On a Friday afternoon in June, my eldest son and I search for treasure on the shores of Lake Erie.
We crouch down on a rock beach, rake our fingers through the strata, Devonian limestone and shale, some rocks flattened as if engineered for skipping, others oblong like primeval stone tools. All water smoothed. They burnish when wetted. We work our fingers downward until we reach the granular layer, the Rice Krispies. This is where our treasure hides.
Sea glass. Beach glass. Remnants of human waste, now seeking reincorporation into nature. It’s painstaking work, this treasure hunt, work for strong backs and small fingers, patience and enthusiasm in equal measure, combing inch by inch for protrusions of luster that don’t belong: emeralds, russets, ceruleans, pearlescent cyans.
Winds gust to 30, waves so lithe that no foam can gather. They curl backward as if stretching and then flop at our feet. The wind buffets us and we lean into it, searching for stability. My son, five, shouts to be heard with every find, though he’s only a dozen feet distant. Overhead, cormorants knife through the wind as if mocking us. Sometimes I stand and stretch and stare outward in astonishment at Lake Erie. Reverence and perhaps even fright, at its scale. It’s alive, this lake, you know it is. It jostles and undulates like the very sheathing of space-time. Standing at water’s edge is an antidote you didn’t know you required. A dream you’ve wandered into, vaguely impossible. How can such a thing even exist?
But does exist, barely, and probably not for much longer.
2. The Sea, Almost
We call it sea glass, but we’re in Ohio, 500 miles from the sea. This is South Bass Island in Lake Erie’s western basin. Halfway between the 41st and 42nd parallels. 4 miles from Canadian waters, but latitudinally parallel to Rome.
Rightly we should call it beach glass, but no. We refuse. Erie is our inland sea, the Great Lakes our Mediterranean, which makes this sea glass. It’s a harmless enough lie, but a vital one, existential, the refutation to yet another argument about flyover country, arguments we must perpetually exhume like splinters in our psyches.
Stand on the shore of any of the Great Lakes and you feel the sea. The immensity swallows you up. You’re a young boy gazing up at your impossibly large father. But these lakes also resist the conventional grandeur. Saltless. Midwestern in temperament. Wary of pageantry. For all the stateliness, there’s also something stark about the Great Lakes, a compulsion toward austerity. Perhaps that’s why I’m so eager to boast on their behalf.
The Great Lakes are an interconnected family, both distinct and bonded, like the Cedars of God. Together the five lakes are roughly the size of the Persian Gulf and boast a longer shoreline than America’s eastern and western seaboards combined. They hold more than 20% of the planet’s potable water.
Superior, the great patriarch of the system, is as large as Ireland and deep enough to hide the Empire State Building. It holds enough water to flood all of North and South America to a depth of a 1 foot. The bottom of Lake Superior is the lowest spot on the continent.
Michigan, famous for its azure blue water, is larger than Croatia and holds more than 30 times the water of Lake Tahoe. Huron is similarly sized and has 30,000 distinct islands, including Manitoulin Island, which is itself larger than Hong Kong. Manitoulin Island is so large that it has 108 lakes of its own, many of which have islands themselves. Ontario, which is the smallest of the lakes by surface area holds more water than 665 million Olympic sized swimming pools.
The runt of the litter by virtually all measures is Erie. (Runt: Erie is larger than Vermont.) It is the shallowest and the smallest by volume of the system, holding a mere 2% of all the water in the Great Lakes. The western basin, where South Bass Island sits, is only about 30 feet deep. But this shallowness and its corresponding warmth makes Erie a veritable Eden for life. Half of all the fish in the Great Lakes live here. Great waves and seiches upset Erie—conditions that wreck ships and then churn up their artifacts from the lakebed. In this way, history persists here, is never quite beyond us.
Erie is our lake. It’s where we escape the oppressive flatness of northwest Ohio, where we swim and stroll and picnic. It’s where my wife and I got married, and where we still gaze outward in astonishment. Something exotic, almost, amongst the cornfields of Ohio.
It’s also where we search for beach glass. Sea glass.
