The Lay of the Land

Twice I’ve been approached by people I didn’t know… who confessed shyly and with kind intentions that they had uprooted their families and moved to northern Michigan because I had written so glowingly about the place in my books.
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Atumn Place Reflections

By  Jerry Dennis  |   Illustration by Glenn Wolff

If you brag too much about a place, there can be consequences. Twice I’ve been approached by people I didn’t know — one from Texas, the other from Arkansas — who confessed shyly and with kind intentions that they had uprooted their families and moved to northern Michigan because I had written so glowingly about the place in my books. I was astonished to hear it. That books can inspire a life change is surprising enough in this age when they barely register on the cultural Richter scale. But to be the cause of such a dramatic change is shocking. Also, of course, flattering. And, above all, confusing.

What a responsibility! My friends are not amused. They stare into their beer mugs and mutter that the place is too crowded already. Damn it, Dennis, I can’t hardly get a seat in a restaurant. Will you please just shut up?

I’ve tried, but without much success. Studying at some depth the place where you live can lead to deeper engagement in the general sense. I write books about my home territory partly to remind myself — because I need reminding every day — not to miss so much.

How much you see depends, of course, on how willing you are to look. The more you look, the more you see. The more you see, the more there is to see. To learn a place, you can study its geology, botany, climatology, human history — but that’s just a start. A deeper knowledge enters through your feet and fingertips and makes its way into your bones as surely as sand makes its way into wood grain. Does land shape water or water shape land? The answer, of course, is both. And both shape us, as well.

One surprise for me was discovering that the farther from home you explore, the bigger your home becomes. Mine includes a county where I’ve gone every October for more than 30 years to meet up with 10 old friends for a week of upland bird hunting. For 15 or so years, we camped in tents and got to experience the entire broad spectrum of October’s weather. Then we grew tired of being wet and cold, so we moved into a lodge with comfortable beds, hot water and a spacious kitchen. It even has a television, though we usually turn it on only for Lions games and the World Series.

The hunting can be spotty, so some years, some of us put our shotguns away and go fishing. But “camp” isn’t only about hunting and fishing. It’s about reconnecting with good friends and their dogs, about telling stories, cooking unforgettable meals, playing cards, having a few drinks.

For obvious reasons, I can’t be specific about the location. I was introduced to the original camp in 1986 and promptly made the stupid greenhorn mistake of writing about it for the newspaper sometimes called “The Gray Lady.” To my horror, the place was overrun by a distressing number of hunters from New York. They raced at high speed over the two-tracks, poached our best hunting spots and hogged all the tables in the diners. Some of them were quite friendly.

Eventually, my friends forgave me. Or so they say. But I’m probably still on probation.

Jerry Dennis lives in a farmhouse on a hill somewhere north of Monroe and south of Copper Harbor.

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