I Want to See Mountains

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Kirkjufell means “church mountain” in Icelandic.

I want to see mountains again, mountains! The mountains I’m thinking of are the distinctive, steep, yellow-green or starkly brown, horizontally ridged mountains of Iceland, which are currently covered in snow. Iceland, where every rock has a story, a name. (Sorry, but “Colors of the Wind from Pocahontas comes into my head at least once a month, as well as Bilbo telling Gandalf what he’ll do after he leaves the Shire for good).

Of course, there are names for rocks and mountains all over. My first mountains as a fully aware person were the Sierra Nevada, Mount Lassen and Mount Shasta and the peaks close by my aunt’s and uncle’s house perched right on a mountainside, whose names I didn’t learn, but whose enveloping presence brought me joy. In Freiburg, where I lived for a year in southwestern Germany, there were Schwarzwald (Black Forest) hills at the end of all the spokes of the city: Schauinsland, Schönberg, other mountains I failed to get to know despite our prolonged proximity to each other. In Bayern (Bavaria) I was tickled to learn the names of the various Alps I encountered over multiple trips:  Zugspitze and Jenner and der Watzmann, with his smaller wife and children, as well as the urban peaks: the names of the churches that make up the skyline of München (Munich). I enjoyed becoming familiar with the hometown of my family friends, learning some of its landmarks and human history as well as its farther-flung natural surroundings.

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Der Watzmann.

In Gathering Moss, ethnobotanist Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about raising her daughters in upstate New York, and spending summers in the Adirondack Mountains at her university’s biological field station:

“A good number of the rocks around here have names, and people use them for reference points around the lake: Chair Rock, Gull Rock, Burnt Rock, Elephant Rock, Sliding Rock. Each name calls up a story, and connects us to the past and present of this place every time we say it. My daughters, being raised in a place where they simply assume that all rocks have names, christen their own: Bread Rock, Cheese Rock, Whale Rock, Reading Rock, Diving Rock.” (p. 3)

As I read that, I thought of Michigan rocks with names: Arch Rock on Mackinac Island, Chapel Rock at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. National parks and other public lands make true in some way one of our important American myths: that this land is our land, that the American people own some of the most spectacular and rugged pieces of the continent (powerful and important and worth protecting, although we need to stop forgetting that it is also stolen land, and I don’t mean from the industries who want to destroy it but from the Indigenous peoples of the continent who have lived here many thousands of years). In these storied places, we take the time to appreciate the presence and power of striking natural landmarks, and we remember their names to other people all over the world: Half Dome and the Yosemite Valley, Old Faithful at Yellowstone. Here again, we need to remember that these places have other names from before the American settlers and railroad barons spoke over them.

Building Relationships With Land

I wonder if part of what makes mountain vistas and other geographical features with names appealing to me is that this sort of landscape, these earth entities, are missing in my home. I grew up near the center of a sea of sprawl. We liked to drive along Lake St. Clair, which turns into the Detroit River. But what other natural feature was there to name, what landscapes to know? I think I might have grown up a little place-less, in the suburbs, taxied about in the backs of my parents’ cars.

I knew that I had to bike sixteen blocks from my house to get to the toy store in the Village, one little city over from us. I knew from my dad that Fox Creek once flowed next to what we called the Castle House at the other end of our block, a house built of solid grey stone and decorative tiles salvaged from an old church. An invisible creek, and a castle: I think the buried stream sticks in my mind because it was tied to this concrete example of a past that was not suburban—the old church that has been completely re-shaped.

Beyond that, there were asphalt roads and concrete sidewalks and lots of houses with lush, green grass. The city parks were tamed at inception. The land remains mostly flat, city after city crammed together along the river and the lake, building a massive metropolitan area along the highways.

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Freiburg, Germany.

When you see mountains hugging your city in its valley, it’s a little clearer how the “natural” world connects to the urban. There’s a different kind of context. Even in Ann Arbor, there are trees in the distance, rising up out of Huron Street as you look west from downtown. On my bus ride out to North Campus, I would delight in the forested hills along the Huron River, and from my fourth-floor office there, you could see so many trees.

I miss that, in Detroit. We live on the first floor now, and so we don’t have much of a distance to stare out into. If I walk down to the river, I can look out at Belle Isle and Canada. If you’re standing on the right streets, there are monuments on the horizon: skyscrapers and apartment buildings and the incinerator (my brother and I named that as children—the Skunk—and plugged our noses as we rode past on the expressway).

Sometimes I look at the street I live on now, roads and sidewalks and curbs and house foundations so densely packed, and I think we don’t really live on land anymore—that the front yards might actually be small plots of dirt and grass seed dropped on top after the impermeable grid was installed, leaving no room for roots. But no, of course not, we live on the Earth, the Earth is still here, with continental plates twenty to thirty miles thick. (Plus the rain makes waterfalls in my basement during heavy storms; we at least are open to the elements!)

But the ghosts of the previous landscapes are still there under the streets. We have harnessed waterways as sewers, which people sometimes talk about bringing back to the surface. Many of us in this region live on what was ecologically important and productive marshland that filtered water before it entered the Great Lakes—but these wetlands were filled in to make land for farmers.

Cooper is fascinated with the early history of the city. He shares what he’s learned with me as we walk these streets together, sketching pictures in our minds of the neighborhoods not only before abandonment and demolition, but also before industry, before farming, before European settlement. Identifying where the river shoreline used to be doesn’t make it open to the people and animals who once called it home. Knowing that downtown streets were named for local slaveholders doesn’t free those who they enslaved. But giving words to what is past and hidden is still valuable, don’t you think? 

