Thursday, February 9, 2012

Curwood's Legacy

This winter I have continued to follow a literary trail and it recently led to a most rewarding public reading in one of Michigan's shrines of outdoor writing. The reader was Great Lakes author Jerry Dennis (read my review of his most recent book); the place was Curwood Castle, the studio of early 20th century adventure author James Oliver Curwood. The convergence was magical, the inspiration powerful, the laughs several, the talk sobering.

Jerry Dennis entered the book world with a canoe guide that includes a chapter on the Shiawassee River, the stream of my youth, and the river that Curwood's Castle graces in downtown Owosso. In researching the guide, Jerry paddled the Shiawassee and stopped next to the Castle, climbed the few concrete steps up from the river, and made a literary pilgrimage. Dennis had first encountered Curwood's northwoods tales in the Michigan Room at the Traverse City Library on the banks of the Boardman River. He went on to become a writer of his own outdoor stories in various magazines and then become an acclaimed nature writer. In 1999, the Michigan Library Association named the Michigan Author of the Year. He shares with Curwood a determination to use his literary position to make the Great Lakes environment healthier and more secure.

James Oliver Curwood was the first writer in America to make a million dollars from his writing. He wrote more than 30 novels, many of which appeared in serialized form in weekly magazines in the early 1900s. Many of his books were also made into movies at the time. Though he grew up in Owosso, most of his novels were set in Canada and Alaska; almost all were romantic depicitions of adventure in the out-of-doors from various historic periods.

Curwood's fame and success allowed him to build both an imitation Norman castle on the Shiawassee River. But he left a perhaps greater legacy in his activism on behalf of the conservation movement of the early 20th Century. The progressive era of government reform occurred as hunters and anglers became more aware of the need to manage the population of games species, protect wildlife habitat, and keep clean the waters of streams and lakes. Curwood was at the forefront of this effort in Michigan, helped found the Shiawassee Conservation Club, and brought together other such organizations that helped lay the groundwork for the Michigan United Conservation Clubs.

As an author of renown and financial independence, Curwood was not afraid to challenge the existing structure of game wardens which he saw as corrupt. He also frequently pointed out the shortcomings in State efforts to protect water and woods and he publicly called for game management to be based on sound data and best practices. Another environmental author, Dave Dempsey, devotes much of a chapter to Curwood in his book Ruin and Recovery: Michigan's Rise as a Conservation Leader. "His half decade of public crusading for a "conservation commission on a conservation platform" aroused statewide attention and brought to the masses, for the first time, the importance of locking into place conservation policies whose benefits would transcend generations." Dempsey also recounts Curwood's role in helping to protect Hartwick Pines near his cabin on the Au Sable River.

Writing about the Great Lakes. Curwood's first novel, The Courage of Captain Plum, was set on Lake Michigan and Beaver Island. He, like many other authors who grew up in the Great Lakes region, was taken by the their beauty, history, and power. At his reading at Curwood Castle, Jerry Dennis quoted from Curwood's 1909 book, The Great Lakes: "America's great Inland Seas have remained unwatched and unkown except by a comparative few. Upon them have grown the greatest industries of the nation, yet the national ignorance concerning them can hardly find a parallel in history."

Jerry Dennis shares with Curwood a surprise and a frustration about how poorly understood and appreciated the Great Lakes are. "Here is a place so large that it's overlooked, so familiar that it's invisible, so beloved that it's despised, so precious that we're intent on ransacking it," summarized Dennis in his newest book, The Windward Shore. At his reading, he recounted the humorous tale of a national elementary education magazine that published, in all ill-informed seriousness, a tale of whales in Lake Michigan. He also gave us a sobering update of a plan to mine basalt rock along Lake Superior that was supported by locals because it created four (4!) new jobs. Mostly, he inspired those in the room to continue their own efforts to protect the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes, the rivers like the Shiawassee that feed them, and the land they define are in trouble, but we fail too often to identify the threats because they are subtle, because we choose to ignore them, or because Michigan's natural beauty seduces us. I thank authors like Curwood, and Dennis, and Dempsey who give us both the romance of nature and the insight to care for it. And I thank the writers who use their words, their independence, and their visibility to champion the cause of conservation. Their legacy is found not only in the written word, but also in the actions they inspire.

How to Visit. Owosso's Curwood Castle is open Tuesday through Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. A modest donation is requested to offset the cost of maintaining this historic site. This google map will provide directions.

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