“‘Place of the Red Rock’ is a lovely piece. So full of fascinating history both natural and human, superb description, and supple feeling.” –Donna Seaman, Guest Editor, TriQuarterly
From the Inner Coast
Click here to read my essay, “From the Inner Coast,” one of my angriest rants ever. My thanks go to Ander Monson for taking this piece for his Midwessay series on Essay Daily.
Before the Garden is Extinct
I’d been to the woods for my daily hike. Back behind the wheel of the car, my body felt strong and capable–I can climb hills in the sand, quickly. I know these unmapped trails as well as–no better than–the back of either hand. I was as they say, in the zone: high on endorphins and good air.
Perhaps because I’d carried a bit of my woods habit of attentiveness back into the car with me, I noticed a brown fox trotting through the unmoved grass, April drab, of an abandoned gold course. She as so close to the road I could see she carried something small, gray, and songbird-sized in her mouth. Thoughts flitted through my mind: Aren’t foxes nocturnal? Is she a gray or a red? You should stop. Work can wait awhile. Stop. Get out of the car. And go back and look for the fox.
I talk to myself this way sometimes. It helps me settle in, focus, accomplish unquantifiable things.
This fox sighting was unremarkable, except that it happened right in the middle of the day. It would have been rash to let the moment pass, and I did pull the car off onto the grassy shoulder across from boat warehouses and condos, at least partially to prove to myself that I could, that I do indeed share some small bit of the talent for encountering wild nature that seems inexhaustible in some writers. …
Foreword to Here
A couple of years before Henry David Thoreau launched his experiment in self-improvement at Walden Pond, Massachusetts, fellow New Englander and transcendental its Margaret Fuller undertook a summer tour of the Great Lakes. Her goals were similar, her tack quite different, for it’s clear from her book, Summer on the Lakes, in 1843, that meeting people was a highlight. Fuller encountered Michigan’s Upper Peninsula briefly. She left this report of shooting the pre-locks rapids of the St. Mary’s River with two “Indian canoe-men” whom she clearly admired: “It is, no doubt, an act of wonderful dexterity to steer amid these jagged rocks, when one rude touch would tear a hole in the birch-canoe… . I should like to have come down twenty times that I might have had the leisure to realize the pleasure.”
Water, of course, defines peninsulas, and the largest supply of fresh water in the world defines the Great Lakes State’s two sprawling peninsulas. Even the boundary with Wisconsin is just about 50 percent river: Brule and Menominee. I had to look that up. Even though my mom, her parents, and their parents were Yoopers (as I write, this word is being added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary), I grew up in the southeastern corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula … . The westernmost reaches of the U.P. touch the southern shore of Lake Superior about 600 miles from there.
I’d hazard a guess that when most people think of the U.P., they think of the Great Outdoors, that larger-than-life entity immortalized in the best-known literature of the U.P.: Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories and Jim Harrison’s poems and novels. They probably don’t think of Fuller’s , as she called them, “poetic impressions,” and while they might think of Lake Superior, they problem don’t know of Janeen Rastall’s term for it, “deep-hearted,” or of Lisa Fay Coutley’s characterization of it: “doesn’t take any shit…wears stilettos in ice storms, does crosswords in pen,” and “eats red meat.” (Perhaps “Lake” is the wrong term!) …
Read the rest of the Foreword and more writing by women on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in Here, edited by Ron Riekki.
One of the first times we visited Saugatuck Dunes State Park, David and I got lost, not dangerously lost, just lost. It
was 1989. The day was fine: hot, sunny, and hours and hours of daylight remained. We carried water and snacks, and we knew that Lake Michigan—that failsafe landmark—was very nearby. And anyway the parking lot where we’d left the car was no more than a mile away from the lake. This is just to say: we were not worried.
Rural southern Michigan, outside of places like Saugatuck Dunes State Park, is a funny place for a pedestrian to get lost. You’re never far from a road and you’re never far from water—useful landmarks. Swamps, however, abound and vantage points are rare. Farmland is abandoned to weeds. Second-growth woods grow taller and thicker by the year, and roads, industrial parks, and subdivisions, more numerous. So getting lost, especially on foot, is less a matter of wilderness survival than of dodging the sort of discomfort and danger that proliferate when land is used up in random, hair-brained ways, and nature asserts itself impressively in whatever scraps are overlooked. Think thickets of brambles, 85-mph traffic, and muck. There is beauty everywhere, especially near lakes and rivers, but there is plenty of un-beauty, too. Of course, how things look is only part of the beauty or un-beauty, especially once you’re sensitized to ecology.
Knowing things like: monarch butterflies migrate from Canada to Mexico—thousands of miles—and that they stop for rest and nourishment (milkweed nectar) in the Saugatuck Dunes make the dunes more beautiful to me, as do the memories of the barred owl I saw watching me once in broad daylight from a grove of mature red oaks, hornbeams, and cherry trees, after hearing it call, countless times, just after dusk, and of the puff adder in full-flare we saw on our first hike with newborn Sophie.
On that day of getting lost briefly in the furnace of a southern Michigan summer, we didn’t yet know these things about the neighborhood. I hadn’t yet sat in the sand on a late summer evening, watching a Lake Michigan sunset with friends, as monarchs floated all around us, as I would many times. That day, we never did reach the beach. I was so hot I didn’t register the shade of the red pines and red oaks or the comfort of that fragrance I first inhaled on Lake Superior when I was so young and small that a quarter mile path to the beach seemed like a hike.
Nowadays I seek out that shade and fragrance and I know just where to find them. I did take in enough of the forest, the hills of sand, and the vistas of dune grass to know that I wanted to come back. And of course it did not hurt that the inland sea of my personal mythology, Lake Michigan, presses up against those hills—indeed, made them. My very first efforts at moving my own body from here to there occurred when I was a few months old, within reach of the lake’s waves and within sight of its dunes. My parents had left me there on a blanket and strolled a little ways down the wrack line. They turned to see me scooting for the water.
There are those who contend that too much ecosystem saving is motivated by nostalgia and a desire to keep things the way they were, but the “saving” of land often means letting natural systems hold the majority sway there. In other words, leave enough of it wild that undomesticated living things of all kinds have space to live and that this living web remains whole or mostly whole, which is not only not the same as static, it can’t be. Wildlife professor, the late Aldo Leopold, laid out this phenomenon beautifully in A Sand County Almanac. He named the phenomenon “land,” which, he wrote, “is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals.” That fountain of energy, of course, is nothing less than life. How differently land use would be discussed if we took this scientist’s hard-earned wisdom to heart.
A note from Alison Swan
Please consider buying literary magazines, or encouraging your local library to carry them. And visit literary websites. When you do so, you help ensure that writers and readers will be able to find one another, because these are the places where writers of new imaginative writing, like the prose above, first find their audience–and sometimes, their book publisher.