EXCERPTS FROM

LAKE SUPERIOR: STORY AND SPIRIT

By John and Ann Mahan

 

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WILD LAKE MICHIGAN
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(From "Rock of Ages" Chapter)

"Even the rocks can speak, to the powerful people." -- Billy Blackwell, Ojibway Elder, Grand Portage

The treasure of two nations, Lake Superior is an ecosystem brimming over with superlatives. Here in the interior of the North American continent is the world's largest freshwater lake (by surface area)--an inland sea, cold and deep, extending 350 miles (563 km) in length by 160 miles (257 km) in width and plunging to depths of over 1,300 feet (400 m). It could swallow its four siblings and then three more bodies of water the size of Lake Erie. Over 300 Northwoods and boreal forest streams and rivers rush, tumble, and fall into the lake. Although geologically young at less than 10,000 years old, Lake Superior rests in a cradle of ancient Precambrian rock on the southern margin of the Canadian Shield--the largest exposure of such venerable bedrock on the planet.

But this recitation of "gee whiz" facts and numbers, impressive as it is, describes only the lake's more easily quantified physical qualities. The effect of this magnificent ecosystem on the human heart and soul is of an entirely different dimension. For most of us, what defines the lake most clearly, and the point of our first and most intimate contact, is the coastal zone. Sounds of the surf reverberate while all around are visions of rocky cliffs, headlands and bays, glaciated spits, and peninsulas reaching out to shimmering islands that time seems to have passed by. This rockbound coast is one of the wildest and most ruggedly beautiful landscapes on the continent. Its timeworn craggy shores frighten a few and fascinate many; others simply feel a joyful sense of homecoming. The rocks quietly remind us that life is a process projected through time and space, a process that flows ever into more and more complex life-forms, that flows into us.

An Ojibway Elder, after several hours of graciously answering questions about traditional Native American culture and beliefs, became silent for a moment and then said, with quiet conviction: "Even the rocks can speak, to the powerful people." He went on to explain that the Ojibway word for "story" is also their word for "spirit." The two are "one and the same" in traditional Ojibway culture. The word is Adizokan. Everything has a story--rocks, trees, animals, people. And everything is story, and spirit. All of them, all of the rocks, trees, animals and people, all the story-spirit are known as Adizokanan.

Talking rocks encompassing story and spirit is an emotionally and romantically appealing thought, but one that a society steeped in the hard sciences may find difficult to embrace. And yet, some of the most highly educated and scientifically conversant members of our data-driven society are coming to conclusions that resonate with Native American wisdom. Physicist Nick Herbert writes in Elemental Mind, "the commonsense belief that stars, rocks, and atoms are unconscious has no real scientific basis and should rightly be regarded as groundless superstition." Renowned quantum physicist David Bohm and colleague B.J. Hiley write in The Undivided Universe, "a rudimentary mind-like quality is present even at the level of particle physics...there is no real division between mind and matter, psyche and soma." Physicist Amit Goswami, author of The Self Aware Universe, states simply, "the world is creative at its base level...life is saturated with meaning."

One of the significant abilities of truly powerful people is listening with such acuity that what is being said is understood. Rocks, like native peoples, speak to us from a long perspective. It may be difficult to tune in to the frequency of such long-term stability, but it can be done. Listen. The stones have much to say. Geologists know this, for all geological knowledge has come from an ongoing conversation with the rocks. The Ojibway and their ancestors have known this down through the ages.

Some of the most ancient rock on the planet rims and underlies Lake Superior, affecting everything that takes place in the basin--the hardness of water, what trees and forests thrive and where, and even what human activities take place. This rock provides a direct connection to the sweep and drama that is Earth's history. It connects us not only with Earth's mineralogical history, but also with the history of life itself. To touch a stone is to connect with the deep, deep past; and that is where the story begins....


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(From "Seafaring" Chapter)

"Though its waters are fresh and crystal, Superior is a sea. It breeds storms and rains and fogs, like a sea. It is cold in mid-summer as the Atlantic. It is wild, masterful, and dread as the Black Sea." -- George Grant, 1872

Lake Superior's deep blue tranquillity, shimmering on a peaceful sunny day, can be alluring--and deceiving. Sometimes it seems, as John's father, Chester, joked while paddling through glassy waters off the Apostle Islands, that "this lake is a pussycat!" But the "pussycat" image that came to our minds was Mishi-Peshu, the great underwater lynx-like creature of Ojibway lore. According to Thor Conway, "In many ways, Mishi-Peshu is the ultimate metaphor for Lake Superior--powerful, mysterious, and ultimately very dangerous." While Chester joked, we could imagine Mishi-Peshu's ears swiveling in our direction, and its tail beginning to twitch...

Experienced mariners know how quickly this deceptive calm can evaporate, unleashing the latent power of 2,900 cubic miles (12,100 km3) of water. Sailors have often marveled at how rapidly wind and waves rise as squall lines speed across the lake. In 1845, Philo M. Everett wrote: "The lake is one of the most boisterous in the world. I have seen it when our sails would not flop and in fifteen minutes blowing a gale and the seas in a few moments more running as high as a house." Gales out of the northwest and northeast sweep over as much as 200 miles (322 km) of open water, building momentum--and waves. Accounts of Lake Superior storms and shipwrecks describe "mountainous waves," 20, 30, even 40 feet high (6–12 m).