Eventually my son will grow bored, he’s only five, but for a while, we revel in the search. Combing for sea glass is almost an addiction, each handful of strata like the pull of a slot machine. It’s a trance we share, we’re together and alone all at once, like praying next to one another. I can feel my consciousness lengthen, relax, focus. No traffic jams here, no Netflix, no 24-hour news cycle. Our clamorous world gone quiet. For a time, we can shun all that technology we have made and now regret making. Lapping waves and water-wearied limestone and an eager five-year-old who yelps when he finds a sliver of glass because that sliver of glass is undeniably miraculous.
It’s a strange hold you find yourself in. Your equilibrium wobbles because you’re bent over and forget to look up. Hijacked by your own concentration, and when you do finally stand and stretch, it’s almost as if you’ve forgotten the lake is there at all. Then there is the ensuing shame, like you were looking at your phone when your daughter scored her first goal.
Maybe, I sometimes allow myself to think, this strange ritual of ours is an act of conservation. Quiet, understated, a bit misguided even, but sincere. Driven by reverence for the lake, its capacity to awe us, train my sons to love and respect the lake: it’s a start.
At the end of our search, we pick through our haul, a heaping handful if we’re lucky. We point out our favorites, specks with lettering or curved sections from bottle shanks or old delftware pottery. Or blue. Blue seems to have no end to its variations. Some pieces are opaline and others hazy, but the best of them appear sugar frosted. They hardly look like glass at all. Smoky as slate. Sea glass connoisseurs refer to this as being “cooked.”
We hold up our finds and marvel and let ourselves slip into elaborate theories about their existence. My son asks probing questions:
Dad, do you think any of these are from a pirate ship? (Yes, of course I do.)
How valuable are they? (Incredibly valuable, in their own way.)
Did we put on sunscreen? (If Mom asks, the answer is yes.)
When you’re searching for sea glass, anything seems possible and, once you’ve found it, you’re willing to entertain any explanation for its existence.
4. A Mere 342 Years
The notion of glass from pirate ships isn’t so preposterous as it might sound. Piracy was rampant on the Great Lakes until the mid-19th century. And Lake Erie has one of the highest concentrations of shipwrecks in the world, more than 2,000 in total, one for every 5 square miles. The Battle of Lake Erie, a decisive victory in the War of 1812, took place a skipped stone away from where we stand on South Bass Island. So yes, history persists in these waters and with a little weather that history resurfaces.
The oldest ship of any size confirmed to sail through this area—to sail the open water of the Great Lakes at all—was Le Griffon, a French barque with a crew of 32, which entered Lake Erie from the Niagara River in July 1679 and passed by South Bass Island on August 10th. It made its way west, up the Detroit River and into Lake Huron, then through the Straits of Mackinac and into Lake Michigan where it anchored at the mouth of Green Bay. It set sail for its return trip toward the Niagara River September 18 and was never seen again, making it the oldest known ship and the oldest known shipwreck, on the Great Lakes. Every few years, someone claims to have found it, but the find never materializes. Experts can’t even agree on which lake swallowed the ship, leaving a search area nearly the size of Wyoming.
Although Le Griffon remains a symbol of European colonization, it was hardly a harbinger of imminent expansion. By the 1770s, a hundred years after the Le Griffon disappeared, there were still only 16 known ships trawling the Great Lakes, nine of them on Lake Erie. When Alexis de Tocqueville crossed Erie on his grand tour in 1831, 150 years after Le Griffon, he described “a thick and virtually continuous girdle around the lake.”
Le Griffon might have been the first ship to prowl the Great Lakes, but it was by no means the first boat. Human history in the Great Lakes region began long before Europeans arrived, of course, and those humans traveled these lakes, albeit in canoes and bateaux which trolled close to the shorelines. Spend even a few minutes in the open water of Erie when the wind comes, and you understand why.
