My Year in Water, Part 2

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Niagara’s Horseshoe Falls.

Sparkling Waters

At the end of May 2016, Cooper, his mom, and I crossed south under the Detroit River, across the border to Canada. In a small, fuel-efficient car, you can make it across southern Ontario to New York with one tank of gas, no currency exchange required. (Sidenote: you should always take the tunnel, no matter what Google Maps tells you, because the Ambassador Bridge belongs to Detroit’s Mr. Burns, billionaire Matty Moroun. Don’t line his pockets.)

It was Memorial Day weekend, and we were bound for Rochester, New York, where Cooper’s sister lives. Near the end of the Canadian leg of the trip, you catch glimpses of Lake Ontario out the car windows. My family taught me the excitement of glimpsing big rivers under highway bridges, gorges extending into the distance, as well as our gleeful exclamation—“Hawk alert! Hawk alert!”—upon seeing raptors overhead. I was satisfied that it was less than halfway through the year, and with Ontario, I had already seen three out of five Great Lakes that year (an April trip to Cleveland had included a brief stop at Lake Erie; more on that later).

My parents, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, and my grandparents on both sides crossed Ontario between New York and Michigan countless times. My Aunt Margaret has lived away from Michigan, on the other end of the Great Lakes world, for more than fifty years now.

I don’t personally know the area well, beyond the asphalt and interchanges, but still this piece of Canada, which was once part of the same inland sea as Michigan, feels a part of my heritage. Each time I make the journey with my mother, she reminisces. She describes detours to antique shops, picnics by the lake, ice cream cones and other adventures that happened long before I was born. She also tells me stories she has read about the Seneca, one of the nations of the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) League, whose land ranges across the New York-Ontario border.

Lake Ontario is connected to Lake Erie by the Niagara River; when Ontario narrows on its eastern edge, its waters travel onward to the Atlantic as the St. Lawrence Seaway. When I drive to Rochester through Canada, I reenter the U.S. below the western start of Lake Ontario, crossing the Niagara in the process. It’s faster to avoid the falls, but if you have the time and energy for crowds and parking, you can stop en route like we used to do when we were kids. It’s amazing to think, as you watch the awesome flow of water spilling over Niagara’s Horseshoe Falls (the Canadian side), that even more water surged over the cliffs before the U.S. and Canadian governments negotiated how much they could siphon off to run their power plants downstream (the water level mandated to astound the tourists varies from day to night, from tourist season to depths of winter).

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Letchworth State Park.

In Rochester, we decided on a scenic drive for Saturday, exploring the Genesee River gorge south of Rochester near the Finger Lakes, in Letchworth State Park. The beautiful river tumbles down three impressive waterfalls and through the deep canyon it has carved since the end of the last ice age. Wooded green hills roll into the distance. At the other end of the park, the massive Mount Morris Dam mars the view, protects Rochester from flooding, and has presumably upended the ecology of that part of the river, although the Wikipedia article about this dam has no environmental section. The Genesee River flows into Rochester, which hosts another big waterfall right downtown, before emptying into Lake Ontario.

Lake Ontario was maybe the second Great Lake I ever swam in (Erie might have happened, but I have no childhood memories of it). I remember two or three summers, where after a week up north on Lake Huron, my brother and I traveled with our closest cousins to my aunt’s house in Rochester. She had to call ahead to check the water quality at the city beach, but we got to swim there a couple times. I remember once when it was safe to swim in, the water appeared almost black—I’m not sure what was floating in it, but it makes me sad. It would be so wonderful, so lucky to live in a city with a Great Lake beach—and so heartbreaking to live in sight of that wide-open water and know that heavy industry and agriculture were making it unsafe for human life. I know: I grew up along Lake St. Clair, the big lake that (along with the St. Clair and Detroit rivers) connects Lake Huron to Lake Erie, and we never wanted to swim in it because of high E. coli levels all the time.

On the drive home to Michigan, we stopped at Hamlin Beach State Park on the Ontario shore west of Rochester. The lake was darker than Lake Michigan often looks, this intense blue-green, but crystal clear in the shallows. The lake may be small in surface area, but it’s much deeper than Lake Erie. Some devotees of Michigan and Superior dismiss Ontario for being smaller, with too many cities—Hamilton, Mississauga, Toronto, Rochester—polluting its nature. Lake Ontario can’t help that. Only we can help that, protect it and clean it and forge a way of life where our cities are clean enough, wild enough—and our outlook is open enough—to appreciate the beauty lapping up on the shore right in front of us.

marisa & cooper at hamlin state park

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Hamlin Beach State Park.

I read somewhere that Ontario comes from an Iroquoian word that could be translated as “sparkling water.” Now whenever I think of Ontario, province or lake, it sparkles.

