Reflections on Coldwater

Written after the final Minnehaha Creek Watershed District (MCWD) meeting regarding the determination of Wetland A at Coldwater Springs.

Development is not necessarily improvement: that attitude is a 19th century/20th century intellectual construct. We are now in the 21st century, and a new construct that recognizes that development may be a curse is now understood at least by some.

Regarding Wetland A―the springs located just south of Coldwater reservoir that flow into the pond―it is so clearly a natural “non-incidental” wetland to those of us who have spent hours and hours at Coldwater, who have watched the seasons change, who have seen the water under and around Building 4, the old warehouse, reasserting it flow by increasing year around; and those who have seen and understood the map with the fracture lines interpreted by Bison Geophysics from the consulting firm SEH hydrogeologic report to MnDOT (Minnesota Department of Transportation) that shows where the water comes from [map included below].*

There is no argument that the interfering of man has left an imprint. But Wetland A is clearly not a “solely” (100%) man-made wetland.

But something much deeper is happening here; something difficult to convey. These MCWD meetings are hell for me. They are hell because I am in mourning for Coldwater, for what Coldwater was.

Perhaps these words by Jack Turner, an international mountaineer, will help explain how I feel about Coldwater.

We need to develop individual practices that recreate a web of interconnection with the natural world that we have lost . . . to immerse the self so deeply in the wild that boundaries of self and Other dissolve.

He goes on to say:

What counts as wildness and wilderness is determined not by the absence of people, but by the relationship between people and place. A place is wild when its order is created according to its own principles of organization―when it is self-willed land.

That is at least in part what Coldwater was. It was an urban wilderness. Although attempts were made over almost two centuries to shape and change it, it still was in its greatest beauty in overcoming that development and gradually shaping itself to principles of its own creation. The development was first as a camping place for soldiers building Fort Snelling, then as a water source for the fort, and then by the Bureau of Mines.

Coldwater, August 2011. Lush and green.
The willow tree is on the right.

Coldwater after the deforestation by the National Park Service in November 2011.

Enter the National Park Service (NPS). Once more man imposes his design. The Coldwater that was, that place of meditation for so many of us, is gone now, and I am in deep mourning for it. Instead it is on its way to being a city park, landscaped like a cemetery, with plans for monuments to white-man’s destruction.

Coldwater was where I and so many others went to immerse ourselves in the wild. Maybe it was not the Grand Tetons or the Grand Canyon, but it was our urban wilderness close to the city. I went there with others, and I went there alone to meditate and renew myself, to become part of something larger than myself, my own ego.

Many other people did the same, and when the labyrinth was still on the hillside, many came to walk that labyrinth to find that sense of immersion in nature that boundaries of Self and Other dissolve. Here is a photo of Sister Brigid on a sunny winter day standing in the labyrinth. That day a deer was at Coldwater. She was lying on the ridge above the labyrinth. She did not start or move when we came, and she stayed lying down, head slowly moving and eyes alert, the whole time we were there.

The native people who spoke at the MCWD meeting, as reflected in their spiritual practices, understand this connection with nature deeply. They understand that man is part of nature, not above nature. They did not deserve to be treated as disrespectfully as they were at the MCWD meeting, or by the NPS, who refuse to recognize Coldwater as a sacred site and a Traditional Cultural Property for the people whose land it was before we took it away. A native supporter commented that it was the most racist meeting  ever attended in a vast array of such meetings.

As Chris Hedges, well-known journalist and author, recently wrote:

Rebuilding this older vision of community, one based on cooperation rather than exploitation, will be as important to our survival as changing our patterns of consumption, growing food locally and ending our dependence on fossil fuels. The pre-modern societies of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse—although they were not always idyllic and performed acts of cruelty including the mutilation, torture and execution of captives—did not subordinate the sacred to the technical. [Emphasis mine.] The deities they worshipped were not outside of or separate from nature.

