Darby Nelson writes love letter to lakes he has known

Read Darby Nelson’s
introduction to
the book.


There is a description of a “hideous island of scum” afflicting algae-choked Diamond Lake in suburban Dayton, Minn., on an August day.

There is a riff on how human beings may have evolved as they did, developed the large brains that set them apart from other mammals, because of their ancient ancestors’ ready access to fatty acids in fish from the lakes of East Africa’s Rift Valley.

There is an account of a 16-day kayak trip around the north end of Lake Winnipeg. There is an ode to Rainy Lake revisited by canoe after a 40-year absence. And there is an imaginary dialogue with Henry David Thoreau about Flint’s Pond, 150 years after Thoreau lamented the poor quality of the pond’s water.

Welcome to Darby Nelson’s informative, introspective account of what he calls a “cut-off blue jeans and soggy tennis shoes journey, a journey of paddling and wading, listening and sniffing, turning over stones and touching.”

Darby Nelson

The tales of Nelson’s journey are told in For Love of Lakes, a new 255-page book published by Michigan State University Press. Each of the 26 chapters in the book is a separate essay on a particular lake, the biology of lakes and the plant and animal species that inhabit lakes and the pollution problems that plague many lakes.

Nelson, a member of the Freshwater Society Board of Directors, taught environmental science classes at Anoka-Ramsey Community College for 35 years and served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for three terms in the 1980s. He began researching and writing the book after he took early retirement in 2000 at age 60.

Initially, Nelson planned to write a scholarly book. “I started out as a typical academic: I’m going to lay out the information,” he said. But then he sought writing help in workshops at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. He credits a teacher there, Elizabeth Andrew, for a changing the tone of the book.
“She said, ‘You’re working on a book?’” he recalled. “I said ‘Yes.’ She said: ‘You need to know that people want to read about people.’”

So Nelson changed what he was writing to make it an account of his travels – often in a canoe, sometimes alone, and sometimes with his wife and paddling partner, Geri – to lakes across Minnesota and elsewhere. His essays about those lakes convey a lot of science, but the essays deal as much with Nelson’s interior reflections on the lakes as they do with physical descriptions of them.

Cover of For Love of Lakes

“I would describe the style as creative nonfiction,” he said. “It is using story. The writer is a presence, often in the first person, in the narrative.”

Nelson’s most scathing criticism of the state many lakes have fallen to – a chapter titled “August Epiphany” – deals with his brief visit to Diamond Lake in Dayton, near his home in Champlin. “Though the canoe floated on water less than a foot deep, I could not see the bottom,” he writes. “The lake had never seemed particularly clear on previous visits, but this time it looked especially green.”

The lake was filled with blue-green algae. “Zillions of cells,” he writes. “I had never before seen a lake’s blue-greens dense enough to form clots. I admit to a grudging respect and intense curiosity about any creature that can so effectively take over a space, disgusting though it may be.”

In the same chapter, Nelson details an excursion the following summer to 14 lakes in southern Minnesota. About half had the same lack of clarity, the same degradation, as Diamond.

He portrays his journey to those lakes and the others in the book as an attempt to resolve a paradox: Humans love lakes. All kinds of evidence attests to that love. Yet we allow human actions and values – our bright green lawns, our farm fields that sometimes run to the edge of the cattails – to degrade those lakes.

Another chapter tells of Nelson’s visit to Thoreau’s Walden Pond, lined with fences to keep tourists from trampling the banks, but only a bit less clear than in Thoreau’s day and still capable of supporting trout. And still another chapter tells of a visit to Flint’s Pond, another Massachusetts lake that Thoreau wrote about.

In Thoreau’s day, Flint’s Pond, a nutrient-rich lake named for the farmer whose land abutted it, was deemed by Thoreau to be decidedly inferior to Walden.

When Nelson visits Flint’s Pond the lake has become the water supply for Lincoln, Mass. No access is allowed. No swimming. No fishing. Public land and conservation easements protect its shores. There is a bit of August algae, but not much, and the water surely is cleaner than when Thoreau wrote about it.

Nelson enters into an imaginary first-name dialogue with Thoreau, weighing the delight he thinks Thoreau would take in the pond’s cleaner water against the frustration and disgust he believes Thoreau would feel toward the restrictions on access. He tells his imaginary Thoreau about his own conversations with several farmers whose families owned land on Diamond Lake for generations, and his appreciation of their love for the lake even as some of their farming practices contributed to its demise.

“I am struck, Henry, that regardless of our differing visions of lakes, no lake is enhanced by the runaway ills that now plague them,” Nelson writes. “Aside from those who see shallow lakes as problems to be drained, all other visions of lakes ultimately share the same goals, reachable only through enlightened stewardship.”

Darby Nelson will talk about and read excerpts from For Love of Lakes in a book-signing event at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 6, in the Student Center Theater on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul Campus. The university’s College of Biological Sciences, University Libraries, the Freshwater Society and Conservation Minnesota are sponsoring the event.