Following the Water


A view from the author’s cottage on Intermediate Lake near the Antrim County village of Central Lake in northwest Lower Michigan. 

By Fleda Brown

For years my family lived in steamy Arkansas, driving for days to get to northern Michigan in the summers. The air cooled down mile by mile. The moment we rounded a curve and our lake glimmered into view I was transported, transformed. I wanted nothing but to be in it, on it, all over it.

And I have been a follower of creeks. Even in Arkansas, bereft of natural lakes, I knew the creeks and the few man-made lakes. My father would find a creek and walk with my little sister on his shoulders, me at his side, along the water as far as we could before supper.

I have been sad when a trail deviated from the water and headed up into the woods. I have longed to live on the water. When we retired and moved to Traverse City, I sent photos to my friends of West Grand Traverse Bay, the way the Boardman River stitches the town together. A miracle of water, I said, everywhere.

I wonder if you counted, how many of my poems, my essays, would follow the water. Most, I’d say. I’ve clung to it as if it were a mother, as if I had only yesterday climbed dripping out of its primordial soup. I could analyze the reasons, I could talk about the troubles and joys of my childhood, but that wouldn’t get to the core of it, I suspect, since I’m not alone in this love. My daughter loves the ocean; she needs the expanse. She says she can breathe more deeply on the shore, looking out at the horizon. My uncle loves to meander along the creek on his lake property. All sorts of people flock to the lakes with their motorboats and skis and paddleboards and sailboats. There are those who love the water and those who simply use it like a commodity, roaring across as if it were a liquid highway, though even they would miss it.

Years ago in Delaware, I edited a magazine called Current: the Journal of Marine Education. I did this for extra money while I was writing my dissertation. You maybe won’t believe this, but on our first trip to a conference in Salem, Massachusetts, the ocean suddenly came into view. I had only lived in Delaware for a few months, and I hadn’t yet had time to go to the ocean. I’d never seen it. Really. I wanted to shout, “Oh look! The ocean!” But I was the editor of a national marine magazine, ha-ha. I acted as if I saw the ocean every day. No big deal.

The mantra of the organization was that, soon, clean water was going to be our chief concern, so we’d better educate our children. And sure enough. Whatever else there is to worry about with global climate change, the condition of our water and waterways has become crucial. Red tide, algae, rusting, lead-coated water pipes. Billions lack access to safe water.

All these are facts. But facts can move people only secondarily. First comes the deep passion, the whip of a fly line over a stream, the almost silent canoe on a night lake, the swim through morning mist, the shoosh of water when the sail catches a gust. It’s magic. Magic is inexplicable. It lives in the liminal space between known and unknown. It can disappear as easily as it appears. The sight of water lies between earth and sky, yet the whole of water, visible and invisible, penetrates everything, exists everywhere.

It seems to me if we are looking for a way to heal our earth, we can’t look everywhere at once. So each of us turns to our dearest love: air, forests, birds, animals, to save what we can. Mine is water.

When we’re at the cottage in the summer, when the late sun strikes the water at a particular angle, we call this “sparkle time.” It’s when we get out snacks and drinks and just admire the lake from the porch. May it be so, generation after generation.

Fleda Brown’s tenth collection of poems, Flying Through a Hole in the Storm (2021) won the Hollis Summers Prize from Ohio University Press. Earlier poems can be found in The Woods Are On Fire: New & Selected Poems, chosen by Ted Kooser for the University of Nebraska poetry series in 2017. Her work has appeared three times in The Best American Poetry and has won a Pushcart Prize, the Felix Pollak Prize, the Philip Levine Prize, and the Great Lakes Colleges New Writer’s Award, and has twice been a finalist for the National Poetry Series. Her third collection of memoir-essays, Mortality, with Friends was published by Wayne State University Press in fall 2021. She is professor emerita at the University of Delaware, where she taught for 27 years and directed the Poets in the Schools program. She was poet laureate of Delaware from 2001-07. She now lives with her husband, Jerry Beasley, in Traverse City, where she writes a monthly poetry column for the Traverse City Record-Eagle and has a poetry commentary on the Interlochen Public Radio show, “Michigan Writers on the Air.” She is retired from the faculty of the Rainier Writing Workshop, a low-residency MFA program in Tacoma, Washington.

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