Though Le Griffon’s French sailors and Alexis de Tocqueville saw no humans on the southern shores of Lake Erie, they were almost certainly seen themselves. In all, more than 120 distinct groups of native peoples once lived in the 289,000 square mile Great Lakes Basin. That was before European colonization, European disease, and the ensuing centuries of American policies like the Dawes Act and its brethren, which ultimately stole more than 90 million acres of land across the continent. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) does not distinguish smaller geographic regions — the Great Lakes Basin — from political borders in the accounting. In the much larger Midwest region, the Federal Indian Lands of 43 distinct reservations comprise only 2% of the total area once held by tribes.
The history of humans on the Great Lakes before this has long remained elusive. Recently, though, it has come into new focus, putting in perspective on the relative infancy of the lakes themselves.
Archaeologists have recently discovered evidence of a caribou channeling structure in the region, which they have named the Drop 45 Lane. Further investigation of the feature has revealed hunting blinds, charcoal, and remnants of stone tools crafted from chert flakes. Radiocarbon has dating revealed them to be about 9,000 years old, making them the oldest known hunting structures in the world—4,000 years older than Stonehenge or the Pyramids at Giza.
What is most striking, though, is that these structures sit at the bottom of Lake Huron, in 110 feet of water. Drop 45 is older than the lake that now shelters it. People were here already as the very lakes took shape around them. Humans predate the lakes.
The human brain is not armed to comprehend the very old or the very distant. Geologic time seems incomprehensible in its scope, thus it is viewed as enigma, like interstellar travel or quantum mechanics. As a general rule, this approach is right. The difference between dinosaurs existing 10 million years ago or 350 million years ago easily gets set aside precisely because “millions of years” is so mind-boggling.
But the Great Lakes are different. They resist geologic time, and their creation is eminently more knowable to us or should be. When early people here constructed Drop 45, Lake Huron did not yet exist. Instead, there was Lake Stanley, a proglacial lake that was about 300 feet shallower than Huron. Drop 45 sat on land, atop the Alpena-Amberly Ridge, which was a natural corridor for caribou, an ancient game trail.
I trick myself into thinking the Great Lakes have always been here and always will be, because of their size and scope. But they haven’t and they won’t. They didn’t even begin forming until a mere 14,500 years ago as the miles thick Laurentide ice sheet began to retreat, gouging out great basins in the process. A series of proglacial lakes and rivers formed and faded for thousands of years until the Great Lakes finally settled into their current configuration. Lake Erie, for instance, didn’t find its present form until about 2,600 years ago.
2,600 years ago. The sixth century B.C.—well into recorded history. Jerusalem had already existed for more than 2,000 years. Rome had already expelled its kings and shifted toward a republic. Babylon was conquered by Cyrus the Great. Pythagoras and Confucious were born.
Even the wreckage of Le Griffon, the first specimen of modernity in the region, which sank a mere 342 years ago, has sat undisturbed for a staggering one-seventh of the lake’s very existence.
5. The Nuclear Age
Later that same summer, we find another beach, a new haven for sea glass. My younger son, three years old but 20 years ornery, is with me this time. We’re just over the border into Michigan, on the absolute western edge of Lake Erie. It’s muddy and perpetually rough here. Fire pits with charred logs and broken brown beer bottles scatter the trailhead. Waves like chocolate milk lunge onto the beach. There’s seemingly always a wind chill here, even in summer.
On a clear day, you can see two nuclear power plants from this beach: the single Doric column of Davis Besse 22 miles to the southeast and the double stack of the Enrico Fermi plant 15 miles to the northeast. They loom over us here like bullies with long shadows. We might be standing at lake’s edge, but it feels so far from nature.
But it’s spectacular sea glass hunting. All that wind, all those waves, perpetually churning up the past. We don’t find Rice Krispies here but large chunks, like slices from an orange peel, some big as my palm. Entire bottle shanks. So much sea glass and so easily found that I almost feel guilty. This must be how it feels to hunt deer with a rifle and scope.
My son tries to wade out into the water when I look away, and I’m constantly reaching for him, trying to keep him close. He throws rocks at the driftwood, at the waves, at me. At one point, he takes his shoes off but then grows angry that he’s wearing socks. He plops down into the sand, a toddler protest, just in time for a wave to sneak up behind him. Now his butt is cold and wet, and now it’s time to go home.