In another essay in Gathering Moss, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes:

“In indigenous ways of knowing, all beings are recognized as non-human persons, and all have their own names. It is a sign of respect to call a being by its name, and a sign of disrespect to ignore it. Words and names are the ways we humans build relationship, not only with each other…” (p. 13)

There’s probably no reason to rebuild long-flattened hills for the sake of historical accuracy, and we can’t name mountains that never existed here to scrape the sky of our marshy home. But we can appreciate and name what was lost along with what was built (and often itself lost), as we do our best to move forward in the present. 

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Porcupine Mountains, Michigan.

And travel to the western Upper Peninsula when we want to experience Michigan mountains.

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Bears Ears National Monument is Sacred Land

“When you turn the management over to the tree-huggers, the bird and bunny lovers and the rock lickers, you turn your heritage over,” Mr. Noel [a Utah state representative] said.”  – NYTimes: Interior Secretary Proposes Shrinking Four National Monuments

What about the heritage of the Indigenous people of the region who have been there for many more generations than the descendants of colonists? What about preserving their sacred spaces? Why do Zinke and Trump feel this need to take away a federal monument conceived of and negotiated by a coalition of Native tribes, a notable and important landmark designation? #SaveBearsEars

The Antiquities Act limits monument designations to the “smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected,” a requirement that many conservative lawmakers have accused presidents of ignoring.

Mr. Zinke, in announcing the review, called it “long overdue” and pointed out that the average size of national monuments had grown over the years from 442 acres to more than a million.”

One the one hand, a so-called federal overreach that expands our protected, public lands wouldn’t bother me at all. On the other hand, when the first antiquities were protected and first national parks set aside, science wasn’t involved in the process. People didn’t know what they were doing. We are learning more about ecological processes all the time; it is now clear that we need big swathes of protected land, connected corridors, so that species can adapt as the climate changes, so that populations remain large enough to have a fighting chance at continuing and adapting.

Of course, preserving notable geological formations can be done with less acreage set aside, just to keep the most obvious novelties from being carved away by mining and stealing and whatever else.

But if you are trying to preserve and champion a living, changing landscape, sacred for its history and artifacts but also for the fact that it gives life to the plants and animals that populate it–you need a lot more land. Our national parks and monuments should be getting bigger.

And although national parks have been fought at every turn, illegal extractive activities continued after official designations–in the end, the majority of America always ends up thankful for the foresight of those who fought for these protections.

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.)

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.

* * *

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.

Looking for Puffins

iceland lumix reykjavikpuffin-tour-watching-puffinsiceland reykjavikWhale watching was on our to-do list in Reykjavík, but we didn’t plan ahead for it. We also figured that it would be wrong to leave Iceland without seeing any puffins, as colorful, goofy, and famous as they are. On our second to last day in Iceland, Cooper, Emma, and I drove the southern coast of Iceland, from Grindavík all the way to the town of Vík, near the island’s southern extremity. I had intended for us to catch the ferry to the Westman Islands off the coast, where we were sure to see puffins, but time was short, so we focused on the mainland instead. One beautiful spot was the Dyrhólaey nature reserve, where many puffins nest in the spring and summer. I wasn’t sure if we’d actually find a puffin, since we weren’t sure exactly where to look, but it was exciting when we did! So exciting, in fact, that we decided to go on a puffin boat tour in Rekyavík the next day, instead of whale watching.

Dyrhólaey Nature Reserve

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Looking east toward Reynisfjara beach; the town of Vík is just over the ridge.

Continue reading “Looking for Puffins”

Up North Rituals

manistee-bluff-2015The first thing we always do when we arrive is run down to the beach, or up to the bluff, to say hello again to our friend the lake—whichever Great Lake it may be. It was true when I was a kid, up north with my cousins. We’d get to our condo or cottage for the week and immediately ditch the grownups, drop that first bag of the many provisions we were supposed to be unloading from our caravan, and run down the path or over the grass and into the sand, to see our long-lost friend, Lake Huron.

When Cooper and I get to a beach, we usually kick off our shoes and walk up to the shoreline where the waves lap up and the sand is wet and firm. If it’s not swimming weather, we’d still like to get our feet wet. Even in winter, we want to dip our fingers in and commune with these giant bodies of water, which surround the land we live on from so many sides.

Of course, wherever you vacation, you usually want to take stock of your new holdings on arrival, however temporary their tenure as your home may be. You want to claim the best bedroom, perhaps, but more importantly, seeing the lay of the land helps you stake a claim on your vacation, and bring it from the realm of anticipation to reality. Your vacation may begin when you pull out of your driveway at home or your plane leaves the runway—suddenly, predictably, and yet improbably airborne. You get a step closer to vacation when you leave the interstate, or land at the distant airport. Another step closer with that first glimpse of lake through the trees, or foreign signs everywhere, or crossing city limits. You come off the numbered smaller highway and onto country roads with periodic mailboxes and gravel driveways tunneling into the trees, tall and impressive although they aren’t as old as we’d like to dream.

But I’m not really there until I’m face to face, as it were, with the lake. Then, vacation has arrived.

It makes me so happy that Cooper shares these customs with me, this friendliness with our lakes (and admiration for the sea, when we find ourselves on ocean beaches). I don’t know if anyone taught me to feel this way toward the land and water, or if I came upon it instinctively. Not every Michigander acts like me. But Cooper, who comes from a different family, is so similar in this.

In a way they are low-key deities to us, our nature gods to whom we delight in paying homage.

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A beach at the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness area, near Ludington and Manistee.