“The Accidental Reef”–A Look at the Great Lakes from the (River) Bottom Up

Author Lynne Heasley and Artist Glenn Wolff Featured in Virtual Book Launch as Part of FLOW’s Art Meets Water Series on August 25 from 5:30-6:30 pm

Editor’s Note: Click here to watch a recording of this Aug. 25, 2021, live webinar, as well as recordings of other past livestreams.

Lynne Heasley’s new book, The Accidental Reef and Other Ecological Odysseys in the Great Lakes, is hot off the press. Hailed as “extraordinary,” “immersive,” and “one of the best Great Lakes books of our era,” Heasley’s book is complemented by the vivid, evocative art of Glenn Wolff, who illustrates the book. To learn more and register for the event, click here.

Lynne Heasley is professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. We interviewed her recently about her new book.

FLOW: What’s the story your book tells?

Heasley: The Accidental Reef begins at a nondescript pile of rocks on the St. Clair River bottom. The St. Clair River is part of the Huron-Erie waterway. From there, fish and humans converge, transform each other, and take arduous, but sometimes wondrous, journeys toward their uncertain fates in the Great Lakes and beyond. The book narrates these multiple journeys and perspectives. One of the human journeys involves the discovery of this marvelous pile of rocks, and its more-than-human world below. Other journeys are darker, toward reckoning with the full scale of industrial assault on the Great Lakes and its peoples over two centuries. And a third set of journeys is toward deeper knowledge, wonder, compassion—new ways of knowing and relating that allow us to care for the Great Lakes and each other with more humility, responsibility, reciprocity.

Most people who live close to the lakes come to know them from the ground (or water) up; they learn one small special place at a time, personally, through direct experience. That layering of experience through space and time is the inspiration for the book’s flow: Begin hyper-local, then build upward toward the satellite views. Because NASA-level satellite imagery is no starting point for knowing and protecting the largest system of surface freshwater on Earth!

FLOW: What’s the significance of the title?

Heasley: The “accidental reef” was an accident of industrial history, as a steamship off-loaded coal waste in the same location of the St. Clair River at the turn of the 20th century. That pile of coal clinkers became an unknown spawning site for lake sturgeon, which were suffering near-extinction from habitat destruction and industrial-scale overfishing. The same U.S.-Canadian area of waterway (St. Clair River, river delta, Lake St. Clair) was where zebra mussels first established themselves in the Great Lakes. And so begin our many entwined ecological odysseys.

FLOW: How does Glenn Wolff’s art fit into your themes?

Heasley: Visualization, imagination, ways of knowing, relationship building, are so critical to caring for and protecting places like the St. Clair River, or the Great Lakes writ large. Glenn is a brilliant artist whose mind “sees” in ways the rest of us don’t. He could take 20 pages of my so-called prose, and retell the whole story in a single beautiful full-page illustration that people want to ponder.

In terms of the book’s themes: One of my harsher arguments is that Western science alone hasn’t worked to protect the Great Lakes, biodiversity, climate—all of the looming disasters we’re working on regionally and globally. New ways forward urgently demand other ways of seeing and knowing. Making artists and the arts “full partners” is essential. So in my opinion, this would have been a much poorer book without a strong visual artistic partnership.

Other themes involving Glenn are “community,” “relationships,” and “reciprocity.” One of the remarkable, but less remarked on, dimensions of Glenn’s work is his valued place in Traverse City and conservation communities. Community is a thread in the book, and I feel like Glenn’s art exemplifies an expansive concept of community. His art places us humans—respectfully and reverentially—within our more-than-human world.

Finally, there’s the professional generosity of Glenn and Jerry Dennis. Those two friends have an incredible partnership that goes back decades. Their collaborative books take a lot of time, especially when you add Glenn’s Northwestern Michigan College faculty position and teaching to the mix of demands. Making room (over a few years!) for a different project like this was magnanimous, and another example of community.

FLOW: What’s the most surprising thing you learned in your research about the St. Clair River?