On the drive home, I find myself thinking about those nuclear stacks on the horizon, about the nature of time on the Great Lakes. About global warming and pollution and the hubris of modern humans. These lakes are still mere children in geologic time, just children, and though humans can’t exactly claim kinship, parenthood or something similarly saccharine, we must do better than we have for the past 150 years. Stewardship. Mutual respect, shared governance, symbiosis.
But no—none of that seems likely. Western societies tend to exploit and then we move on. We are management, and the lakes are the proletariat.
My son and I return from our new beach, aglow with our haul, and we wash our glass in a colander and set it out to dry on a paper towel. Then there is the curation, presenting our finds in vases and clear lamp bases around the house. Bursts of color for our otherwise unassuming decorating aesthetic. Shocks of green to offset the milky whites and clears, pops of blue to balance the greens. And browns, blunt and sober, scattered throughout, supplying some modesty.
Later that week, a sliver of blue catches my eye. It’s in a small vase in our kitchen, a prominent placement. Something about it seems off, though I can’t discern why until I pull it out to inspect. I hold it up, turn it in my fingers: flimsy, insubstantial, not cooked enough. I feel like a blundering dolt. I’ve mistakenly harvested a sliver of blue plastic. How had I confused it? I allowed it into our house, even displayed it, this virus which had found a perfectly ignorant host in me.
The miscue was probably inevitable. When we search for sea glass, we have to wade through mountains of trash. Human waste everywhere, most of it plastic. Far more trash than sea glass. Upward of 80% of all litter on the shorelines of the Great Lakes is made of plastic. Straws and fishing lures and cellophane wrappers and colorful lengths of confetti streamers. Condom wrappers and Ziploc bags and Swisher Sweet tips. You have to search for the sea glass, but you find trash without looking. Humans are the only animals who make trash, and also the only ones who refuse to clean it up. So much of our existence ultimately becomes trash. Gravity and water direct it much of it here.
Of course, the underlying absurdity isn’t lost on me. Even my shame is misguided. Both glass and plastic are unequivocally human waste. Should not be in the lake. It’s a chastening reminder that our search for sea glass is, at best, a mere gesture toward conservation.
Metaphorically, I suppose there’s little difference between glass and plastic in the lake. Both carry residue of the human taint. But literally—well, literally, it’s worth noting that glass is ultimately just melted sand. Modern manufacture adds sodium carbonate and calcium carbonate, but these additions are mandatory for capitalistic efficiency, not chemistry. (The 1945 tests at the Trinity site in New Mexico revealed the simplicity of glass’s formula when the nuclear explosions there melted the desert sand into glass.)
So, it could be claimed that our sea glass is the very the sand it sits in. The waves will slowly whittle it away just as they do the grains of quartz that is the sand. But this feels disingenuous, a technical truth but not a spiritual one. It’s trash regardless of its chemical composition, and even if it will naturally decompose.
The plastic is permanent. Generally, plastic doesn’t decompose but instead breaks down into smaller and smaller particles, ultimately becoming invisible microplastics. Complete mineralization of plastics, which might not be possible at all, is likely to take hundreds of thousands of years. And these microplastics are ubiquitous. Experts have recently estimated that the average human ingests more than 53,864 microplastic particles annually from seafood, the long-term health effects of which are still relatively unclear. At present, regulatory bodies do not routinely test seafood for the presence of microplastics.
Latest estimates suggest that upward of 9,887 metric tons of plastics end up in the Great Lakes every year. 22 million pounds of plastic, the equivalent of more than 7,200 Toyota Priuses, year after year.
The plastic is embarrassing and unsightly, but the other pollutants might be even more dire. Oil, industrial chemicals, nitrogen. And phosphorus, always phosphorus. Run-off from all the adjacent agriculture.
