February is a distinct month in Michigan. Winter is drawing to a close, spring is on the horizon, and pretty soon the Great Lakes will start to generate their waves again. While those gathered in the Hatcher Graduate Library Gallery on February 25th at 5:30 PM ranged in diversity, one thing they all very well had in common — they were spending that day in a Michigan February eager to hear about one of the things that makes Michigan so great — the Great Lakes.
The event — “From the Great Lakes to the Global Water Crisis: Writers on Water” — featured esteemed writers and a wide range of attendees. There were students, with part of their mind on listening to the readers and another part on the upcoming break, and adults or, as many of us college students like to call them, “real people.” Given the strong line-up of authors reading pieces about the waters that surround us, the turnout on a cold, rainy, Tuesday night in February, was more than I had anticipated.
The event kicked off with an introduction from the host and chief editor of Michigan Quarterly Review, Khaled Mattawa. He discussed that this reading is essentially a “pre-launch,” to the upcoming Quarterly review “Not One Without: A Special Issue on Water”. The actual launch will be held on April 23rd at the Literati bookstore in Ann Arbor.
Keith Taylor was the first guest reader of the night. He reminded me of a Midwestern Santa Claus; he had long, white, curly hair, wore glasses, and had an aura of a grandpa who would always have the best stories to tell. He probably was not our Midwestern Santa, but he did indeed have some great stories to tell. He began his time talking about the only National Park that resides in Michigan, Isle Royale. The park is a small island on Lake Superior. Taylor informs us that if we were to drive the 550 miles from Ann Arbor to Houghton, Michigan in the Upper Peninsula, it would be another six hour boat ride to the island after the driving is over, saying that it’s “about as far away from Ann Arbor as you can get.”
While Taylor tells us Isle Royale is one of the least visited parks in Michigan, he does not neglect to mention that it is the one people return to most frequently. Keith Taylor is well aware of the importance of preserving the Great Lakes. He emphasizes this throughout much of the poetry he reads and the prefaces he gives before reading them. He mentions how large they are, capturing Lake Superior’s grand size by telling us it is the largest fresh body of water in the world, and that one could fit all of the other four lakes in Lake Superior and there would still be room for more freshwater.
It is clear that Lake Superior — being large, vast, and providing a home to Isle Royale — is an important part of Michigan to Keith Taylor. He describes his experiences on the island and with Lake Superior in general with appreciation and admiration. His stories that preface his poetry are witty and full of jokes about his appearance, which caused the audience to laugh — the kind of laugh you give someone who isn’t trying too hard. My favorite poem from Keith Taylor was one about his experiences canoeing. It captured the skill it takes to successfully canoe, and the mishaps that can occur — even from a seemingly experienced canoer. He talked about a time he toppled over, lost all of his writings and books to the water, then had to swim back in Lake Superior in water that was “forty-two degrees that day.” And although he had his books “butterflied on [his] worktable…hoping the pages [wouldn’t] stick together,” he never cursed the canoe or the chilly water. He liked the idea that, if they survived, they now held a piece of the lake with them.
One of the things that resonated most with me from Keith Taylor’s readings was the poem he ended with, one that left the audience with something we all feel at times. While visiting Isle Royale, and looking out across Lake Superior, it was hard to imagine that something so beautiful, sitting in front of him, was dying. That despite what we see, what appears to be virtually flawless can also be in pain, leaving us with thoughts about how to appreciate what we have in front of us, and how to preserve it.
Isle Royale also made an appearance with the next speaker, Donothan Hohn. Hohn had spent some of his time at Isle Royale when on the mission of completing a book project and a piece for The New Yorker. And on this journey, Isle Royale was one of the first stops with the end goal of writing a piece about the animals on the island to be published in the well-known magazine, but that story never quite came to fruition.
