When the wind started banging against the windows of our house, I put on my coat and drove to the foot of West Grand Traverse Bay to watch the waves.
A dozen people were there already, sitting in cars in the parking lot at Clinch Park. From the darkness came steep and ragged waves as big as houses. They charged toward us and smashed against the breakwall, the impact throwing geysers of spray 20 feet into the air. The wind caught the spray and blew it to shore, over our cars with their windshield wipers slapping, over the parking lot and the lawn beyond it, entering the city and washing away the illusion that civilization is a fortress that separates us from nature. We’ve always known the separation is tenuous. Our walls are fragile and permeable. They’re breached by waves and blizzards, by hail and flood, by crows, coyotes, mosquitoes and mice, by our own untamed natures.
Traverse City, like most of the towns and cities around the Great Lakes, was built with its back to the water. The town’s founders were turning away from an embarrassment. For decades they thought nothing of dumping their garbage and sewage into the bay and the river that flows into it. I’m old enough to remember when Traverse City’s beaches were heaped with cherry pits and trash, and when the Boardman River flowed soupy green and carried a stench of chemicals and decay through the center of town.
“From the darkness came steep and ragged waves as big as houses. They charged toward us and smashed against the breakwall, the impact throwing geysers of spray 20 feet into the air.”
There is much yet to do, but we’ve made progress since those days. Many cities have turned around to face the water and have vitalized their waterfronts. Industries no longer simply dump their wastes in the water. Our sewage systems are not quite adequate, but they’re better than they were. And most of us now understand a truth that was hidden for decades: that our lakes and rivers are a commons, owned by everyone, and that it is within our power to do whatever is necessary to protect them from those who would use them carelessly until they use them up.
I suspect many of us sense this idea of ownership intuitively, although we might be more comfortable thinking of ourselves not as owners, but custodians. The Great Lakes are too big to be owned. They remain the last great wilderness of the middle continent — unsettled, uncultivated, a bewildering vastness. Every effort to possess or tame them has always been defeated.
For a people so well supplied with information, we’re awfully starved for wisdom. But here’s a bit of wisdom I sensed that night when Lake Michigan seemed determined to tear Clinch Park apart, stone by stone: We are puny. We are temporary. We can talk until our voices crack, but wind and water will always have the final say. ≈
Reflections columnist Jerry Dennis is the author of such award-winning books as The Living Great Lakes, The Bird in the Waterfall, and A Walk in the Animal Kingdom. Visit him at jerrydennis.net.
Illustration by Glenn Wolff