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Thomas Urquhart, who wrote For the Beauty of the Earth, talks about urban wilderness and the need to preserve it. Urquhart says: “The fields in which humans and nature have played together over a long period of time are the landscapes that set our souls to singing.” Coldwater is such a place. That “singing” may manifest itself as religion for some, for others a spiritual journey. Again and again as over the years I have taken people to Coldwater, they immediately recognize this sacred quality. I have taken people of many faiths (or no particular faith) there, and they recognize Coldwater as a very special place, a place to “set our souls to singing.” In my view a place that sets my soul to singing is a sacred place.

Urquhart continues:

As a larger and larger proportion of the population grows up in a city, and as the cities themselves overwhelm the open space around them, landscape that could nurture a sense of wonder is diminishing and slipping ever further over the horizon. Not only are we losing ready access to the woods and rivers and fields, but what is left is also being compromised, even the special places. [Emphasis mine].

NPS has compromised Coldwater. It is clearly a very special place.

I feel sad for the willow tree, and the loss of its incredible beauty, and for the other beautiful trees that have been taken down, for the rape of the land and of the springs that is taking place even as I write this. The birds no longer sing in Coldwater, the cardinals, the woodpeckers, the indigo buntings, and the robins who fed in winter at the bottom of the hill on the east side where Coldwater Creek flows down the hillside. Rabbit tracks no longer appear in the snow. The deer paths are gone. The deer no longer come to feed under the willow by the reservoir. A beauty and sacredness has been lost that cannot be recaptured.

 Susu Jeffrey of Friends of Coldwater at the willow stump on
August 25, 2011. The stump pictured here, but now removed, is approximately 7 ft. According to the NPS, the tree was only about 50 years old. However, there are documented cases of weeping willows living to over 100, more likely the age of this willow when it was cut down.

All the comments, the so-called rational reasons about whether or not Wetland A is incidental (man-made) or non-incidental (natural or creator-made), the technical wetland decision is not really what this is about. I know what I see with my own eyes. I know what I feel with my heart, the deep loss forever of the Coldwater I knew. What it is becoming will never be Coldwater to me. And while it may be better than a parking lot, it is only another manicured city park, a McPark, after all. We have lots of those, so why destroy an urban wilderness to create another?

For Coldwater, it is too late for NPS and MCWD to think in what Gregory Bateson, author of Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), called “the new way,” a way that sees the interconnectedness of things, including man and nature.

To again quote Bateson:

If you put God outside and set him vis-à-vis his creation and if you have the idea that you are created in his image, you will logically naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you. And as you arrogate all mind to your self, you will see the world around you as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration.

I do not expect to change any minds on the MCWD Board of Managers or in NPS by writing how I think and feel, really, by writing what I know, because it will not be respected. But I will remember Sheldon Wolfchild’s eloquent statement about the heart of Coldwater, the water. I will remember the pain of this particular meeting, of blue shirt [a member of the Board of Managers whose name is Brian Shekelton] disrespectfully attacking Sheldon Wolfchild, his rudeness and meanness in his questions to Mr. Wolfchild. Later in the meeting he insisted Susu Jeffrey not be allowed to speak. The rest of the MCWD permitted the attacks and did not offer support to those being attacked.

What I am saying here is not a personal attack on John Anfinson and Alan Robbins-Fenger, the designers of the Coldwater NPS project, or on the NPS, nor really in general on MCWD. I know John and Alan are sincere about their design. But I disagree strongly with them. My concern is a far deeper and profound philosophical difference that wants these officials, these people, against all hope, to turn to “the new way,” a way that sees the interconnectedness of things, including man and nature. What Bateson calls “a restructuring” of the way we interact with nature.

The native people at the meeting and those they spoke for do not need this restructuring. Their spirituality has taken them there, and they dwell in that place of not just balance between man and nature, but in the understanding that they do not dwell above nature but are part of it. This is a deep cultural chasm that has always existed between the native peoples in this country and the white rulers who wish to stand above nature and develop her, when development is so often not an improvement but destruction.

While the MCWD Board of Managers practices what one of their members called “real politicks” (December 29, 2012 meeting) in kowtowing to the NPS because as a federal agency they are more powerful, the Coldwater I loved is gone [Direct quotation from Eric Evenson of MCWD below].**

The water still flows. NPS is rerouting some of the water. Rerouting of the spring and the subsequent results are just further manipulation of the land and water for no real reason except to make it a pretty park and preserve the walls of the reservoir in a static time, when the “pattern that connects is constantly changing” (Bateson), like nature herself. Neither the MCWD or the NPS appears to understand the consequences of what they have done to the land and the water, what they have destroyed.