Heasley: Oh goodness, where to begin?  In the area of amazement: What it’s like to see a river system through Greg Lashbrook’s eyes and senses over his decades of diving.  That while spawning a male lake sturgeon ejaculates after four seconds. The evolutionary biology of zebra mussels. That rain barrels in Colorado backyards were recently an illegal taking of someone else’s usufruct right to Colorado River water.

But more problematically: The horrendous magnitude of Great Lakes “resource” extraction in the past 200 years. (Cumulatively far beyond what even I as an environmental historian already knew and taught). 

And for problem solving: The leadership and innovation of Great Lakes First Nations and Tribes in today’s Great Lakes conservation.

The most complex ecological and eco-cultural stories were engrossing to me personally. But I have a feeling many readers will be drawn to the chapters with diver/conservationists Greg and Kathy, and the magnificent lake sturgeon they collaborate with.

FLOW: You have a reputation as an environmental historian. Where does this book fit into that discipline? Did any environmental history books inspire this one?

Heasley: I am an environmental historian and geographer by training and sensibility. I can’t approach a place, an environmental problem, or eco-cultural relationships, without asking “why?” and “how?” I also love making sense of complexity (which is a compulsion historians, geographers, and scientists all share!). There are a couple of chapters and a few sections or passages that any historian would recognize as historical framing. For instance, my play on the words in science articles describing zebra mussel impacts. Or my chapters with Dan Macfarlane in Part III of the book.

That said, I would place the book differently: it’s a hybrid of creative nonfiction, natural history, nature writing, and environmental humanities. I want lake sturgeon, or the physical experiences of scuba diver Greg Lashbrook, to come to life. This means removing myself as some kind of central all-knowing authority explaining things, and instead centering them and their worlds. So in The Accidental Reef, I played with imagery, rhythm, build-up, emotionality, fragmentation, morality, along with historical narrative. The sections and chapters still build on each other, but the particular style of a chapter depends entirely on its own story.

My literary inspirations come from many directions. I’m an evangelist for Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks and Underland. A long time ago, I wrote an article with Jim Feldman arguing that we need a growing body of Great Lakes writings akin to the near-endless literature on the American West (or the endless references to Walden Pond). I think that’s happening. We now have formative books from Jerry Dennis, Peter Annin, Dan Eagan, and you, Dave. William Cronon, Nancy Langston, and Daniel Macfarlane’s environmental histories are amazing—e.g., Bill’s Nature’s Metropolis, Nancy’s Toxic Bodies; and Dan’s books on the St. Lawrence River, Niagara Falls, and the International Joint Commission. There’s also water-centric poetry, with its precision of language, and gut punches of truth—think Kwame Dawes, Mike Delp, Chris Dombrowski, Joy Harjo, Jim Harrison, Tracy K. Smith, Alison Swan, Keith Taylor. And finally, there’s the robust work of Indigenous scholars who are teaching us all to think and see differently—Eric Hemenway, David Treuer, Kyle Whyte, and, of course, Robin Wall Kimmerer. All have been inspirational, and I hope to make my own contribution to this literature with, The Accidental Reef.

FLOW: Are you more or less hopeful about the Great Lakes after finishing this book?

Heasley: Surprisingly, I am more hopeful. I still have moments of despair, and fury. Every time Michigan Radio airs its Enbridge sponsorship is a small wound. And yet, our former president did not manage to zero out the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which attests to some bipartisan commitment, even in this most polarized moment. There’s the emergence of incredibly dynamic, tenacious local organizations like Friends of the St. Clair River, Sturgeon For Tomorrow Black River, Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance. And regionally, empowering new collaborations among FLOW, Oil & Water Don’t Mix, Michigan Environmental Council, Clean Water Action, and others. But perhaps most powerful of all is the rise of environmental justice movements. Indigenous communities—Tribes and First Nations—have now fully assumed their centrality as scientific and legal innovators (knowledge generation), organizers (community and relationship building), and activists (direct action, restoration/reparations, healing). I intend to follow their leadership and alternative ways of knowing.

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