Lake Erie is the bullseye of this particular disgrace. The Maumee River basin is some of the most productive farmland on the continent, but it shouldn’t be farmland at all. We’ve rewritten its geologic destiny. Toledo, where I live, sits on the edge of what used to be the Great Black Swamp, a 1,500 square mile glacially fed wetland that 19th century settlers drained. Conquered. Aquatic ecologists estimate that more than 50% of all Great Lakes coastal wetlands have been similarly lost since European colonization.
The effects on Lake Erie have been catastrophic. To humans, the Great Black Swamp was a malarial wasteland, but ecologically, it was, as Dan Egan elegantly puts it, “a grand filtering system,” nothing short of “Lake Erie’s kidney.” The swamp cleaned muddy, contaminated rainwater before it bled into Lake Erie. Settlers replaced this natural filtering system with drains and ditches, a massive system of arteries that sent contaminated water directly into the lake. Moreover, the swamp itself became farmland, farmland that required an influx of fertilizer. When spring rains came, all that phosphorus and nitrogen runoff could end up only one place. Add this to waste from humans and livestock and the lake would rapidly become eutrophic. Massive summer algae blooms. And when algae die, they leach oxygen from the water. Soon the lake goes hypoxic. Dead. Mobile organisms flee, and the rest die. In Lake Erie, the hypoxic zone can be nearly 4,000 square miles in the summer. By the 1970s, so much phosphorus had accumulated in Erie that scientists estimate that the lake had “aged” an additional 15,000 years—this from a lake that has only existed in its current form for 2,600 years.
7. The (Fairly) Clean Water Act
Finally, in the early 1970s, the federal government passed sweeping legislation, most notably the Clean Water Act of 1972. The Environmental Protection Agency, itself a bold new agency, undertook massive cleanup efforts. And because Lake Erie has such a short water residence time, only about two years, patience and vigorous new regulation proved effective at cleaning up the lake. By the early 21st century, Erie was cleaner than it had been for a hundred years—a far cry from the era of the infamous Cuyahoga River fire of 1969. Fish were plentiful, phosphorus pollution had been slashed in half and even the Cuyahoga, once the texture of chili, was now a place for kayakers and paddle-boarders.
This is all true, technically, and yet it obscures the larger reality. It’s true that the Clean Water Act has been a powerful piece of legislation. It has mitigated point pollution (waste from factory pipes) effectively, and it has also helped to reconfigure our very ethics concerning the lake. Until the burning Cuyahoga and the ensuing national outrage, there was little shame about water pollution here. In fact, Erie’s status as a dead lake presented a strange amalgam of punchline and boast. The pollution was a sign of industrial achievement: Standard Oil and Republic Steel and Sherwin Williams were all industrial giants housed in Cleveland. The dirty water was the perfect symbol of their success. But good legislation can change not merely behaviors but also hearts and minds. Good laws can be aspirational, better than our current system of values. The effects therein can be both profound and nearly inaudible. The Clean Water Act not only cleaned up Lake Erie, it shamed us.
Then in August 2014, the narrative of a clean Lake Erie was once again upended, this time in the form of the Toledo Water Crisis. For three days, the 500,000 residents of Toledo were without fresh drinking water despite living on the shores of the world’s 11th largest lake. A toxic algae bloom had formed in the western basin. This bloom was comprised of a cyanobacteria that produces the liver toxin microcystin. The water was no longer potable, not fit for showering, not fit for pets. Even boiling it wouldn’t kill the microcystin.
The culprit was, once again, phosphorus. But this time it was a newer, even more toxic version (dissolved phosphorus) delivered to the lake by new farming techniques (no-till practices). The average citizen was shocked, but water treatment engineers and limnologists were not. Algae blooms are a yearly occurrence now. In 2011, the bloom was more than 2,000 square miles, larger than Long Island.
The Clean Water Act, the very breastplate that has armored Lake Erie for nearly 50 years, is powerless to stop this new threat. The law, for all its heft, does not regulate non-point pollution, like farm runoff. And so, the lake continues to die, but quieter now. Gasping. No gaudy pyrotechnics like a burning river to provoke national outrage. As the planet warms, spring rains here grow stronger and phosphorus, silent and invisible, travels ever downward, through rivers and ditches and culverts, into the lake, slipping in unseen like a teenager sneaking in past curfew. And it is the Great Black Swamp, which could have purified this pollution that is now the epicenter of that very pollution.