Although the power of wind and wave first comes to mind when thinking of Lake Superior's dangers, it is but one of many hazards. Visibility shrinks to near zero in the persistent fogs that hang over the lake, or in winter's blinding snowstorms. And the icy nature of Lake Superior is legendary. Many a mariner has survived shipwreck only to perish from hypothermia in the water or freeze along a wintry wilderness shore. Ships have been coated with ice, trapped in ice, and sunk by collisions with ice floes.

Nautical lore of Lake Superior is as rich as that of any body of water on Earth. Entire ships have disappeared in the blink of an eye, and large freighters have been broken in two by wild storms. There are tales of lone survivors, captains going down with their ships, vessels that "went missing" without a trace, notes from shipwreck victims later found in bottles, and heroism and courage displayed by captains, crew members, passengers, and lifesaving crews. The saying "Superior never gives up her dead" is based in fact: the lake's cold water tends to prevent drowned bodies from decaying and floating to the surface. But sometimes bodies have been found, frozen on shore, encased in ice, or even lashed to a spar....

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(From "The Lake" Section of "Water" Chapter)

...The surface area of all this Superior water spans 31,700 square miles (82,100 km2), making it the largest lake (by surface area) on the planet. Said another way, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont would all fit within the confines of Lake Superior's surface area. And a 1,000-foot freighter, standing on end in the lake's deepest spot 40 miles offshore of Munising, Michigan, would still be 333 feet underwater. This massive body of water is rimmed by 2,726 miles (4,385 km) of extremely rugged, variable, and exquisitely beautiful shoreline. If straightened out, the shoreline would connect Duluth, Minnesota, with Miami, Florida, and beyond.

Faced with such mind-boggling quantities, Northland College students Paul Van Antwerp and Ross A. McCauley felt the need to look at Lake Superior's size from a different perspective. According to their calculations, 6.462 quadrillion cups of Tang mixed into Lake Superior would allow a person to dip up an adequately tart cup--meeting the manufacturer's recommended concentration--anywhere around the lake. An additional 95,800,000,000 cups of Tang would be required to offset losses through the St. Marys River and overcome dilution from inflowing streams and rivers. Daily.

No, not by any conventional stretch of the imagination is this what most people would consider a lake. It is an inland sea of such magnitude and beauty that it is unique in all the world.

As impressive as the above numbers are, they are only quantitative measurements. To take the measure of Lake Superior's qualitative nature requires direct contact and a sensitive measuring instrument--the human psyche. There is an intimacy in all this bigness that is beyond description; it can only be experienced. It won't come quickly in a snapshot experience from a nearshore road. Lake Superior reveals herself gradually to those who come with receptive souls.

Something in our own nature rises up in response. There is a timeless presence deep within each of us that we are scarcely aware of, and then only in our most alive and perceptive moments. It is part of us and yet transcends personal boundaries, joining our small individualities with the larger cosmic unknown that prophets and sages, psalmists and poets have celebrated intuitively down through the ages. Lake Superior has a powerful ability to draw this awareness ever closer to the surface. Mention Lake Superior to people who have experienced this lake effect and their entire demeanor changes. Eyes soften and take on a far away, happy look, as they begin to speak in sometimes reverent and sometimes excited tones.

The excitement is often associated with telling stories about storms and wild seas. Time and distance frequently exert a magnifying effect on the details, but the myths, legends, and tall tales about Lake Superior's wild nature have their origins in reality. We paddled into this reality one spring in the middle of May, off the coast of Pukaskwa National Park....

 

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(From "Ecology" Section of "Water" Chapter)

...We're convinced that a significant part of the confusion and dissension going on in the world is the friction that accompanies a huge change in human consciousness and priorities. Alvin and Heidi Toffler comment in Creating A New Civilization: "We are living through the birth pangs of a new civilization...get ready for what could be the most exciting ride in history." In the foreword to Ecopsychology, Lester R. Brown observes: "What we are now looking at is nothing less than an environmental revolution, an economic and social transformation that ranks with the agricultural and industrial revolutions." Psychologist Jean Houston writes in The Possible Human, "I see a change. It is vested in the greatest rise in expectations the world has ever seen. It is so far-reaching in its implications that one might call it evolution consciously entering into time."

These and other observers of human society from around the globe are noting the beginnings of a sea change in humanity's worldview. Although they all carry their own particular points of view to these observations, the general movement appears to be from a mechanistic to an ecological worldview, from meaningless consumption to meaningful connection, from getting more to becoming more. In essence, it appears we are beginning to move from fragmentation toward wholeness. The friction results from the clash between these dying and aborning worldviews.

Many people in positions of power don't understand this and have dug in their heels to maintain balance on a crumbling status quo. But a time of great crisis is also a time of great opportunity--this is when real change is possible.

What is often so depressing is the knowledge that our mistakes have reverberated throughout the ecosystem, magnifying and compounding each other, picking up momentum. But here is the good news. It works to a large extent in reverse. Corrective actions cascade on themselves with far-reaching synergistic and additive effects....

