By Jerry Beasley
I’m sitting on the deck at our lakeside cottage, peering through the trees, hoping that when I do so in the future I will see healthy waters, and the same beauty that I have loved for such a long time. There are so many threats. I must confess that the great COVID-19 pandemic that has so overwhelmed us all for these past many months has made me draw inward, wanting to protect the waters and all things of natural beauty just for myself. I don’t think I am alone. That’s how the solitary ongoing vigilance to keep ourselves safe can undermine our commitment to the safety of the world around us. I have become more and more conscious of submitting to anxiety about the pandemic’s threat to me and those I love. I believe this has happened to us all in one degree or another, however committed to the health of our world we may have always been.
But now I am looking at our bird feeder and marveling at the beauty and the energy of the small creatures that come to it again and again with such an abundance of zest for life. I see chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, goldfinches, downy woodpeckers, and, occasionally, rose-breasted grosbeaks. And we have hummingbirds. Black squirrels and tiny pine squirrels scurry around on the ground, long since having given up trying to raid our fancy feeder, hoping to find a sunflower seed dropped from above by a careless or hasty bird. Just watching these creatures, in all their innocence and exuberance, is a transformative act. And as my mind is drawn out of itself, my eye drifts beyond them once again to the light shadowing through the hemlocks and beeches, finally to the lake that has brought us here—my wife and me—to this century-old cottage and its long history in her family, now through five generations.
The cottage is located on Intermediate Lake near the Antrim County village of Central Lake in northwest Lower Michigan. The locals are very protective of their village’s name, and the iconic Bachmann’s General Store actually sells a sweatshirt displaying the words “Central Lake is a Village, Not a Lake.” But at one time in the past the lake was, indeed, called “Central Lake.” Both of these names were bestowed because the lake lies in the very middle of the Antrim Chain, whose 14 separate lakes extend for 55 miles southward from a point near the village of Ellsworth, eventually emptying into Grand Traverse Bay at Elk Rapids. The Chain contains more than 200 miles of shoreline and 60 square miles of water surface, and serves as a major watershed area, critical to the health of Lake Michigan.
Intermediate Lake was once just the Intermediate River, until, in 1900, a dam was constructed near the village of Bellaire for the purpose of providing hydroelectric power. The dam no longer generates electricity, but the lake that its construction made possible remains, a beautiful relic of a modern intrusion upon its original pristine form. Sometimes we humans get something right, even when we act selfishly in our relations with the natural world.
I have wondered lately about the deeper history of Intermediate Lake. Before transplanted Europeans arrived, the region around the Chain of Lakes was inhabited solely by the Ojibwa, who lived in the natural world with an intimacy now too often lost. For example: What makes people think it is all right to denude the shoreline of vegetation and then scatter fertilizer over expanses of lawn mowed to look like a suburban landscape? And why are so many septic systems leaching nutrients into so many of the lakes in our region? I don’t mean to suggest that all amenities of lakeside living or vacationing need to be sacrificed. But isn’t it of greater importance to value and preserve the natural wonders that surround us?
I am full of admiration for all of those—individuals and organizations, like FLOW—trying so hard to save our Great Lakes and the many inland lakes that bless all of us who live here. Invasive plants, pollutants like PFAS, microplastics, beach trash—the efforts in response to these and other assaults upon our precious waters go on and on, powered so often by volunteer groups and individuals dedicated to mitigation, cleanup, prevention, and habitat protection.
I recently learned of a project undertaken by the Lake Leelanau Lake Association to rid the lake’s waters of the invasive Eurasian Watermilfoil by anchoring biodegradable sheets of burlap (40 feet x 400 feet!) underwater to smother the intruder and kill it without the use of herbicides or any chemicals. Biologist Brian Price developed this ingenious approach as a result of his dedication to the health of the lake and its fish population. (A fascinating documentary on this project can be found on NatureChange.org.) Meanwhile, members of the Intermediate Lake Association monitor the area around the Loon nests near the southern end of the lake and do all they can to ensure the safety and wellbeing of those beautiful and mysterious birds, with the kind of dedication that keeps them returning year after year.
Efforts like these, and many similar undertakings on other waters, grow from a love of the natural world that is rarer and rarer in our increasingly urbanized world. I wrote in another posting for FLOW last year that protecting, and indeed saving, our waters is “A Matter of the Heart,” making the case that, “If the heart is not engaged, the waters will not be saved.” I’m inclined to put this a bit differently now. I believe that what we need to recover and rediscover, to the extent that we can, is the same reverence for our waters, and indeed for all of our natural environment, felt by Indigenous peoples. To Native Americans, the land and the waters are sacred, not to be defiled. Their connection to the earth remains deep, elemental, communal, personal, spiritual. May we all strive now to make our own connection, in this modern world, more like theirs.
Jerry Beasley was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1940. He attended Vanderbilt University, majoring in English Literature, and went on to receive his M.A. from the University of Kansas and his Ph.D from Northwestern University. He was a member of the English faculty at the University of Delaware for almost forty years, specializing in 18th-century British fiction and early women’s fiction. He is the author or editor of seven books and more than seventy articles and reviews in scholarly journals and collections. He and his wife, Fleda Brown, moved from Delaware to Traverse City in 2007. Jerry was a member of the Traverse Area District Library Board of Trustees for eight years, serving as Board President for two of those years. He currently serves on the Traverse City Human Rights Commission and is a volunteer with Munson Hospice.