Seeing, Believing Milfoil
Much as I respect former Senator George Mitchell, I never imagined he’d say anything that would change my life. Of course, busy as he’s been in various crises, from baseball to the Middle East, he may not even remember what he said at the 2004 Maine Water Conference.
I wasn’t at the conference, but later I came across his words online and they’ve stayed with me. Not because he’s a silver-tongued orator, but because he was so right.
“Ironically, as the visible condition of our waters has improved during the past three decades,” Mitchell said, “we have become increasingly aware of invisible impacts from mercury, dioxin, arsenic, and acid rain. Moreover, these problems are often difficult to understand, and expensive to fix. There has at times been a lack of will in our society to fix the ‘invisible’ problems, in part because we can’t see them.”
Simple, but true. I’ve seen evidence of that day after day since I went to work for the Lakes Environmental Association in Bridgton in 2004, about six months after Mitchell’s speech.
At LEA, we struggle with invisible problems every day. Erosion is the number one source of pollution to Maine’s surface waters, but how do you get people to care about phosphorous loading? People’s eyes glaze over if you even say, “phosphorous loading.” And if you want people to check their boats for invasive plants every time they enter or leave a lake, it’s not enough to just say, “Milfoil is bad.”
Surveys show that more than 90 percent of Mainers have heard of milfoil, the invasive aquatic plant that infests twenty-eight Maine waters now (in two main types, variable and Eurasian). But very few have ever seen it and most wouldn’t recognize it if they did.
So at LEA, our unplanned and unofficial “Seeing is believing” campaign started small. We began carrying pieces of milfoil to lake association meetings in small glass bottles. And that’s when the fact that seeing is believing began to be hammered home. People were fascinated to hold what had to that point been an invisible enemy. They peered at it, asked about it and clearly hoped to recognize it if it showed up at their favorite water body.
Next, our executive director, Peter Lowell, got a long, clear plastic tube and set it up right beside the door at LEA. He filled it with water and one long milfoil plant. Keeping it alive wasn’t easy, but hey, there were plenty of replacement plants to be had. LEA’s milfoil crew spends the summer removing them from the Songo River and Brandy Pond.
My desk is close to the door, so day after day I watched people come in and spot that plant. It was like a magnet. They always examined it closely and wanted to know more. We didn’t have to force-feed information, they were asking us for it.
And then there’s the TV effect. Doug Rafferty of WGME and Susan Kimball of WCSH have been real students of milfoil. They’ve come to LEA's annual Milfoil Summit and, at least once each summer, they’ve gone out with our milfoil crew. Their stories have helped many, many people see what milfoil can do to a water.
Last summer, when I went out with Doug, his videographer Mike Hartford, and LEA’s milfoil crew, I kept wishing we could expand and extend that impact. Because once you’ve seen a milfoil infestation, you won’t forget that thick green net under the water. You’ll understand instantly why it’s bad for wildlife. You’ll realize why it makes swimming and boating difficult if not impossible. You won’t have any doubts that you want to stop this plant from spreading into any water, especially one you care about.
So I asked Doug if we could get a copy of the video Mike shot that day and he surprised me by saying, yes. That left me with a dilemma – now what was I going to do with it?
Fortunately my younger son, Kurt, has been making movies since high school. He got a new Mac computer, so I inherited his old one, with enough editing software to get me started. I attended a weekend film class at the New England Film Academy in Portland, and that took me a little further. I ended up buying a camera.
I won’t dwell on the hours, some illuminating and some incredibly frustrating, that I’ve spent during the past year learning to edit. You’d laugh to see some of the footage I’ve shot. But I managed to put together a twelve-minute video called, “What’s so bad about milfoil.”
Martin Scorsese won’t need to worry about competition, but it premiered to great acclaim – talk about preaching to the choir! – at the Maine Milfoil Summit in late February. Since then, it’s been seen on Lake Region cable, at Courtesy Boat Inspector (CBI) training sessions, many meetings, and You Tube, where it had to be posted in two parts because their maximum length is ten minutes. You can even link to it from the LEA Web site.
Despite the production flaws – which drive me crazy every time I see it – it does what we hoped. It makes milfoil real. Not just a word. Not just a problem. Not an invisible enemy.
I have no scientific evidence about its impact, but I’m convinced that it’s made a difference. I detect a new level of understanding and concern among those who have seen it. I know for a fact that when the movie ends, people talk and ask questions about invasive plants in a more intense way.
So George Mitchell and the old proverb are right: Seeing is believing. Now if I can only find a way to make phosphorous loading visible.