"My earliest memory is watching the Illinois River flow through its channel from the east bluff, which is where my father built our house. And I was flying my tricycle around the patio that my father just poured. What it meant to me was a connection to the rest of the world. The barges that brought things all the way from Chicago; I knew that the Illinois joined the big Mississippi River whose letters I was just learning how to spell and it connected us all the way down to New Orleans. So at the very young age seeing the river outside my father's house made me feel connected to the entire planet, really.
"I have felt like when I go back to the Illinois River now like I'm the natural historian of ghosts because so many of the species that lived along the Illinois are gone-many of the fish, the crayfish, the clams.… And when I look at old photographs, the Illinois River used to be the most productive inland river. There were special trains brought to the Illinois river with refrigerated cars to carry these huge fish caught from the river that were then shipped to fish markets as far away as Boston and New York.
"And I've never eaten a fish from the Illinois River. I was born in 1959 and for as long as I can remember there [have] always been fish advisories warning against, especially women and children, against eating fish caught from the Illinois-so contaminated are the flesh of the fish with both pesticides from the corn and soybean agriculture that we practice there but also from the industrial chemicals used by the areas' many different industries that the fish have always been too poisoned for me to eat. And yet I feel a very profound connection with that river nevertheless.
"I was once asked by a farmer in Ethiopia to describe how the fish of the river in my homeland tasted to me because he wanted to tell me about the destruction by the military of his river and the loss that it meant to him, and how he wept every time he thought of the taste of the fish from that river; the fish were no longer there because it had become too silted up. And I had to tell him that even though I loved my Illinois River, I have never eaten a fish from it because of this poisoning problem.
"And he said: 'So why are you here in Africa? Why have you abandoned your own river to come here and worry about my river? You must go home immediately and defend it against those who are poisoning your river.'
"And it was a promise that I eventually kept. I did eventually go home and take a look, a very close look, at the ecological threats to the Illinois River and pored through the old 19th century photographs showing not only all the fish that were once caught in the river, but there were many pearl button factories that used to operate up and down the river because all the mollusks in the river could be caught and turned into buttons. And there would be huge piles of what looked like giant stone butterflies the size of your hand of these clams and mussels that had been pulled up from the river.
"Those are all gone now.
"And yet, in spite of how compromised the river is, in spite of how diminished it's become it's my most beloved landscape. And I think that's probably true for people everywhere who would welcome a chance to watch life come back to the rivers if they were only given an opportunity to understand how, if we made these changes, if we stood up and said these are needless risks that we're taking to our health. And we've lost something important in the community by losing the life of the river. Perhaps there are ways of doing things differently. Perhaps there are ways of changing farming, changing our industrial practices and seeking non-toxic alternatives that could give us a river once again whose fish we could enjoy, who we could show our children those butterfly clams that we could make into buttons.
"I think that it would rehumanize us in a way that we can only imagine at this point."