Onondaga Lake, a peaceful place – now what?

The story usually told of Onondaga Lake goes something along the lines of: It was clean, then rapid increases in population and industrialization polluted the life out of it, and now — for better or worse — we are charged with the task of cleaning it up.

That’s a fairly accurate summation of the lake’s history, sure. Onondaga Lake is regarded as one of the filthiest bodies of water in the country, but it has pulled itself out of that reputation thanks to federal, state and local sanctions on industry, improvements in sewage management, and changes in local behaviors, like recycling and limiting individual acts of pollution.

Yet, the story often told is told from a very specific perspective, one that leaves out a giant chunk of the big picture: what came before and what will come next?

Catherine Landis, a student at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry working toward her Ph.D., is focusing her study on the cultural aspects of restoration in Onondaga County. Particularly, she considers this environment’s significance to the Onondaga Nation, the Haudenosaunee people native to Central New York.

“I’m kind of going backward in time,” said Landis, who is from the Syracuse area. Part of Landis’ work has been re-envisioning a reciprocal relationship between humans and the local environment. “It seems that at some point, there was more respect. A fish is a relative, not a commodity to be harvested,” she said.

Landis references the Nation’s perspective of the lake and surrounding areas, and often exults the historical relationship they had with the land, but she also frequently acknowledges that the vision she seeks to develop is a different one. “I value their approach,” Landis said, but it’s only a part of moving forward.

“I think the solutions have to really be at the core of how we see ourselves in relation to nature,” she said.

In this step of the process she describes, then, attitudes are what need to be cleaned up — a task that Landis knows is difficult, but she is hopeful nonetheless.

“We are sort of naturally evolved to respond to stories, so my project, the result of it is going to be a narrative. It’s important to be telling the story that this used to be a clean lake, and it can be again.”


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