While traveling Northern California in 1995, the number of conversations I had with people about where I was from elicited many opinions about the Great Lakes, none of them flattering. Nothing I could say about the beauty of the region could counter their impression of the Lakes as a polluted wasteland. None had ever seen the Great Lakes, but they were certain the lakes, like the Rust Belt, were in great decline.
Since then I’ve had the delight—and a sweet sense of vindication—of being with people when they experience Lake Michigan and Lake Superior for the first time. They are stunned that they can’t see the shore across them, at their breadth and depth. Unlike the oceans many of them know, they are amazed that such masses of water are fresh—and at the expanses of dunes and distance.
It’s this sense of wonder that Jerry Dennis captures in The Living Great Lakes, a weaving of history, natural science, and personal experience that adds depth to our understanding of the landscape, ecology, and natural systems that surround us.
If you want to learn the origins of the terms “Mayday,” “bitter end,” or “three sheets to the wind,” read this book. If you’ve ever wondered about how the Pacific salmon, the alewife, or lamprey got here, read on. Why does Detroit flood? What is the history of algae blooms in Lake Erie? Read this book. Or if you just want a good story about a cramped crew of variously skilled characters trying to get a boat from Michigan to Maine through the Great Lakes, read on. What did I like best about this book? The understanding it gave me about the Great Lakes as a system—beautifully interconnected, fierce, and fragile.
This Reading Together season offers an abundance of programs for all ages about the Great Lakes, including author Jerry Dennis’ visit on March 3. Take a look at the schedule and mark your calendars—what better way to spend the late days of winter than to get out into it with our neighbors?
~Amy Ferguson, Reading Together Steering Committee
In the 90s, I went to a class reunion, where someone had put up a table for people to share photographs. My picture was of myself with my family at Sleeping Bear dunes. In the photo, we were leaning against a fence, sand dune all around, and Lake Michigan stretched to the horizon in the background. Classmates poring over the pictures on the table looked at mine and said nice things about my kids. Then someone said, “I thought you lived in Michigan.”
“I do indeed,” I said. “Why do you ask?” “Well,” she said, “this picture makes it look like you live near the ocean.” She had no idea the Great Lakes were as big as they are. She was astonished see that you couldn’t see from one side of Lake Michigan to the other.
Reading Jerry Dennis’s The Living Great Lakes recalled that moment for me. Dennis accurately captures the size and significance of the lakes, but those of us who live here know you have to see, fish and swim in, and boat on them to really get it. And though I’m not a native of any Great Lakes state, I’ve lived in Michigan long enough for Dennis’s review of the majesty of the lakes to evoke a thrill and a sense of pride.
The Living Great Lakes also gives me a new sense of respect for the danger the lakes hold. I grew up swimming in the Yellow Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, where the surf and tides can be rowdy and murderous. Typhoon season in South Korea, where my parents were missionaries, would create giant waves that were exhilarating to ride and tides that destroyed boats and seawalls. Compared to those forces, what I’ve seen along the shores of Lake Michigan has looked negligible by comparison (and, I have to say it, I still miss the salt in the water). But Dennis’s vivid accounts of storms and currents, especially those on Lake Superior, opened a new understanding for me about the power and wildness of the lakes. I won’t look at them with the same nonchalance again.
Five or six years ago, we camped around Lake Michigan, following the Lake Michigan Circle Tour, which runs about as close to the lake as it’s possible to get. The lake was always to our right, and the road took us through Michigan’s wine country, right through downtown Chicago and Milwaukee, along the desolately lovely U.S. 2 on the southern edge of the Upper Peninsula and to the shipyards of Wisconsin. I love ships -- real ships, big ones that tower over you and move by at just more than a walking pace -- and the shipyards of the Wisconsin shore gave me a chance to get up close to them -- or, in the case of a shipyard Sturgeon Bay, Wis., what was left of a couple of them. Once again I was impressed by a reality Dennis points out in his book: The Great Lakes really are inland seas. Like the world's oceans, they’ve got serious weather, they dominate and feed the ecosystems around them, and they are a focal point of human civilization, from the great cities along their shores to the great vessels that sail their waters.
Our Reading Together events, which revolve around the themes in The Living Great Lakes, start in just a few weeks (click here for a list). They will remind you how good it is to live surrounded by these giant bodies of water or introduce you to new reasons to feel glad about where you live. I hope our focus on the lakes also makes you feel grateful, for who among us can claim much credit for having landed in the middle of all this watery beauty and bounty? It's humbling and exciting at the same time -- and, for me at least, brings a new sense of how much care the lakes are due from us.
~Malcolm McBryde, Reading Together Steering Committee
Kalamazoo Institute of Arts