I guess all that was just to say that I had a few moments with Lake Ontario last year, but it was too early in the season to swim.


+ Subscribe to the My Year in Water newsletter here.

+ Previously: My Year in Water: June, Back to January

 

My Year in Water: June, Back to January

Personal Mythology

My birthday at the start of June ushers in the summer, and so the summer is the new year for me. As a kid, I counted my years by the summers, and what shines brightest from them is the time spent with family and friends on Great Lakes beaches. I remember where we stayed each year, near the Au Sable River on Lake Huron: the yellow cottage with my parents, the condo with my cousins that became two condos and then a house and then gloriously two houses together on a private beach, two perfect summers in a row. The up north streak ended by the time I was in high school, although there were also day trips with Emma and even a full week on Lake Huron with Ali and her family. But the summers were marked more by road trips for concerts, my high school trip to France, the summer in college when I lived in a little house with my best friends until I left to study in Germany for a year. The summer Cooper and I started dating, for real this time. Eventually Cooper and I started traveling up north together every summer, and I was so happy to have this piece of my childhood back.

I have a lifelong commitment to swimming in the Great Lakes—to being the first one in the water, the last one out—even if the cold water turned my skin blue. As a child, I was very aware that Marisa was supposed to mean “sea maiden” in Italian, although it frustrated me because it was the lakes that I loved—I didn’t even know the sea! Even so, I wove it into my personal mythology, tied my love of the water to my name.

After my year in Germany, I was overjoyed to reunite with my best friends and my favorite lake, Lake Huron. The summer of 2010 kicked off Lake Michigan’s new status as my every-summer-lake. In 2011, I swam in Lake Michigan and visited Toronto with Cooper, but although we took a ferry to the Toronto Islands and visited the Beaches, I didn’t jump in Lake Ontario. We also didn’t make the long day trip from Toronto to Lake Huron’s massive Georgian Bay, but we did stop along Lake Erie on the way home, bringing the lake total to three. I think that summer was when the enticing dream was born: could I swim in all five Great Lakes—Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan, and Superior—in one year?

The state of Michigan is surrounded by four of the five, so it seems like an achievable goal for a Michigan resident who loves beaches and road trips.

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Lake Ontario does not border Michigan.

You Can’t Love Just One Side of a Lake

Since then, I’ve wanted to collect all the lakes each summer. Partially because I like things to be complete, all the pieces beginning to end, nothing left out. Partially because I’ve just never done it.

But above all else, because I love the Great Lakes and I’m curious about every side of them. I’ve never wanted to be a typical anything, but in terms of summer, it turns out that I’m a typical Michigander. I’d rather be Up North.

Last year, I finally visited all five lakes in the same twelve-month span, although I didn’t swim in all of them. The different trips took many hours of plotting on my part, thousands of miles in the car, and perseverance when I was tired of thinking through logistics. Thankfully, I powered through, and I’m satisfied with every single trip. Although I ended up replacing a few destinations with less ambitious journeys, Cooper and I still made a point of visiting many beaches we’d never been to before.

“You know, it’s not just one side of the lake that we love here in Michigan, we love the other side, too.

I hadn’t thought of it that way until I heard Lee Sprague speaking at the Water Protectors Symposium last month, but the truth of it reverberated in me as soon as the words were out. You may have a favorite shore, you may own a specific piece of land along a body of water, but the water within a lake is always moving, and if it’s not safe on one end, it’s not safe anywhere.

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Water Is Life

I was sitting on my couch trying to think through this piece. How to plunge in, to weave the litany of beachy weekends into the absolutely essential facts of environmental injustice, injustice toward marginalized communities and everyone who depends on water to live, and it’s so big that I couldn’t figure it out. I was procrastinating, scrolling through Facebook, and I saw a post by Linda Black Elk, the coordinator of the Medic Healer Council at the resistance camps at Standing Rock. She wrote about how she and her almost-two-year-old child encountered Senator Al Franken on a plane in Minneapolis. Her little boy grabbed at Al Franken’s hair as they walked down the aisle, and she recognized the senator and said, “No DAPL.” He replied right back, “Mni wiconi,” which means, “Water is life,” a tenet of indigenous beliefs and the rallying cry of the Standing Rock Sioux and their fellow waters protectors as they stood on sacred ground and prayed that the Dakota Access Pipeline would not prevail. My eyes watered, reading it, because the fight is so important, because water is life, and because I want to help but don’t know how. 