This is not to demonize farmers. My ancestors came to Ohio from Scotland and Germany and they farmed. They viewed their land as another family member. They craved a symbiotic relationship, just as most farmers do now. They rarely succeed, but if we, the consumers, didn’t demand fresh, inexpensive produce in January, they just might. If government subsidies didn’t encourage them to grow unnecessary crops in unsustainable ways, they wouldn’t. Farmers don’t pour phosphorous into Lake Erie out of wickedness or laziness or even greed. How many rich farmers do you know? They do it out of necessity. If they resist, their yields will suffer, which means, ultimately, their children will suffer. Individual behaviors are often constrained by larger systems, many of which were designed generations earlier and which no longer function as designed. Phosphorous runoff is the inevitable effect of a broken system, not the product of callous individuals.
8. Conservation and Civics
In 2008, Bill Richardson, then governor of New Mexico and a presidential hopeful, famously suggested that the Great Lakes Region should share water with the arid southwest. “Wisconsin is awash in water,” he said, the unspoken suggestion being “Give us some.” It was all innuendo, not a specific policy initiative, but a call for American altruism. On its surface, his pitch sounds like just that: fellowship, munificence, even boldly progressive in its scope; an interstate highway system for water.
Sometimes I imagine writing a cheeky response to Governor Richardson, offering him a counterproposal. Yes, I would say, perhaps the Great Lakes Region would entertain a trade: we will pipe fresh water to New Mexico and in return, New Mexico will pipe some of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains back to toward us. Probably, though, I shouldn’t joke, not about something as essential and fundamental as fresh water. There should be no debate about its status as a natural right. But rapid delivery of water to every corner of civilization is, I think, a different matter. The great drying out of the West has placed conservation at direct odds with civic duty, even moral duty.
The massive infrastructure projects of the last two centuries have already mechanized the natural hydrology of this continent, much of it in the West. These watersheds now resemble cybernetic organisms, rendering much of the landscape synthetic, a mere simulacrum of nature. Not so different from Epcot. Data from tree rings shows that the Colorado River Basin, which supplies much of the West with water, is in the midst of its most severe drought in 1,250 years and as the planet warms, scientists fear the drought will become permanent. The West is shriveling up. Millions of people, millions of acres of farmland, and not enough water to go around. An ironic end, finally, to Manifest Destiny.
But if we have learned anything from 200 years of reshaping the hydrology of this continent, it is that we are still, always, beholden to nature. To raise cities and grow crops build golf courses in arid landscapes is not ambition but hubris. Human technology, wonder that it is, will not always save us from ourselves. The solution to the West’s water problem might well be what it has always been: humans migrating to where the water exists naturally.
I do sympathize with the people—the farmers, the ranchers, the water managers. The ordinary citizens who fear their children will lack drinking water or who worry they’ll eventually have to move from ancestral homes. Most people can’t afford to pick and move across the country and most don’t want to. I wouldn’t either. My children don’t deserve clean water any more than those children do.
One way or another, the Sunbelt is unlikely to get Great Lakes water anytime soon. In 2008, the Great Lakes Compact was enacted by the 110th Congress and soon, a parallel agreement included Ontario and Quebec on the Canadian side. This federal law, overseen by the Council of Great Lakes Governors, bans large scale diversion of Great Lakes water, with few minor exceptions. But it’s a young law and stress tests are imminent. Laws are just ink on paper, as the constant attacks on basic voting rights remind us. As the planet warms, civics and conservation will continue to grapple, and the past few centuries give me little hope for conservation.
I often find myself thinking of Le Griffon when I’m bent over, searching for sea glass. It’s out there somewhere, in one of the lakes, has now matured into fable, if we cared enough to listen: our grandest ambitions, it reminds, are often quite foolish. The first Europeans Instinctively tried to conquer the lakes. But their ship sank, hardly a month after it was first launched. The first of more than 6,000 such shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, more than 30,000 lives lost. Don’t test us, the lakes whisper, even as we ignore them.
