"What better time than winter, the most private of seasons, to lose oneself in books?" So writes Michigan author Jerry Dennis in his new book The Windward Shore: A Winter on the Great Lakes. I have been wanting to get out for a full-fledged field trip these past weeks, but other demands on my time, and a drenching storm one late fall weekend, have kept me indoors. So, I have turned to several books to supply vicarious experiences of travel and nature exploration.
Jerry Dennis, author of the award-winning The Living Great Lakes, has put out an engaging stationary travelogue of a book. He had hoped to make a long hike along the shores of the Great Lake (something I could relate to), but a knee injury sidelined him for a several seasons. So, he spent a winter in several homes along Lake Superior and Lake Michigan reading and writing. His slowdown has brought the rest of us a great gift, a reflection on the Great Lakes, winter, the place of nature in our lives, and the place of his life in the continuum of both geography and time.
A Love Song and a Lament. The Windward Shore starts with a strong and succinct essay on the joyous benefits, many challenges, and conflicting roles of the Great Lakes in the early 21st century. This Land, This Water is as an effective piece of writing as I have read on the topic, and should be used as an introduction to any broad-ranging or serious discussion of the future of our inland seas. I am tempted to quote from it extensively, but it's hard to pick out just one or two sentences. Fortunately, it's readily available on-line at Jerry Dennis's website. There too you will find a link to a beautiful video that accompanies Jerry's reading of the prologue. You can also find the prologue on the Amazon website (though Jerry's website rightly provides links to several local bookstores).
In many ways, the Great Lakes exist in a duality, observes Jerry Dennis. It is both cherished and ignored, protected and exploited, and we are unsure of what we want out of this reservoir of 20 percent of the earth's freshwater. He doesn't know whether to write "a love song or a lament. A tribute to what was and a plea for what remains."
What is Nature? Wherever you track down The Windward Shore, be sure to buy the book, not only to take in the whole body of work, but also to see the engravings by Glenn Wolff that illustrate and illuminate the book. While the book is rooted in the shores of the Great Lakes, it
ranges over a much bigger intellectual landscape. I keep several lists: places to visit, fiction to read, scientific articles to track down, and a journal of spiritual quotes and reflections. The Windward Shore is unique in that it gave me additions to all of these lists. I expected, and I got, a sense of place from Jerry Dennis. And his review of the inter-relationships between quagga mussels, cladophora algae, and bird deaths was insightful and relevant to one of the major crises facing the Great Lakes. But the discussion of nature that evolved from field guide to metaphysics surprised, and delighted, me. I think Jerry is about my same age, and the existential thoughts that creep into the mind of someone who has been watching the waves beat on the shore for over half a century were familiar to me.
In the end, I couldn't decide whether The Windward Shore is a hopeful recounting of a personal and natural history of the Great Lakes, or if it is an expression of disappointment. Probably both. As we look out from the shore, we have reason for optimism and frustration. We should neither despair or be complacent. As Jerry Dennis says at the end of his book "G0 forth. Make tracks, throw stones."
Go Forth. This book reminds me why I go outside: to encounter nature and to learn something about myself. "Nature is an intricate, living tapestry, and we are woven into it as inextricably as are blades of grass and grains of sand. We go to it naively, or in fear, or in desperation, or seeking more acute awareness of the mysteries." Or in celebration, I might add, writing this as the earth turns on the solstice, and we commemorate a birth and look forward to a new year.
My resolution for the New Year is to be more persistent in my quest to visit the places that showcase the Great Lakes and the work of The Nature Conservancy. It can be easy to bemoan our busy lifestyles, the built environment, and the loss of natural places as reasons for not being able to experience nature. But these are excuses for our own choices that leaves us inside too long and too often away from nature. In the end, we cannot, as either individuals or societies, deny our connection and reliance on nature. And, as Jerry Dennis shows, we will gain much by attending to nature. The rewards for making the choice to go forth are profound.