Before Anfinson and Robbins-Fenger from NPS began working on Coldwater, I saw people sitting under a tree or on the grass in meditation as they become one with the water and landscape. I have seen the wonder of people who have newly discovered Coldwater Springs. The NPS claims they want to make Coldwater accessible to people. It was already accessible. I have seen the cars and trucks from the City of Minneapolis police and employees who go to Coldwater for lunch or a break. I have seen many people gathering water from the spring, including but not limited to native peoples. I have seen native people in ceremony. I have seen and talked to the dog walkers, the bikers, the tourists from out of state, the people from the neighborhood, from the Veterans Administration and the Mall of America, from all over Minneapolis and St. Paul and greater Minnesota. I have seen and talked to the many people who come to Coldwater for spiritual nourishment.

All that is at stake here goes far beyond a technical question about Wetland A. Wetland A is just the lynch pin of an important philosophical debate that is taking place in this country at this time about how we view nature and the environmental crisis we are living in. There are those who think men are gods and can “control” and improve or destroy nature as they please. And there are those who understand that we are part of nature, and if we destroy what little we have left and do not attempt to turn the environmental tide, we will destroy ourselves.

What does that have to do with Coldwater? The destruction may be minimal compared to earthquakes and the poisoning of water caused by fracking. But this attitude of separation, of the earth as an object to be manipulated instead of a living entity we are part of, as “mindless, and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration,” has been applied to Coldwater.

The moral and ethical considerations brought forth by the native people are being ignored. The NPS and MCWD have refused to hear native voices at all because their culture is different, and they don’t operate in bureaucracy, which is white man’s culture.

The work that must be done globally to save the environment, and therefore ourselves, begins at home in listening respectfully to the experience and world view of others with long history and traditions of immense value in understanding the interconnections between nature and human beings, and also in understanding that connection belongs to all of us. Those who understand may express the connections in different ways in accordance with their cultural backgrounds, but know that “web of interconnection.”

When NPS has completed their plan for Coldwater, it will not look quite as barren as it does now, but it will be just another city park, created by a person with a masters degree in Urban Planning (Robbins-Fenger) and an historian (Anfinson). Their ecological consultant is in Denver, too far away to know the land and water; he can’t possibly know Coldwater the way those of us who have visited regularly for years know Coldwater. Meanwhile the NPS moves ahead with their plan, bulldozing over Friends of Coldwater—just as they are bulldozing the land—and holding others, like the MCWD, hostage to their status. I am sure it is greatly frustrating for them that they have not been able to convince and control Friends of Coldwater.

Sue Ann Martinson
April 30, 2012


*MAP. Fracture lines interpreted by MnDOT/SEH’s subcontract, Bison Geophysics (Brian Herridge), from SEH’s hydrogeologic report to MNDOT. Coldwater is about halfway down on the right side of the map. SEH is an engineering firm with offices in St. Paul.

** Excerpt from a transcription of comments by Eric Evenson on December 29, 2011 at the Minnehaha Creek Watershed Board of Managers Meeting regarding Wetland A of Coldwater Spring. [As noted above, “real politick” politics take precedence.] Evanson said: “I would encourage the board to again consider this. I understand the concerns out there, but I think longer term that the precedent that could be set could be more damaging to working with the federal agencies than the precedent that could be set as to how a determination was made as to whether this is incidental or not.”


For the Beauty of the Earth by Thomas Urquhart. (Shoemaker & Hoard, Washington D.C., 2004).

Steps to an Ecology of Mind by Gregory Bateson. (Originally published in 1972; reprinted in paperback, 2000)

“Not Ours to Exploit,” Terry Tempest Williams. (The Progressive, Volume 76, Number 5, May 2012). (Quotations from Jack Turner and Gregory Bateson.)

“Welcome to the Asylum.” Chris Hedges. (, April 30, 2012)


One Comment

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