake in Rochester NY owned by friends. Whenever I need to feel rooted and replenished, I head to Lake Monroe and dip my toes in.

An older man and a mid-aged woman stand on a dock in shorts smiling. She is holding a fishing pole and a fish.
Fishing for the first time in Rochester NY

I have closed that chapter of living a fully embedded academic life, a chapter that began in 1993 with Nelson’s ecology course. It feels like a fitting final scene to spend a day kayaking, doing something meaningful, rewarding, and comforting on the water by myself.

A picture of a lake from the beach. There is a sunset to the right
Lake Monroe in the winter

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