I recently unleashed my inner English major as I reviewed a new novel set on Minnesota’s North Shore a century ago, Peter Geye’s “The Lighthouse Road.” The book would a good read for anyone who loves Lake Superior and its history.
Fate and the Lake: Seven Ideas about “The Lighthouse Road”
I: Odd Rex
Fate and free will have been debated since the ancient Greeks believed that oracles, channeling the gods, could foretell our lives. Oedipus would kill his own father and sleep with his own mother, no matter the actions of lowly humans. His parents heard the news and abandoned the child to die, but Oedipus clawed his way back. His exertions to avoid his own fate – and those of his parents – led him directly to that which the oracle promised.
Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (which I’ve massacred through summary) came to mind while reading The Lighthouse Road, Peter Geye’s newly published novel of northern Minnesota. Here, the biggest forces of fate have nothing to do with men or gods. Instead, at these northern latitudes, the seasons dictate our lives. They rule what we eat, what we wear, what we do. There is a time for fishing and a time for mending nets, for blueberries and for root vegetables, for snowshoes and canoes.
Odd Thiede, the orphaned protagonist forever searching for shelter from the storm, is subject to a profoundly Earth-bound destiny. His fate is specifically the harsh seasons of Lake Superior’s North Shore – not the gods’ will but the natural world’s ambivalence, the relentless cycles of the Earth. To take your boat out for its maiden voyage on the big lake during November (the month of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald) is not to challenge the gods but to merely gamble your own life, weighing the chance of a storm against the chance for a future and a family. The odds of this bet are not made by any bookie, but by the wind and the water and love. It is not an affront to god, but to one’s own instinct for self-preservation.
My latest project is a new chapbook published through the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness called “The Firegrate Review.” It’s a collection of 20 essays, stories and poems by 19 different authors who generously contributed their work.
All of the pieces are focused on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. I feel they really reflect the broad spectrum of experiences of canoe country, in all times of day and seasons of the year. There is the wind and rain and bugs, daybreaks and sunsets, family and friends and solo adventure, and wildlife and silence and solitude.
I wrote a brief introduction for the publication:
My wife Katie and I took a five-day canoe trip in the Boundary Waters this September. A remote lake called to us. On the maps it looked like a place where a person could find some real solitude.
We rode a tailwind the first day, then paddled and portaged several miles the next day, arriving at the dead-end lake we had in mind. There was only one way in—a winding stream with questionable water levels and a beaver dam to cross, a portage in rough shape—and we found little evidence that the lake had seen many people this summer. The campsite we stayed at was full of firewood.
The silence roared that night. We felt minuscule in the dark land. It was 10 miles to the nearest road. There was nothing to do but speak in whispers and stoke the fire high. Continue reading…
“In Paddle North, Greg Breining and Layne Kennedy have captured the beauty, solitude, and challenges of canoe country. They bring to the reader the essence of Quetico-Superior wilderness and remind us of why we go there. Contained in these pages are the roaring silence, the wild lakes, the rewards of canoe travel, and the unique, lifelong memories with friends and family that only a wilderness canoe trip can bring. – Greg Seitz, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness”
One thing people have appreciated about the book so far is that it isn’t just pretty pictures of the scenery (though there’s plenty of those photos, too). There are the muddy portages, the massive wildfires, filtering water, camp kitchens, and the other elements which are just as defining of Boundary Waters travel, but not photographed (and published) as often as the sunsets, cliffs, morning mist, and the such. It’s a wonderful mix between documentary and scenic photography.
This morning, Bill McKibben stood in the pulpit at the church that Katie and I have been going to for a few months. The author and climate change activist gave a brief talk–not a sermon–about where things stand with climate change and the work to do something before it’s too late.
McKibben is the founder of an effective and respected advocacy organization called 350.org. Last October 24, they organized what CNN called the “the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history,” comprised of 5,200 actions in 181 countries. McKibben’s 1989 breakthrough book, “The End of Nature,” was originally published serially in the New Yorker when he was a staff writer there.
One thing I learned was the origin of the “350” thing. It’s quite simple. In 2008, NASA scientists published a paper saying that 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere is the breaking point for global warming:
If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm, but likely less than that.
McKibben briefly covered much of what has been most widely discussed: the big, noticeable effects of global warming, like the melting Arctic and the vanishing polar bears. He warned that the climate bill that will be introduced in the U.S. Senate in 10 days by Sen. Kerry and others might as well have been written by the electric utility industry, is full of loopholes, and simply will not arrest the accelerating progress of global warming.
As far as President Obama’s actions, he paused at length and then said that Obama has done more on climate change than any previous President. Then he said that he had also drunk more beer than his 12-year-old niece.
I have lately been frustrated that the problem with a lot of environmental work is that there simply are too many humans. Other efforts can feel like treating the symptom, and not the cause. I got a kick out of the Center for Biological Diversity’s campaign of handing out condoms on Valentine’s Day with illustrations of endangered species printed on them.
The question of population growth was the first question put to McKibben after the service and he responded with some surprising information. He said that fertility rates are dropping and the planet’s population is expected to top out at about 9 billion in 20 or 30 years, I think. He said that obviously 9 billion is beyond the carrying capacity of the planet, but there is a bit of a fertility bubble right now and birth rates will soon start to slow.
McKibben then repeated something that I’ve been hearing more and more about lately, which is that programs that seek to educate and empower women in societies around the globe are proving remarkably effective at slowing population growth. Once women have options beyond just having a bunch of kids, they go from having six to maybe two. He also said that he is the proud parent of one child.