2016 was a huge year for water. When I first thought of writing this series last fall, My Year in Lakes or My Year in Water, I didn’t quite realize what it would need to encompass. I’d been writing snippets of things about the lakes all summer, all tangled up and full of excitement from the many trips we’d taken. I knew that I lived surrounded by the greatest lakes in the world—twenty percent of the world’s freshwater is in the Great Lakes basin. I also knew that the state of Michigan had poisoned the drinking water of the city of Flint, and that the water still wasn’t safe to drink straight from the tap (still isn’t!). But I wasn’t thinking then about how clean water is in peril across the United States. Nor did I realize that Michigan’s most important natural resource is under threat from all sides.

I hope you’ll follow along even if your home is somewhere different from mine, because you probably love where you’re from, too. I’m tying this to the Great Lakes because this is my home, that’s my story, but water is important to everyone on this planet, and so I’m sure it needs to be protected, wherever you are.

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First Lake of 2016: Michigan

So if I take you back eighteen months to where I meant the year to start, January 2016, that means we begin with Ludington and Manistee, on the Lake Michigan coast in the northwest of the Lower Peninsula (but south of Sleeping Bear Dunes and Traverse City). Cooper and I drove up to his dad’s house in Manistee on a Friday evening, a four-hour journey, and arrived under cover of darkness. In the morning, the lake greeted us under blue skies, framed by tree branches and the snowy dune in front of the house, and Cooper’s dad made us breakfast: buttermilk pancakes, bacon, and eggs. Good food and good views; going up north almost always feels like vacation, even if we’re only there for a day and a half. This time, we’d made the long drive in winter because Cooper’s sister was visiting from New York, so we, along with Cooper’s brother and his trusty hound, gathered there for a belated Christmas.

The afternoon found us at Ludington State Park. We’d tried to go hiking in the Nordhouse Dunes, our favorite spot nearby, but in the national forest, they don’t plow the roads in winter, so we’d turned around and headed farther south to the state park. It’s a popular place; on a summer weekend, the parking lot can fill up completely. Before you even get there, you see cars parked on both sides of the road, right up against the dunes. At the end of one summer vacation, we pulled over there too, scampered over the dune following one of many little paths squished into the dune grass. Right on the other side of the tall, sharp grass is the lake.

This was the last Saturday in January, and although the park wasn’t empty, it wasn’t full, either. It was easy to find somewhere to park and a trail to follow. Two miles later, Cooper, his sister, and I stood by the lighthouse, enjoying the wind and the waves and admiring the otherworldly ice formations along the edge. We walked back to the car along the beach, treading on sand solid from frozen water.

My thoughts were not on the greater world that afternoon. They were focused on the here and now, the sand and sky around me, or the book on my lap when we were back at the house. I was reading George Monbiot’s Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life on that trip. I had gotten past the beginning and was captivated by what I was learning: the way the landscapes of England and Europe used to look before humankind simplified them so drastically, how great an impact beavers and their dams (instead of hydroelectric dams) make to the resilience of a riverbed and its resident species and surrounding ecosystems, that rhinoceroses and elephants used to roam where London stands today in a temperate climate similar to what we’ve had ever since.

Monbiot explains that the way water flows in the ocean has changed, as the number of fish and whales has changed. The way nutrients cycle from the surface to the ocean floor impacts the organisms who can live there. Trawling the sea bottom destroys it all. Everything is connected.

It sounds like a sad story, but what I learned about rewilding is that, given protection from humans and other species that would harm the new growth, given some key elements of the ecosystem that came before, plants and animals are able to rebuild a complex, adaptable environment for themselves. If we don’t lose everything, we can bring some of it back.

What does this have to do with My Year in Water? Something, for sure. Maybe everything. I hadn’t re-launched my blog yet (that came in March), but I was taking notes from the book, trying to capture everything that inspired me so I could write about it, knowing that this welling hope, these enchanting possibilities of allowing our world to become less human-centric, while benefiting humanity at the same time—that I wanted this to be part of my future world. I hadn’t gotten any farther. It was just a tiny shift in perception of my position in the world. But I wanted to know what efforts were underway in the United States, how I could somehow pitch in. I started by telling everyone I knew that they should read the book.

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Inklings of Enbridge Line 5

Outside in the January air in Ludington, I was happy to feel chilly and alive, and excited about the mini sand stalagmites we had found in frozen sand caves. I wasn’t thinking about oil pipelines; I’d barely given the concept consideration, although I had casually supported Obama’s rejection of Keystone XL the year before. I wasn’t really aware of the extensive sand mining that had destroyed many Lake Michigan dunes, or the oil leases in Ludington itself. I think by then I must have heard of Enbridge Line 5—that there was an oil pipeline that crossed the state of Michigan, at the Straits of Mackinac where Lakes Michigan and Huron come together in a mix of wild currents. I think I’d heard about it, and been outraged momentarily without internalizing what it meant, without understanding the issue as something that could involve me. The National Wildlife Federation report that started the conversation about Line 5 was published in 2012; the University of Michigan Water Center’s pilot report on the currents at the Straits and what they would mean if the twin oil lines ruptured had been released in 2014. Whatever I had read already, as I stood on the edge of Lake Michigan that day, I definitely wasn’t considering what it would look like, what it would mean for all those who depend on the Great Lakes for their livelihoods, if oil spilled in our Great Lakes.

