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

iceland south coast
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.

img_9038

img_9034
A beach at the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness area, near Ludington and Manistee.

Roughly: Learning the Land

IMG_7750This year I want to know the land.

I’ve learned of rewilding Britain, where it sounds as though the Celtic magic that always called to me is längst weg, gone long agowhich I now realize shouldn’t surprise me at all, though all hope is not lost.

I’ve learned of the marshes of the Gulf Coast drowning in saltwater and oil as the water that holds up the land of Louisiana is pumped away.

I’ve met the field mice of rural Wisconsin who know that snow falls so they may build subways within it, free from want and fear; and I’ve cried when progress called a government trapper to hunt down Escudilla’s last grizzly.

This year I want to know the far shores of our Great Lakes where I’ve never been before.

I want to commune with the wind and the rocks of southwestern Iceland when I’m there.

Then perhaps the western wilds of Solnit and Muir. I want to know places, and also those who step across the land and their words that travel in its winds.

I’ve always loved to make spaces. Rearrange the room, carve out a closet cave, imagine the snug fort that a covered wagon could be for the children riding in it. I’ve dreamed of a life in caravan, a house on wheels, a safe cozy space with everything in its place.

Ten years ago now I first saw the vision of tiny houses in wide open spaces—living so small that by necessity you live also outdoors. Keeping from harming the land, perched on top as a steward instead of digging deep, anchoring in concrete, refusing to let go when the dunes fall into the sea or the farm is sucked dry. Not an extractor manipulator gleaner what is the right word here? Not taker but protector. The couple who leased the land to keep it from being—I almost had the word I wanted but then I lost it—drilled. Developed. Used.

Exploited, that was it.

Instead, worshipped. Protected. Self-willed. Resilient.IMG_6459

Ear Cocked for Geese

A March morning is only as drab as he who walks in it without a glance skyward, ear cocked for geese.   – Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

sunset geese march 2016
I like the geese. I don’t like to get too close, because they’re big and they hiss when they’re being pushy, and I don’t like walking through grass littered with goose poop. But I love to see them gathered on the banks of the Huron River, and I am comforted by the reliability of their presence down in Ann Arbor’s Riverside Park, just east of the bridge that crosses the train tracks and the river.

I remember the jokes my Grandpa Bob, my father’s father, used to tell. One of my favorite early memories is of standing on the bridge to Belle Isle in Detroit with him and my brother on a cold, grey day. He pointed toward the river and said our cousins were out there. Maybe he said they were ice skating. I was little, and I wondered which of my eleven cousins he was talking about. But soon I knew he meant the geese, those big birds who fly in Vs, honking, above the land. It’s a real grandpa joke, because our last name is pronounced GEESE, and so those birds, found all over Michigan—all over the world, although I didn’t know it as a child—could have been members of the family, should have attended our yearly reunion.

Instead, the geese keep tight together every year on the same paths, from warm winter days in the south to long summer days in the north. Continue reading “Ear Cocked for Geese”