The spirit of fall is flitting about, whisking past fallen leaveswhile a glowing sun begins to set. The road to Fernan Lake winds slowly and quietlythrough a quaint, elderly neighborhood of ranch style homes. A seasonal flag hangingnear the front door, neatly cut lawns, and post office boxes reserved for thelocal newspaper whisper of a mature, unhurried way of life. Feeling nostalgic and full of respect, I let up on the gas, easing past Fernan Village. A cluster of trees break open to a clearing, like curtains pulling apart, ushering in the presenceof Fernan Lake.
Some time ago, a five-year old boy drowned here as hisparent’s car slid backwards down an embankment. Five years of history; fiveyears of new discoveries, budding human development and dreams yet to bloom. Thepolice report stated his parents survived the accident, but I’m not sure amother ever wholly survives the revelation of her greatest fear. Fernan Lakeswallowed his last breath, embodying a mother’s pain and a father’s grief.
But what of the residue pain leaves behind? Fernan hasrecently been labeled “an impaired body of water” according to the state ofIdaho. This past summer a health advisory was issued, cautioning visitors ofdangerous side effects due to poor water quality. Her naked, eroded banks have allowedhigh levels of phosphorous to enter into her developing the disease called Eutrophication,a state of toxicity caused, in part, by human activity. Tragedy makes its markon all who bear witness, and this body of water is no exception.
Fernan bows simply as I enter her court. She is a naturalbeauty, and not in a “plain jane” kind of way, but as gentleness; like anempath who carries much and smiles conservatively. It is a quiet drive. Thereare no jet skis, motor boats, or music blaring from frat-filled, pontoons or partyboats; no shrieks or squeals from little children splashing about. Fernan isstill and somber in comparison with her neighbor, Lake Coeur d’Alene. Her soft-spokenconfidence is striking, yet seemingly broody. I turn the radio off as I roundanother bend and pull off along the shoulder of the road.
“I have come tolisten, Fernan”, I whisper, stepping down a crumbly rock path towards the shore; I pause at the water’s edge. Her surface is a mirror, reflecting seasonalhues scattering the adjacent hillside. Chartreuse Birch, vibrant yellow Cottonwood,and deep amber streaks among the Aspens stand at attention. A mix of cool greenand steady brown pine trees complete an illustration of a calico cat streakingacross the lake. Threads of color weave across her glassy body, affixing aroyal gown upon her form.
A few years after the young boy’s drowning, an automobileaccident along Fernan Lake Drive claimed another life. Fernan witnessed it all.And a few months after that, a young woman drove her car down the boat ramp,taking her life and the lives of her two young sons. Fernan’s paved road is an openinvitation. Just as a man freely backs his boat down a path to fish her waters,a woman can freely drive down that same path to end it all. Fernan Lake is notpartial to visitors. She does not hold the privilege to choose who or what may enterher body.
Our recreation, our motorized vehicles sliding off herembankments, our deaths and drownings, have led to Fernan’s compromised health.An opportunistic nature has led us to thrust our needs, our pain and ourdesires into her body, perhaps even against her will. We say we love FernanLake. We say we care for her. Yet, we have not yet learned how to care for her,properly. We have not yet held her needs above our own. It appears as thoughour abusive relationship with Fernan Lake has left her in a constant state oftoxicity.
As I stand at her shore, the scene grows more picturesque bythe minute. A fine backdrop she makes for weddings, anniversaries, celebrationsof life, and senior portraits. I imagine the laughter of lovers, a preacher’s sermon,or the mournful silence as a family scatters the ashes of a loved one. Isuppose the surrounding hills have witnessed it all. But Fernan, she hascarried it all, the joy and sorrow. She hosts them all, the living anddeparted.
The energy at the shore shifts from lighthearted observationto a mysterious weight, a hovering gloom. Fernan’s glassy face now appears as amask, concealing something troubling under the surface.
Cigarette butts, plastic beverage bottles, tangled upfishing line and dried up Pautzke’s litter the shore to my left. On the rightlies a single latex glove and a smashed cassette tape. “Southern Rock Classics”played a final selection of Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers Bandfavorites; melodies now strung out upon scattered sedimentary.
In April of this year, a woman drove her car off Fernan Lake Drive, plummeting into 12 feet of water. She died. The news report listed high speed and alcohol as contributing factors. She was 40 years old. Forty years of history; Forty years of joy, pain, sorrow and celebration. No one will ever know what her mind was contemplating in the moments before becoming engulfed in the folds of Fernan. No one, except the lake herself. In April of this year, Fernan silently drank the salty tears of a life of forty years.
Today, iridescent paint sits poised above the earth andbelow the heavens. Streaks of burnt sienna ripple across a dimming landscapelike sandy currents at the bottom of the sea. The weight of the sun has becomeunbearable for the sky and she lowers her hold, letting the dignified starrecline behind wooded sheets. Today, Fernan carried no one’s pain. Today, sheabsorbed no one’s trauma. There was no obligation to hold the sadness of a lifelost, no pleading for miracles, no rules against the living.
Brokenness can be survived, but often leaves behind compromisedhealth, a un-wellness. Cancersurvivors do not go unscathed after the disease has finished its course. Abroken heart can be mended, but not without deep scarring. And loss leaves theliving with an emotional labor that, at times, can be utterly unbearable. Wemust consider how the tragedies associated in and near Fernan Lake have left herwith scourges and afflictions.
She’s a giver, Fernan, providing muses for artists, food forfisherman, recreation for her friends, and depths for submerging our sadness. Sheholds it all while we continue forcing her to extend invitations. She’s a giverand we are the takers. We take in her sights, take in her wonders, grasp at herbuoyancy and steal her cloak to cover our shame. We leave behind us scraps of consumption,salty tears and all of our suffering.And yet she still manages to sparkle in the moonlight and shimmer with the helpof the sun.
My mother gave all of herself, too. She worked for ungratefulmen for far too long, covering their mistakes, making excuses for poor behavior,then bringing home the scraps of herself. It was expected she give her time,talent and treasure to takers, then to remain subservient. The takers grew intoopportunists, eager to receive with little to no concern for the health of thegiver. Opportunists pay little attention to the quality of life of those whosefruit they continually feast upon. And when she retired, after 20 years ofservice, they praised for her faithfulness while those who knew her well andhad witnessed the weathering of a heart, knew she had simply survived.
We can do better.We must do better.
We must practice caring for nature, for people, and for allliving things with a renewed vigilance. We must prove ourselves to be responsiblestewards of that which we take from. And if we must be takers, let us be takerswho are also taking notice, takers who are paying attention. What the health ofFernan Lake tells us, what the health of my mother tells me, is that we couldstand to work harder at creating environments where living things have theability to thrive. We could stand to hold ourselves accountable for the healthof that which we cherish, for those whose fruit we consume.
The health of Fernan Lake, the health of strong, determinedwomen such as my mother, demands we do better. And if we cannot, if women likemy mother, and lakes such as Fernan, continue to weaken and weather from ourusage, and continue to deteriorating in health due, in part, from our own hands,then we will be left with nothing but a poverty that comes from the squanderingof our most precious resources, our most valued treasures.