While You Wait for Installment Two:

There are some time-sensitive issues requiring public comment, which will only take a few minutes of your time if you choose to participate. I’m happy to answer any questions you might have, as well as I can. If you’d like to follow along with this series by email, I’ve started a TinyLetter newsletter, which you can subscribe to here.

+ Line 5 at the Straits of Mackinac / Comments must be submitted Wednesday, June 28! 
Enbridge has submitted a new permit request to install additional supports to the Line 5 twin pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac, without first participating in a public hearing process. Submit your comment here saying that the State of Michigan must conduct a comprehensive review of the condition of the pipelines before granting another permit to Enbridge, which has consistently violated the conditions of the pipeline easement. Lots of information is available at www.oilandwaterdontmix.org (the only truly safe action is to shut down the flow of fossil fuels and decommission Line 5).

ET Rover Natural Gas Pipeline Encroaching on Ann Arbor YMCA’s Camp Birkett / Construction imminent 
This natural gas pipeline’s current route puts a YMCA day camp within the incineration zone. Ann Arbor YMCA was not notified of this fact, and construction is now imminent. The current route would cut off neighborhoods and the entire camp in the event of a pipeline explosion. You can get information from the YMCA here about submitting a comment to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The company (Energy Transfer Partners of Dakota Access Pipeline fame) also hopes to skip the expense of odorizing the gas in this area, which means the public wouldn’t be able to smell if there was a leak! More information here, and Washington Post article about the massive (two million gallons) drilling spill caused by Rover pipeline construction, which ruined pristine Ohio wetlands, here.

(Of note: Enbridge Line 5 transports Canadian oil and gas to Canadian markets, with very little sold in Michigan. Michigan land and the Straits of Mackinac are a convenient shortcut for them; an incredibly dangerous risk for the Great Lakes. The ET Rover pipeline will also carry its load to Canada; from my understanding, there’s no demonstrated need for additional natural gas pipelines in southeast Michigan.)

Home Again

My friend Meg, a translator of Spanish and Catalan literature, was living and working in Barcelona winter semester, so of course I had to visit her. Neither of us had been to the País Vasco (Basque Country) or Galicia, so we decided that beyond Barcelona, we would head northwest to San Sebastián in Basque Country and then to Santiago de Compostela and Fisterra in Galicia, which is the westernmost part of Spain and just north of Portugal. (There are photos on Instagram under #MarisaInSpain.)

It was an excellent spring break, full of seaside vistas and pastries and train travel and tapas and beautiful old buildings. We stayed in nice pensiones with simple, well-designed rooms that surprisingly only cost us each about €20 per night (the nicest rooms I’ve ever booked). We alternated long walks and sightseeing with cafes, park benches, and the occasional siesta, which was a good balance (although it would have been better if we hadn’t been working on our laptops during so much of the downtime).

Coming home, I saw Ann Arbor in a different light. I was surprised by how wide the streets of downtown Ann Arbor felt after crisscrossing the streets of Gràcia in Barcelona for days, where tree canopies shadow one-way lanes that pedestrians fill until a motorbike or car appears. My little city’s streets disappointed me a bit: their width seemed so gratuitous. The parked cars and wide lanes felt like a canyon separating the people and shops on either side of the road. Of course, Ann Arbor’s downtown streets aren’t wide at all compared to many others, but I felt the change from the neighborhood in Barcelona acutely.

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Ann Arbor’s Main Street, packed with International Women’s Day strikers.

Still, Ann Arbor is home, and there are many things I know I’ll miss when that’s no longer true.

For years now we’ve wondered when we might leave. Cooper and I first thought we might move to Detroit several years ago, when he finished his PhD coursework. I resolved to do all our favorite Ann Arbor things then, to say yes to anything fun and enjoy a final summer here, a perfect autumn of cider mills and walks in the Arb(oretum), which we did so often when we were in college. But staying put was easier and cheaper than uprooting ourselves, and once I found a mythical job with benefits, there was another incentive to stay.

So we waited, unsure when Cooper would finish or where he might find a job. More than once I thought the next year would be our last year here. In the moments when we realize our lives could soon take a new turn, the familiar becomes more precious. This encourages us to take advantage of what we can while we’re still here: to go to the film festival during the work week, to visit all the parks and restaurants we still haven’t been to. It also made it difficult to decide last summer if we should postpone our Lake Superior vacation for Iceland. What if it was our last summer near the Great Lakes?

