In His Newest Book, Jerry Dennis Defines “Up North”

Jerry Dennis (foreground), Glenn Wolff (background). Photo by Pamela Grath.

Jerry Dennis is a Michigan treasure. The 67-year-old Dennis, a native of Northern Michigan, is the author of more than 10 books, including the epic, The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Island Seas, and essays, poems, and short fiction that have appeared in more than 100 publications. He has received the Michigan Library Association’s 1999 Michigan Author Award, the Outstanding Alumnus of the Year Award from the University of Louisville’s School of Arts and Sciences, the Great Lakes Culture Award from Michigan State University, and the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award. His recently-released Up North in Michigan: A Portrait of Place in Four Seasons, illustrated by frequent collaborator artist Glenn Wolff, gets at the timeless feel of the North Country in an era of rapid global change.

FLOW: Much of your writing conveys a vivid sense of place. How does this book build on that in a new way?

Dennis: I’m always trying to find my way into a deeper understanding of this place, which requires fresh ways of writing about it. In some of my earlier work, I took a journalistic approach, interviewing experts, writing photo-like snapshots of places and people, compiling footnotes and endnotes. In the new book (and in The Windward Shore and in long sections of The Living Great Lakes), I gave myself permission to abandon formal journalism and not worry about gaps in the account. Instead of adhering to a schedule, I cultivated a sort of vigorous loafing. Whenever I found myself in a spot that seemed to require interviews with experts or a visit to a famous landmark or any other task that reeked of duty, I would turn and head off in another direction. Rather than organizing a strategy, I just trusted my gut.

FLOW: You say in the introduction that changes are all around in the north country, including land development and the climate change-induced rapid warming of Lake Superior, but it still feels like up north. Do you think that will still be true in 10, 20 or 50 years?

DennisI have to believe that this place will continue to “feel” like it does now and, presumably, like it has for several hundred years or more. I’ve read dozens of old journals and memoirs written about the region, and, in all of them, the feel of the place seems the same. [Henry Rowe] Schoolcraft’s journal of the 1820 Cass Expedition around the Great Lakes shores of Michigan is a good example. Two hundred years later, his descriptions of places like Sleeping Bear Dunes, the Straits of Mackinac, Pictured Rocks, the Keweenaw Peninsula, and others are easily recognizable. He mentions the ridges formed by the ancient lakeshores visible along the Lake Michigan shore above Good Harbor Bay and just north of Charlevoix. There are many houses on those shores now, but you can still see those exact ledges from the water, especially when the leaves are down. As I mention more than once in the book, we’re lucky that so much of our region is protected within national and state forests and parks and by the crucial purchases of the various land conservancies. We can’t know what it will be like in 50 years, of course, but we can hope that much of Northern Michigan and the U.P. will remain as they are now.  

We can hope that much of northern Michigan and the U.P. will remain as they are now. That’s one reason FLOW’s mission is so vitally important. If the waters we hold in common are lost to private interests or aging and ill-advised infrastructure like Enbridge’s Line 5 fail, northern Michigan as we know it could be lost.

FLOW: How far can we go in sharing this beautiful place? We’re hearing a lot of talk about climate refugees now; what are the implications of that for the land you write about?

Dennis: It’s a privilege to live here. And it comes with responsibilities—to honor it, to protect it for others to enjoy, and to never forget that most people are not as fortunate. We all know the story. Throughout history, it has been the people who are the most impoverished and disenfranchised who are forced to live in the ugliest, most polluted, and most dangerous places. Climate change could turn that tendency on its head and make the Great Lakes watershed not just a desirable place to live, but a safe and necessary one for people of every kind.

FLOW: How long has this book been in the making?

DennisI could argue that it goes back to age 17, when I started keeping notebooks in which I recorded observations, overheard conversations, random ideas, excerpts from my reading, and notes to myself about what and how to write. One subject that appears over and over in 50 years’ worth and thousands of pages of those notebooks is how to write about the sense of place in general, and about Michigan and the Great Lakes in particular. One passage, written in 1988, has been a guiding influence on every book I’ve written since:

Write the book you want to read. An honest book. A spacious book. A book that resonates like bells. That is as informative as waves breaking on gravel. That has beach stones and wind in it. Water stains, gull keen. Sand. Silence. A book that asks instead of answers. An open book. A ventilated book. A pristine flowing spring of a book.

A book that remembers on every page that everything is temporary. All else will follow from there.

FLOW: How does your collaboration with Glenn work? Are you like jazz musicians riffing off each other or is it something more conscious?

DennisWe’re simpatico. Always on the same page. Our friendship has been one of the most creative and enjoyable of my life. Glenn’s an accomplished jazz musician, so I’m sure he would say we riff off each other.

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