COL Vagaries of water, weather have effect on us everywhere

BEAVER ISLAND, Mich. -- When Jean Kingsley calls from the airport to say that another FedEx has arrived from The Washington Post, she commiserates with me about having to work while on vacation. I never have been able to convince her otherwise.

In truth, the semiweekly "CARE packages'' sent by Post researcher Brian Faler -- the sweepings of three or four days' desktop accumulations of White House and congressional and interest group handouts, Hotline political news summaries and other debris -- add to the pleasure of the August sojourn on this island at the top of Lake Michigan. Because they are so easily set aside for a game of Egyptian War with the visiting granddaughters, and because their contents are forgotten as quickly as they are skimmed, they simply reinforce the sense of remoteness from the overhyped "big issues'' of Washington, D.C.

But one press release in the final packet compelled attention. Sent by the Earth Policy Institute, it warned that rising temperatures and falling water tables have reduced this year's worldwide grain harvest 83 million tons below estimated needs, triggering higher prices and lowered reserves.

From the Southern United States to Northern China, "falling water tables are directly affecting harvests in scores of countries,'' the institute's Lester Brown warned.

We are familiar here with the vagaries of weather and water. The Michigan cherry crop was so bad this year that Traverse City, our nearest metropolis, had to bring in cherries from other states for its annual Cherry Festival.


But here on Beaver Island, the water news is great. After five years of declining levels in Lake Michigan, the water is up this year. The Corps of Engineers says it is 8 inches higher, and that translates to maybe 20 yards less of a wade to reach swimming depth.

That is not the only improvement in our environment. Last summer, our "downtown'' was a dusty mess, as construction crews and bulldozers toiled to pave the street circling the harbor. This year, we have our first stretch of smooth blacktop -- maybe nearly a mile of it.

True, the old twin-trunk oak whose stealth eradication I lamented a year ago is gone; nothing has been planted to replace it and the corner of Frankie Lane and the Back Road looks woefully incomplete. And true, the white picket fences placed at intervals along the new road draw as much criticism as approval from the islanders.

But everyone agrees it's nice to have curbs and sidewalks, and the design of the street light poles is a success. The widened right-of-way provides some leeway for those drivers who find arrivals and departures at the ferry dock so compelling a spectacle they don't notice an oncoming car.

And the lines painted on the pavement to indicate parking spaces in front of McDonough's Store give us a big-city sophistication we've never had before.

On the other hand, the Wall Street and dot-com crashes have been mirrored here with the closing of the Old Rectory Pub and Restaurant -- one of only three establishments serving more ambitious fare than pizzas or burgers. The site of colorful "open mike'' nights for local and visiting musicians, the place where the Irish ambassador himself once was entertained, is shuttered, because no one has stepped forward to take over the mortgage and pay the back taxes.

So we are not immune from those big concerns that you hear about back east. Father Pat has devoted many of his homilies at Holy Cross to the pedophilia crisis in the church, and has been candid in his criticisms of the hierarchy -- something much appreciated in a heavily Catholic community which adores its children.

And just last week, a shattered slab of burned concrete and twisted steel -- a relic from the ruins of the World Trade Center -- arrived here.


State Sen. Phil Hoffman arranged through Rudy Giuliani to have it sent, telling the former mayor that the Beaver Islanders, like his own constituents in Jackson, Mich., grieved with New York for the lives that were lost.

It might seem a stretch to think that terrorism is vivid in this remote spot, but as Bill McDonough said to me, "Just think of it. Six times as many died in that attack as live year-round on this island.'' Symbolically, that is another reason to welcome the rise in the water level. It reminds us, bad as things might be, they don't necessarily get worse. The last two years, people's wells were running dry and moorings in the harbor were in jeopardy. But things turn around. Nature has its cycles.

And humans persist. Another year, who knows, there might be music at the Old Rectory again.

Broder is a political correspondent for The Washington Post.

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