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The Huron River at Island Park.

I’ve looked forward to the adventure of a new place for years. I love my apartment, enjoy living in this pretty college town that is populated by friends and family. But I’ve long looked forward to putting down firmer roots in my next home, living in a neighborhood where people get to know each other, instead of so many neighbors cycling in and out every year as they graduate from college. I don’t have a history of being involved in my community; I am not good at reaching out and making friends, at sharing myself in person, carrying on a conversation when I’m uncomfortable. So for a while, I procrastinated. I wanted to be involved in issues I care about, but I thought I’d wait to lead life differently wherever we ended up.

But I got sick of waiting. I didn’t do as much as I should have, but I helped register people to vote. I volunteered with the campaign to fund our Regional Transit Authority.

Then the election happened. I still didn’t know where we’d be in a year, but waiting to take action was no longer an option. So now I’m putting down roots in the place that I expect to leave. Of course, there’s no harm in doing so, but it feels a little odd sometimes. After ten years here, I’m seeing things from a new angle, getting a more human-centric view of this place, and it makes the looming farewell even more bittersweet.

There’s a lot for me in Ann Arbor. And the more community events I go to, the more people I connect with and things I learn, the more I love this town. I’ve known all along that this city is full of like-minded people, but now that I’m experiencing it more fully, I sometimes wonder if I’m crazy to imagine going somewhere else.

We’d imagined life in Cleveland, which could be a good place for Cooper to work and for us to live, and is still pretty close to home. I was excited about a program in Austin that Cooper was interested in, thinking it would be fun to live in a completely different place for a year or two, until maybe he’d get hired at a university back in the Great Lakes region. We were prepared to go almost anywhere, if there was a good job for him. Finding a tenure-track position is no mean feat.

We talked with friends about how we hoped for the sliver of a chance that we could make the smaller move back to the Detroit area; the want was still strong, our hearts were still invested in the city (and our parents who live nearby, and our people across the state). We talked also of how I’d always wanted to move away for a while, experience a bigger city or a different climate, new people and perspectives. That comes with the exciting but also troubling possibility that somewhere else would be perfect for us, and we wouldn’t come back.

In the past couple years, I’ve drawn closer to this state of mine. I’ve always loved the lakes, but learning about Michigan’s history bored me as a child. From an early age, I disliked Metro Detroit’s massive sprawl (ugly and inconvenient); later, I hated how dull it was to live in a suburb so committed to quiet uniformity, and dreamed of leaving.

In the time since I graduated from college, and stayed, and stayed, and stayed in Ann Arbor, I’ve learned a lot more about the state, its politics, our cities and towns and natural wonders. I want things to get better. I want people to be safe, wildlife to be protected, our governments to help instead of harm us.

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Kerrytown in springtime.

By October, it was becoming clear to me, though I couched it in a sea of maybes, that if we want to build connections and be a part of communities we care about, if life is fleeting and we don’t really know how long we have, if these battles are critical now—and they are—then maybe it’s foolish to think that in my overall life trajectory I would still prefer to have moved away and then come back, when I have no control over the distant future and only some control of what’s coming next. So maybe, maybe the best thing is to finally do the things we want to do right now, live somewhere in our lifelong home state, which has so much going for it and yet so many profit-hungry Republicans stacked against it, to work to make the place above all other places in our lives a better place, see our best friends on the weekends and help out our parents and hopefully be part of the city we have watched and cared for and had so many beautiful memories in already.

Maybe that’s the best thing to do.

A Stack of Books for Three Days Up North

img_0355This is the serendipitously color-coordinated stack of books I took to read up north between Christmas and the new year. I set my sights high.

I’m not ready to round up the best books I read in all of 2016, so I guess I never will be. I know in my last post I said that I’d been writing, that I’d be here soon, that I had a web of thoughts about the past ten years and my next few years, about ways of living and where it all comes from. If I didn’t quite say all that, it’s still what I meant.

I’m still tangled up in that web, and in a web of articles left open to read later, emails to myself of things to think about. I think the only way forward is to snip my way out of the web for a few moments and write about these few books, separate from all the rest. Plus, the books accidentally match so well. I had to share.

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fullsizerenderIn keeping with my recent overarching over-ambition for words and ideas and open browser tabs outlined above, I packed 987 pages of reading for our last trip to Manistee. We drove up on a Wednesday and home again to Ann Arbor that Saturday, New Year’s Eve. So that was two full days, plus one evening. Not much time at all. Here are all the books I tried to read:

Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Hidden Wars of the American West, by Rebecca Solnit

Savage Dreams has been near the top of my reading list since Cooper gave it to me for my birthday in June, an absolutely perfect and compelling birthday present, but somehow other books kept sneaking in ahead of it. I didn’t actually get past the introduction until we were back home in Ann Arbor, where I fell asleep with it open waiting for the new year to begin, but it was the first book I packed for Manistee. (In 2017 I became devoted to it: two days later I was two hundred pages in.)