The population argument is also somewhat inconsequential because people in countries like the United States where birth rates are relatively low consume so much more of everything–including energy–than people in developing countries where birth rates might be higher. An American family uses as much energy between midnight on New Year’s Eve and dinner on January 2 as a Tanzanian family uses in a year.
There’s a lot of hype out there regarding climate change. McKibben impressed me as someone who had given a lot of information and theory and science a long, dispassionate examination, and was now very passionate about spreading what he had learned. He was in Minnesota for less than 24 hours, landing last night and catching a flight right after the second service. He speaks again tomorrow night in Portland, Oregon and the next night in Seattle. In fact, his touring schedule would put just about any rock and roll band to shame.
McKibben has a new book out, which also explains the furious tour. It’s called “Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet” (the second “a” in “Eaarth” is not a typo, the author said to “channel your inner-Schwarzenegger” when pronouncing it).
Our friends Brian and Rachel joined us for the service and we had breakfast afterward, then Katie and Rachel left to do some “crafting” and Brian and I ran an errand or two and then went back to our house, where we had a few cups of Oolong tea and played a game of chess. The sun was spilling in the bay window and the view to the lake was starting to be obscured by the burgeoning green on the trees.
We weren’t sure what to do with ourselves and the beautiful afternoon and decided to try to the samurai method we had been discussing earlier, which was that any major decision can and should be made in the length of time it takes to drink a cup of tea. We had a few cups of tea–I recently read that Oolong is considered to be best after three or four steepings (it’s on Wikipedia, it must be true!)–and considered our options as we played.
We talked about the game a bit, again visiting on the idea that it is so enjoyable and endlessly complex, and also that it is a perfect distillment of war. But later I got thinking and realized it’s completely inaccurate in regards to war because in chess, the two sides start out perfectly equal, as far as numbers of soldiers, equipment, and resources.
What war has ever been fought between two perfectly equal forces? Underdogs can and often do win, but the very imbalance of the opposing forces and how their leaders respond to their own and their enemy’s strengths and weakness is the true test of a strategic mind.
About the time we were drinking our third cup of tea and finishing up the game, I decided that some part of me wanted to get into Wisconsin. We packed up the dog and some provisions and pointed the car east. The iPod provided the Black Keys, Gorillaz, and lots more, but the music had to compete with the wind rushing in open sunroof and windows.
When we crossed the St. Croix, I figured out where I wanted to go and we navigated to a little county park with a lake where we had gone to swim and canoe and fish a few times in the past.
The gate was locked across the road when we got the park, but that actually proved to be fortunate. There were a few other cars parked there so we joined them and set off walking up the road and into the park. It’s not a big park and if we’d driven in we might not have gotten much of a walk. And, in this season of so many ticks, walking on the road was frankly sort of relieving.
The road climbed a big hill through dry grassy hills and I felt like we were walking in some parks I remember in western North Dakota. Lola ran ahead, checking out the tops of the hills on both sides of us. After reaching the top, we were able to see the valley to our right where there were a couple horse farms nestled in between the ridges and not much else around. It exceeded my arbitrary aesthetic standards. It looked like heaven, really.
Although I thought we would just walk on the road down to the lake where Lola could swim, we spotted a trail that headed that way and decided to check it out. It was a beautiful trail which wound down the hill through woods, primarily planted red pine, which I can’t help having a fondness for.
The trail was beautifully-constructed; often it was inexplicably carpeted in moss. Rocks and timbers had been well-placed and erosion-preventing waterbars had been placed generously. The trail slowly cut down the hills sideways and soon, the lake began to appear shimmering through the woods. It is a cold, clear lake not open to motors and is home to stocked rainbow trout and the biggest largemouth bass I’ve ever caught.
Down at the lake, Lola finally got to swim. She had been driving for the water from the moment it came in sight and one could feel her happiness when she finally plunged in.
There were some other folks fishing around a bend, but otherwise there was no one around. We took a break at a picnic table in the shade before heading back up and a loon splashed around on the lake and called one short call while we sat and watched the water.
I’ve been a fan of Sam Shepard for a while, and not just because he and his wife the actress Jessica Lange lived in my town for 10 years (and when I was in high school he read a few of my stories, long story).
Shepard is out with a new collection of stories, Day Out of Days. He has had two stories published in The New Yorker in the last few months (here is one) and they have been subtle, wry tales of relationships and aging, written with his usual imagination and precision.
“Have you got a girlfriend?” she asks me out of the blue.
“A girlfriend?” I say, checking to see if our daughter has overheard this, but she, too, has been lulled to sleep by the heat.
“Yes, that’s right. A girlfriend,” my wife repeats.
“Where did this come from?”
“Don’t act so surprised. You could very easily have a girlfriend and I’d never know it, would I? How would I know?”
“I’m sixty. Those days are over.”
This is not the Sam Shepard of the 1960s, ’70s and 80s, when he wrote edgy plays like “Buried Child” and “Fool for Love.” Those were the works of a young writer pushing the envelope of art, challenging convention, and expressing a dark, modern vision.
Today, his work seems to have mellowed in subject matter, as he is a father and husband and getting a bit older. His last collection, Great Dream of Heaven, was well-written, but the subject matter frankly focused a bit too much on his time in Stillwater, shuttling the kids to school and the such.
Day out of Days is a road trip of the spirit through the American West, a book that should cure anyone’s mental rut with its quirky tales and unexpected observations. In this collection, Sam Shepard has proved himself an enormously inventive writer, working in territory that seems familiar, but that proves to be surprising and revelatory.