(From "Northwoods" Section of "Northern Forests" Chapter)

...Below this hazy band of boreal fringe is the northwestern end of one of the world's most colorful forests. In summer, color it lighter deciduous green with darker green peppered throughout--heavily in some areas--for the pines and hemlocks that find their preferred homes here. Trace the lacy green of cedars independently throughout and the deep, dark green of fir and spruce in cold valleys, with airy green tamaracks in cool wetlands representing pockets of persistent boreal forest. In fall, color it every brilliant color ever seen on seasonal calendars and postcards. Plant geographers refer to this diverse forest as the transition forest, and more specifically in the Great Lakes region as the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Forest, or just the Great Lakes Forest. It is sometimes called the mixed hardwood forest, mixed referring to the conifers mixed in. Other names are used and new versions come and go, but to most of us this forest of myth and legend, solace and solitude, is known simply and affectionately as the Northwoods--a name that holds a special place in our history and our psyches....

(From "Wild Places" Chapter)

...Isle Royale is a community of life-forms, a unique blend of species whose interactions can produce unusual events. Ann wrote in her journal on the final morning of one trip:

"I rose at 6 a.m. and wandered around Rock Harbor, hoping for a last glimpse of a moose or fox. Approaching one of the paved walkways, I spotted a fox, which trotted past me and out of sight. Suddenly it reappeared, backtracking and looking back as if concerned about something down the trail. And then the huge form of a cow moose appeared, slowly plodding along the same path. The fox appeared frightened, but then turned and approached the moose, who hesitated as they nearly touched noses. With seeming joyful relief, the little fox bounced and twirled in front of the ever-trudging moose. And so the oddest procession I've ever seen continued on down the path until they all disappeared from view: a playful fox trotting ahead of a lumbering moose, and behind them--a small crowd of people, with cameras clicking."

While such peculiar parades occasionally move along the paved walkways of the Rock Harbor complex, it is the solitude of Isle Royale's backcountry that most deeply touches our souls. One starry night we stood on a rock outcrop overlooking an inland lake that was a mirror of stars and northern lights. Auroral beams glowed overhead, pulsating upward, higher and higher toward the zenith of the sky, until it seemed we could almost hear and feel the energy in the heavens. In the distance a loon wailed, its simple melody drifting across the lake and echoing from surrounding ridges. Nearby, a moose splashed, bubbled, and snorted as it fed. In that breathless moment of perfection time seemed to stand still; and then a large owl passed silently overhead, its form silhouetted against a sky brimming with shimmering stars and lights.

 

For a longer excerpt about Isle Royale from "Wild Places" Chapter, click here.

 

("Epilogue")

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.--Shakespeare

Far from being just a beautiful and "pristine" ecosystem out of the mainstream of modern life, the Lake Superior ecosystem is a surprising microcosm of the best and worst of our past and present world. And it is increasingly an international focus for how we relate to the natural world, and to ourselves.

Here is where humanity first discovered hard evidence in two-billion-year-old rocks of the ancient and interconnected nature of the life process on Earth. It is those same rocks that chronicle the profound and lasting effects that primitive life had on Earth's atmosphere and on the course of life itself. By example, the rocks speak to us about our own present day effects on the biosphere. It all seems so incomprehensibly long ago. But the microbial inhabitants of two-billion-year-old stromatolites on the north shore were once as alive and real as we are now. Like them, we are the future's ancestors, determining what kind of world our progeny will inherit. Unlike them, we have knowledge and choice.

For over 150 years, the Lake Superior ecosystem has been a focus of scientific exploration and discovery. But it is as much an emotional and spiritual reality as it is a physical reality. Scientifically questionable as that may sound, some modern physicists are beginning to agree with such thinking as they interpret the implications of quantum physics to mean that our consciousness, our hopes, dreams, and spirituality are just as real as the cooperative collection of atoms and molecules that house them. Matter and meaning are part of the same whole reality. Native Americans have known this for millennia. So have prophets, sages, and mystics of the world's great religions.

It is in this context that the power of place looms large. Every culture has sacred places: places of power and meaning that transfer stability and belonging across time and space. They are places to connect on a very personal level with that extraordinary and essential sense of Other, and with the parallel sense of belonging that resonates quietly throughout the natural world. For many of us, Lake Superior and its surrounding shores, wetlands, and forests is such sacred space--anchor and holdfast against the accelerating instability of our modern world.

More and more of us are knocking about the lake prospecting for something of far greater value than mere minerals or wood fiber--there is a motherlode of meaning out here, a most comfortable coming home. Here is a place to recapture and extend the lost art of integrating our lives into the larger community of life around us. We begin to intuit, with or without quantum physics, that the story and spirit of the Lake Superior ecosystem are inseparable, an immense and evolving life community, full of Adizokanan, full of our kith and kin, and us. In Superior's elemental combination of rock, water, and forest, we experience a journey not only of body and mind, but finally of heart and soul.

 

 

All images and text Copyright © John & Ann Mahan, unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.

For a longer excerpt about Isle Royale, click here.
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