I would like to be Rebecca Solnit. She’s an excellent writer, an explorer and researcher of many different topics, an impassioned and informed citizen. This book is about the Nevada Test Site, where the U.S. government detonated nuclear bombs in the desert until the 1990s, and about Yosemite National Park, America’s idealized Garden of Eden. She writes about the history of these places, about how the very different landscapes were appreciated, devalued, exploited—about the crimes of the U.S. government against the land and against people who have made their lives there (for generations and for centuries), about wins and losses of Native Americans, peace protesters, ranchers, and environmentalists. She also writes about her personal experiences as an activist at the Test Site and a researcher at Yosemite.

I’m sure I’ll write about it more; first place on the packing list was very much deserved. But like I said, I didn’t really read this one during those not-quite-three days up north.

Queen’s Play by Dorothy Dunnett

After packing Savage Dreams, I grabbed book two in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, because vacation is really meant for reading fiction, right? Plus I’d been reading it since the train home from Ottawa (a tiny peek at Ali’s and my tiny trip can be found at #MarisaInOttawa), and I didn’t want to lose my momentum—there are a lot of details to keep track of when protecting the child Mary, Queen of Scots in the 16th-century French court. I finished Part 1 (of 4) before I let myself start on Savage Dreams.

Nowhere: Travel Stories (First Edition Print 2017) edited by Porter Fox

Cooper gave me the Nowhere print magazine for Christmas, and so I brought it with me up north. I read a few of the opening pieces, and enjoyed a wonderful photo essay from Standing Rock.

Nowhere is an online travel journal, now supplemented with an annual print edition. Cooper found it after sharing one of Porter Fox’s articles with me, a piece from Fox’s forthcoming book on the US-Canada border (right up my alley!). That article is about the author’s freighter voyage from Montreal’s port on the Saint Lawrence River, through four Great Lakes and the locks that make them passable for such large ships, all the way to Thunder Bay, Ontario, north of Minnesota. Even better was Fox’s article published in October about canoeing the wild Boundary Waters between Minnesota and Ontario, Canada. As a teenager I would have never expected to romanticize Ontario to the extent I do today, but I do: while Ontario is just across the Detroit River from our metropolitan sprawl and also holds the largest population of all Canadian provinces, by area it’s mostly northern wildlands. And it’s right there, across the rivers and lakes from us!

Porter Fox (along with his talented photographer wife) also wrote about their dreamy honeymoon through Italy for the New York Times. I still haven’t really checked out Nowhere‘s website, but I expect good things.

Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto, by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine

Somehow the smallest book gets the longest explanation.

This is the manifesto of the Dark Mountain Project, another Christmas gift from Cooper. I was wary about it, since he introduced it as something of a hopeless reaction to the knowledge that humankind has irrevocably altered the climate: that we have doomed most of the planet, and must move forward into the dangerous future without pretending we can fix it.

Without reading it, I already knew I preferred the messages of George Monbiot’s Feral, E.O. Wilson’s Half-Earth. (In an oversimplified nutshell: we are not yet totally screwed, so we must protect, ideally, half the planet, reintroduce native species where they are missing, and let nature, surprisingly and impressively, rebuild the complex and much more resilient and adaptable ecosystems that can protect the planet we have so destructively exploited.) These books cultivate hope, and hope empowers action.

But I was interested in whatever weirdness it had to say, and so I packed the little thirty-page book, too, and pulled it out to read on the sunny car ride north.

The manifesto does not simply say that we are fucked, that we should run to the hills and build an isolated, self-sufficient life for when human cities flood and collapse, when mass agriculture and production burn. In fact, this manifesto doesn’t tell you anything particular to do for the planet or the environment at all. Instead, it asks us to confront our fears and communicate honestly.

It reminds us that the stories we tell ourselves as a society are central to how we live and build our world. It says that the old myths we grasp so tightly—the myth of an ever-ascending ladder of progress and the myth of civilization, which claims that humankind is separate from and master of other life on earth—are detrimental to our future. And so, the manifesto calls for new stories, what they call “Uncivilised” writing and art, which is “rooted in place, time and nature.”

They say, “We see that the world is entering an age of ecological collapse, material contraction and social and political unravelling, and we want our cultural responses to reflect this reality rather than denying it.” The Dark Mountain project says we need to have space to grieve all we may lose, be they species or ecosystems, cities or our entire way of life. Starting from a place of honesty and acceptance, we can start to see a different path.