Hohn is coming out with a series of essays this June, titled The Intercoast. He described these essays as being about “the inner landscapes we all carry around in our memories,” with a goal of “trying to reimagine American history from the point of view of water.” Most of his time spent on stage was reading an essay from this upcoming publication. While he briefly mentions his essay that will be appearing in Michigan Quarterly Review, he emphasizes that he calls two coasts home. Hohn grew up on the coast of Northern California, and he described his family as “displaced and bewildered Midwesterners who ended up in San Francisco.” It was in his time here, growing up during one of California’s droughts, that he learned to appreciate water in many different ways.
One of my favorite topics he covered from his collection of essays is the power of water and humans’ relationship to it. He reads, “efforts at water management that were as futile as those of the army corp of engineers during the great flood of 1927, as futile, in the long run, as most human efforts to control water and contain it.” I thought this brought an interesting perspective to the way humans interact with water, and how we often take for granted all the good that it provides, and also the harm it can cause. The most memorable line for me was one that highlighted the uniqueness of water as a substance and how we perceive it — “The motion of water, unlike that of atoms or stone, readily accommodates our powers of perception, the time scale of human life. The motion of water is luminous and momentary.” Out of his entire reading, it was those sentences that stuck with me the most. Growing up in Michigan, surrounded by water and living a twenty minute drive from the beach, I never really considered all of the ways water might affect me — or just how powerful it was. This statement reminded me of the power water has in so many aspects of our lives, and how it can navigate our different perceptions if we so will it.
Margaret Noodin was the third speaker, and arguably the most original in performance. As an American Indian professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a woman who self-identifies of the Native American Anishinaabe tribe descent, she incorporated the Anishinaabemowin language into her reading. She read poems about the beauty of the Great Lakes, and how it is important to appreciate what they provide us.
The poetry reading transitioned between reading it in the Anishinaabemowin language, and then reading it in English. I thoroughly enjoyed the two styles of reading. I feel that it gave the audience a better understanding, or provided more knowledge, about those who appreciated and enjoyed the Great Lakes long before we did. She even incorporated some audience interaction, encouraging us to participate in one of her poems – sounding like a “spring peeper” and saying the phrase that seems like it would read “bick bah bay.”
I felt the engagement of this reading was a thorough way to grasp the culture that surrounds the Great Lakes. They are such an important body of water to so many people, and have been in the past. Margaret Noodin’s decision to incorporate the heritage of the Great Lakes into her reading brought a deeper meaning to them and to the overall importance of the event.
Anna Clark spoke next, reading a piece of fiction she wrote that takes place on the Lake Michigan coast in a little town “south of the mouth of the St. Joseph river.” She opened up with a description of what it felt like to spend time in the water, how it felt to have the sand between your toes — a description that hit home with me.
As the story went on to tell about a young girl growing up in a small town on the coast of Lake Michigan, I could not help but reminisce on my time growing up near the water. I remember the feeling of the sand (usually so burning hot I had to run to the water as fast as I could), and the smell of the fresh water that was usually very cool to the skin until the end of August. Her descriptions made me think of a sense of unity the Great Lakes can initiate among those who frequent them or live near them. The memories people hold about their time on the lakes are unique to each individual, but also generate similar feelings one can only feel when on the Great Lakes.
Anna Clark’s piece may have been fiction, but her portrayal of spending a summer on Lake Michigan felt real and relatable to those who have spent a summer there. I often took for granted what it was like living in a place where people vacation, and as I’ve gotten older, and traveled more places and met new people, I’m realizing just how special that was. Anna Clark’s piece reminded me of the beauty in living on the Great Lakes in a description that can only be recognized as a universal feeling for those who call the Great Lakes home.
This Great Lakes event was one I would have encouraged those who appreciate the lakes that surround us, as well as literature, to attend. I found that the readings performed by these authors demonstrated an appreciation for the Great Lakes and highlighted how they have directly impacted their lives.
Hearing each author’s unique relationship to these waters emphasized that it does not take growing up on these waters to be able to appreciate all they have to offer. The Great Lakes have made an imprint on so many lives, and in order to allow them to keep making an impact (and generate more fantastic literature), it is our job to protect them.