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The Drawing that Saved a Watershed: 4 Qualities of Game-Changing Visuals


Around 30 years ago, Barb Fisher and Jim McClure (photo below) got so upset about a proposed strip mall near a wetland. So Jim decided to draw a picture. Jim passed away in 2013 and was much beloved. I never had the opportunity to meet him but Jim's simple drawing "We're All in the Same Bathtub" saved our watershed, created the awareness-foundation for the Clearwater Conservancy, and left a legacy of conservation.

I proudly serve on Clearwater's board and also live in the Spring Creek Watershed depicted in his famous drawing. Almost 1/3 of all land preserved in PA is the work of small conservancies like Clearwater (such as this year's 300 acre achievement the Slab Cabin Run Initiative)

A Closer Look at the Bathtub

It is hard to decipher in the grainy image above but the drawing shows the people and communities in the watershed. Pouring in from the top are multiple threats from agricultural run-off to non-point source pollution to overdevelopment. Then a small drain pipe labelled "Big Spring" where our water flows before making its way to the Chesapeake Bay.

What We Can Learn from the Bathtub

The drawing accomplishes several things which are good criteria for any drawing aimed at changing the world:

  • Make it personal: it shows how real people and places are involved as both part of the problem and the solution

  • Make it educational (but not too much): it shows some basic science of watersheds which can create an important mental model for stakeholders needed to solve the problem

  • Make it fun/attractive: it uses a skillful pen with an edge of humor and is, in today's lingo, shareable or Tweetable with a high level of "social currency"

  • Make it inclusive: it emphasizes that "WE" are all in the "SAME" bathtub. This is our problem and no one is coming to rescue us. We do it ourselves or it doesn't happen.

Form Something Out of Your Anguish

"Form something out of your anguish" was the easy wisdom from 80 years of life, most spent safeguarding and restoring land and water. This insight was dropped by Bob Donaldson, a contemporary of McClure's who is still very much alive with his fingerprints all over the restored riparian areas, conserved forests and farmlands of the centre region.

Bob is retiring from the board. He was reflecting at 7:45am this morning at the Clearwater Conservancy Board Meeting. I am a newcomer, to the watershed and to the board. When he speaks, I always pay special attention, edge of the seat with pen in hand. It's practically like listening to the land itself speak to you.

They formed something of their anguish, was how Bob explained the actions of Jim McClure and Barb Fisher those many years ago. I thought this was poetry...and before 8am in the morning! How many feel anguish and don't form something meaningful from it?

Jim formed a drawing that continues to inform and inspire people around the region. It's vivid and relatable in a profound way. You can't help but see life differently after seeing it.

Sometimes changing the world just involves drawing a picture of it.

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