I haven’t read the many volumes of “Uncivilised” writing the Dark Mountain Project has published, nor have I had a chance to read their blog, so I don’t know the broader work. I’ve read the manifesto a few times, now, and I will say that it is thought-provoking, and eloquent, and I don’t entirely disagree. I realize now that many of the books I’ve sought over the past few years are similar to what they call for: writing rooted in place, authors honing in on the fabric of their surroundings (see above: Savage Dreams). So I’m super interested in what it is that they’ve published.

The manifesto is posted on their website, so if you’re interested, there’s nothing stopping you! Plus the New York Times Magazine interviewed one of the founders, which is pretty interesting.

Inspiration

These are my favorite parts of an essay I loved by Jhumpa Lahiri called “Trading Stories,” in The New Yorker:

I wanted to be anonymous and ordinary, to look like other people, to behave as others did. To anticipate an alternate future, having sprung from a different past. This had been the lure of acting—the comfort of erasing my identity and adopting another. How could I want to be a writer, to articulate what was within me, when I did not wish to be myself?

It was not in my nature to be an assertive person. I was used to looking to others for guidance, for influence, sometimes for the most basic cues of life. And yet writing stories is one of the most assertive things a person can do. Fiction is an act of willfulness, a deliberate effort to reconceive, to rearrange, to reconstitute nothing short of reality itself. Even among the most reluctant and doubtful of writers, this willfulness must emerge. Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, “Listen to me.”

This was where I faltered. I preferred to listen rather than speak, to see instead of be seen. I was afraid of listening to myself, and of looking at my life.

[…]

I set out to do as he had done, and to pursue a career that would provide me with a similar stability and security. But at the last minute I stepped away, because I wanted to be a writer instead. Stepping away was what was essential, and what was also fraught. Even after I received the Pulitzer Prize, my father reminded me that writing stories was not something to count on, and that I must always be prepared to earn my living in some other way. I listen to him, and at the same time I have learned not to listen, to wander to the edge of the precipice and to leap. And so, though a writer’s job is to look and listen, in order to become a writer I had to be deaf and blind.

I, too, falter. I, too, dream of stepping away. I’d also like to be seen, if I could figure out what it was I wanted to show.

I’ve had a lot of thoughts flying around since the world I had prepared myself for disappeared in the early morning of November 9th. But I didn’t have it in me to continue with NaBloPoMo, a blog post for every day of November, so I didn’t.

Instead, I’ve read and learned a lot, written and collected many thoughts—on top of the stash I’d already accumulated in the busy weeks before the presidential election. I have a mountain of sentences about my personal story of the past decade, about how I want to live my life, about making a positive difference in this world.

A mountain, a sea, a vast terrain to dig through.

I’ll find my way to sharing soon, but until then, I wanted to say hello. It’s still hard to say, “Listen to me,” but I’m still here.

Why I Support Public Transit

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A tram in Prague.

I grew up in the suburbs, where you had to drive to get anywhere interesting. (Although today my dad bikes all the way from Grosse Pointe to Johnny Noodle King in Detroit, there’s no way my mom would have let me do that…and yeah right that teenage me would have even wanted to bike so far.) I used mass transit on rare vacations in what I would have called real cities: Boston, New York, Chicago, even navigating the Paris metro with my classmates on that first, heady trip to Europe. I used the bus sometimes in college to go to the mall. And then I moved to Germany for a year.

It was a completely different world, where a student could pay I think like 65€ for six months of unlimited public transit in the city. I lived two minutes from a Straßenbahn stop, and so I could take the tram straight downtown, or to my friends’ dorm on the other side of the city, or to the train station, where high-speed trains took me to Munich and Slovenia, Prague and Paris and Berlin. I could take a bus from the train station to the regional airport—something you couldn’t do in Ann Arbor back then, unless it was a major university break and you were a card-carrying student. It was completely different to live alone for the first time in Freiburg, instead of somewhere in Michigan, especially carless.

I learned to love transit in an extremely privileged way, when I was living off financial aid in Europe. When I came home, there was a car I could take from my parents. I mourned the loss of rail travel because it was so fun, because it worked so well, and because I saw no logical reason not to have it. When I killed the car, there was no money, and I didn’t consider buying a new one. Cooper ended up needing his own car, and so we didn’t have to depend exclusively on the erratic Amtrak schedule to keep our romance alive while he lived in Detroit. Luckily, I’m able to walk and bike. I’m happy with the decision to pay more to live centrally, or to live in a small space to live centrally, and eventually I learned to love that I don’t own a car.

