Philosopher of the Lakes
by Keith Taylor
In 2010 Jerry Dennis's The Living Great Lakes was the selection for Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Reads. When Dennis came to town to do his presentation, more than 500 people came to Washtenaw Community College to celebrate the book, ask its author some often pointed questions, and voice their concern for the condition of our greatest natural resources. No wonder Dennis's book is on Nicola's Books' all-time best-seller list, right up there with Harry Potter.
The Living Great Lakes tells a continuous narrative of one sailing trip through the Great Lakes. Of course, Dennis was able to hang lots of interesting information about the lakes off that line, but the story still carries it. In The Windward Shore: A Winter on the Great Lakes, just published by the U-M Press, Dennis has done something else entirely. Forced to slow down after a sports injury, he decides to follow his own thoughts very closely as he looks out through the windows of various houses on the big lakes. As part of "my continuing project to learn at least one place on earth reasonably well," he writes, he "trusted that it would appear gradually and accumulatively--not as a conventional portrait, but as a mosaic with depth, breadth, and range that included the sounds and scents and textures of the place and its inhabitants."
And he has succeeded rather wonderfully. The Windward Shore might be described as our first philosophy of the Great Lakes. As Dennis takes in the view from a log cabin on Lake Superior or a $20 million mansion on Grand Traverse Bay, he can reflect back on a lifetime of learning about these places, pull images from that experience, follow his reading wherever it might lead, and sharpen the understanding of his love for this place. Over the years Dennis has been compared to many different writers--both those who write well about hunting and fishing, and those who work in the great tradition of American nature writing--but in this
book I think his only model might have been Ralph Waldo Emerson. Dennis is very willing to write the quick glimpses of the important ideas that swirl at the edge of his reverie:
The magic of the ordinary--of leaf and stone, of breakers on the shore. It's not the magic we usually mean by the word. There's nothing supernatural about it. Just ordinary existence--one place in the universe, one moment in time, so ordinary that we're shocked every time it visits us. So that's what a wave looks like. This is how breeze feels on skin. This is how it feels to be alive.At another point he writes about his own effort to capture something of the thought and feel of the lakes--"If I could I would seed these pages with beach stones, maple leaves, blue jay feathers, Petoskey stones, cherry pits, and arrowheads. Open the cover, and out would rush starlings and wood smoke and a cold wind off the lake." It almost happens.
Jerry Dennis reads from The Windward Shore at Nicola's on Wednesday, October 5.
[Originally published in October, 2011.]