342 years ago and in that time, we’ve colonized, eradicated native peoples, grown cities, drained swamps, farmed by family and then by corporation, raised and lost industry. We’ve rerouted rivers and cut canals through the landscape and casually poisoned the very lakes that gave us the strength to poison them. All this time, we’ve treated the lakes as if they were infinitely bountiful. What else can you do for me? seems our most common refrain. I’m guilty of it, too. I drink the water and pick up the glass, leaving the plastic to lay, the shrapnel of human existence.
When writing about the lakes, I struggle to keep a level tone. To be, as Rick Bass says, “all celebration and all observation, without judgement or advocacy.” It’s so much easier to proselytize than it is to observe deeply. But I can feel the Great Lakes like a narrative tipping toward its climax. At this moment, proselytizing feels necessary, a desperate heave. If politicians and voters were going to be moved by data or observation, or even by narrative, they would have been moved by now. And so, I slip into sermon, which probably has more in common with road rage than it does sincere advocacy.
If I can just understand the lakes better, I think. If I can add context to the data, if I can explain their gravitas, then…. Well, I rarely get farther than that. It feels like doing something, which is better than doing nothing, probably.
So, I ease down on the throttle. Breathe. I walk the shores of Lake Erie with my boys, and we pick up sea glass. I stare outward at the water and feel calmed: something so massive, that raw, powerful beauty, and it overwhelms, gives the impression of permanence. The lake is almighty, able to crush any foe, like the God of the Old Testament.
But it isn’t omnipotent and it isn’t permanent and I know it. It isn’t divine, and though it might take some small vengeances upon us, we small, frail humans are killing it. And why? Because we can’t be bothered not to. No, the lake isn’t a God, is in fact a contemporary of the Old Testament itself. It’s no older than the pages of Deuteronomy, and it seems unlikely to outlast that or any other sacred text.
So, I wait—for the next Cuyahoga River fire or Toledo Water Crisis, the next legal challenge to the Great Lakes Water Compact, something gaudy to shock us into a few brief moments of clarity, when data is enough to warrant action, and when those actions feel obvious rather than like partisan activism.
It seems clear that a few hundred years from now, the lakes will look very different. The planet continues to warm, revealing the utter delicacy of everything. Whether the lakes shrivel or expand under the burden of human activity and a warming planet is still unclear. In some ways, this feels predictable. The lakes have never been a static geographical feature, but the next series of changes and crises will undoubtedly be man-made.
In the meantime, I search for sea glass, bent-backed and focused, my boys flitting around me like little Vikings. It’s a form of worship, I think, I hope. Maybe it’s hollow, but it’s guided by reverence.
I find myself picturing the earliest people here, the ones who constructed the Drop 45 Lane. 9,000 years ago. They understood the lakes do not belong to us. Do not work for us. Have not always been here and won’t be here forever. I see these people: they’re nomadic probably, following game patterns and adjusting with the seasons. Generation after generation, they move and hunt and survive. The lakes shift and emerge around them, rising as if by an act of God. Glaciers melt, temperatures warm. Trails narrow, coastlands become marshlands. And the people adapt. They move as they must, always staying near the water.
Generation after generation, they track the changing lakes, the waters rising, the fluidity of a complex ecosystem, until finally they construct their hunting corridor on the spine of the Alpena-Amberly Ridge, fitting it to the landscape like a dovetail joint, and there it still sits, resting now, like a treaty long-forgotten by American society and the lakes that give us life.
Brad Felver is a fiction writer, essayist, and teacher of writing. His debut collection, The Dogs of Detroit, won the Drue Heinz Prize and was a finalist for the Ohioana Book Award. His fiction and essays have appeared widely in places such as One Story, New England Review, Colorado Review, Subtropics, and many others. His other honors include an O. Henry Award, a fellowship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award. He lives in Ohio with his wife and two sons.