Let’s be real, though. I have a car. I share it with Cooper. We don’t use it every day, or even every other day, but we have it whenever we need it. We take the bus and bike because it’s less stressful for us, much cheaper, better for the planet. We take the bus because for us, in central Ann Arbor, it’s easy.

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I don’t have any intentional bus photos.
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Chicago’s Union Station.
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Chicago to St. Louis on Amtrak’s Texas Eagle.

I wanted to write a love story to train travel. I want to make you love trains as much as I, a surprisingly dorky twenty-eight-year-old woman who never went through a public transit obsession as a small child, but who as an adult reads train travelogues and histories sometimes in her spare time. I really do get excited when I see streetcars in New Orleans, when I get to ride a subway. But I don’t have time to write that, because it’s not all sorted out in my head. Transcontinental trains have long stories, long reaches. And though the U.S. definitely also needs more long-distance trains and tracks, better trains, faster trains, southeast Michigan in particular needs a regional transit system.

I believe in that, too. Not just the sexy ICEs and TGVs of Germany and France, the intriguing yet unlikely train route from Ann Arbor to Traverse City that’s being researched. Not just the light rail I wish was already planned for the full length of Woodward Avenue, instead of just a little blip, or the light rail they might one day build to cross Ann Arbor. Not even just the commuter rail line between Ann Arbor and Detroit, that people were talking about when I started college ten years ago—although that is a fucking big deal and a huge start, and the commuter rail is part of the historic and necessary transit package we are voting to fund in southeast Michigan tomorrow.

Because this isn’t about me, even though the commuter rail line is what might impact my life the most at first, and is what I most hoped for, these many years. This transit millage, to fund the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan, is about connecting people, uniting our region, making it so people who can’t drive or can’t afford to drive or don’t want to drive or just don’t have a car that day because it’s broken or whatever, can get on with their lives, like they live in a real place that respects them as human beings and wants them to be able to work and pay their bills and feed their families.

Connecting Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, and Washtenaw counties—the only major metropolitan area in the country without regional transit—and expanding and improving their transit options: this is a social justice issue, this is an environmental issue, this is an economic issue.

And so I didn’t write that lovely story about big trains going to far-off places, because that’s not the battle we’re fighting today and tomorrow.

Also because I’ve been busy calling voters and dropping brochures these past few days, and I haven’t had time to write seriously. If I hadn’t decided to do this NaBloPoMo thing again (a commitment to post something every day in November), I’d be asleep right now. But I wish I’d written this post, which maybe ten people will read, a few days ago at least. I wish I’d volunteered sooner and more. I desperately hope it works out tomorrow, for transit and for Michigan, and for America and the world.

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A retired Detroit streetcar at work in San Francisco.

Priorities, Pt. 2: More / Less

IMG_0082.JPGI have a really hard time waking up and getting up these days, these months. I inherited a hearty proclivity for sleep, and I will reliably fall back asleep again and again if I’m still horizontal, still under the covers.

I love to sleep, but I know my mornings are better if I can get out of bed promptly and start the day with something that matters to my life, instead of just a frantic breakfast/brush teeth/what will I wear/oh god I missed the bus routine. Computer screens, after not that long, clench my jaw and put my brain to sleep, and so I repeatedly feel throughout the day that I need a reset, a quick nap, so that I could feel smart again.

I was up until after one on Friday night, trying to get Friday’s post on Elena Ferrante finished. So naturally, I slept late on Saturday morning. When I got up, I found there was more work to do, and so I camped out on the couch with my laptop and tweaked some things, scrolled through Facebook off and on and clicked away until eleven-thirty or so, when I opened the door that goes from the bedroom to the porch.

I stepped over the threshold, into warmth and sunshine I hadn’t anticipated. The entire day was suddenly different. The pile of leaves littering the mat had become thrilling, not the mess it had seemed on wetter days, when I postponed cleaning out the porch garden. The metal buckets, waiting there for rain to wash them out, were a welcome reminder that I had finally composted the sunflower stalks and cleared out the soil and roots the day before. But mainly, it was wonderful to remember that there’s a much better world outside the computer screen. That all it takes is stepping away, and better yet, outside. I spent the next hour and a half on the porch: I swept away the dirt, I brought out my bowl of cereal and sat on the stool for a while, before walking down to the river on a fun phone call.

I need to get back in the habit of stepping out for a breath of fresh air when I wake up, instead of curling up and hiding. I don’t want the computer-haze-exhaustion I feel right now, wishing I had already written the more ambitious, photo-heavy blog posts I want to share with you, but knowing I’m too tired. So that’s why I wrote this short post about a random photo of my feet in blue wool socks, standing on a dirty porch. Because I love this random photo, and now I can shut the computer and rest, and in the morning, try to capture that again. More of that, less of this.