By Doug Stanton
Its strange having your own oil spill.
What we have, of course, is a blip compared to the one in the Gulf of
Mexico, which this week formally broke all records for offshore
spills. But after watching the gulf catastrophe unfold from afar, the
news that oil was gushing from a pipeline just three hours south of
here into a small creek that flows into the Kalamazoo River and,
potentially, into Lake Michigan, came as a surprise.
Until last week, I wasnt aware that a pipeline even existed, though I
must have driven over or past it hundreds of times. The leak is now
under control, but a good storm could still blow some of the estimated
one million gallons of spilled oil into the lake, and maybe even north
along its sandy coast, past numerous resort towns and into the Grand
Traverse Bay, to a place called Clinch Park, where Ive been swimming
most mornings from June to October since I was kid.
Its hard enough to try to capture oil floating in an ocean. But oil
moving downstream in a swift river? Forget about it. As the
pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus said, you cant step into the same
But despite the danger to the lake, many people here, busy enjoying
their summer vacations, havent paid much attention to the spill.
After all, Lake Michigan has lived through worse. It may be near the
center of the continent, but its not immune to the outside world, as
weve learned over and over.
First there were the invasive Asian carp, swimming around the Chicago
River a mere six miles from the mouth of the lake. These voracious
eaters get excited by the sound of boat motors and can leap by the
hundreds into the air all at once, in some hellish version of a water
ballet. An oil spill seems almost benign in comparison.
Weve also had to contend with an invasion of gobies - small, bug-eyed
fish youre supposed to kill if you catch. They disrupt the food chain
that normally supports native lake trout, perch and bass. They entered
the lake in the ballast water of international shipping traffic, along
with zebra mussels, which filter micro-organisms - also food for
native fish - out of the water.
As a result of the zebra mussel infestation, the lake, several summers
ago, was often as clear as a Bahamian bay. When I swam, I could see 50
feet in any direction. This extra sunlight fed more algae at deeper
depths, which created algal blooms that floated up on the beach in
smelly heaps. Now that the mussels have died off, the lake has
returned to something like normal.
So for now, I swim. Winters are so long in northern Michigan, nearly
nine months of gray skies and deep snow, that summer comes as a fresh
burst. Amnesia sets inyou forget that winter will ever return.
Friends from other parts of the country descend. The days ripen
perfectly, the air no warmer or colder than your skin so that the
edges of your body seem to extend beyond you, up and down the
Traverse City sits halfway between the North Pole and the Equator, and
our summer days are long. The light seems to take forever to vanish
from the sky and, when it does, it goes out like someone folding a
white sheet in the dark. A flare on the horizon. Then a rustle:
I swim in the midst of bad news to stay sane. I crawl over the sand
bottom in six feet of water, which is cold and green, and nothing has
changed in my life - Im a kid again. No zebra mussels, no carp, no
oil spill headed my way. No politicians, no bloggers. Every day I step
refreshed and clean from the water, and go up to the bookstore,
Horizons, and order a coffee and stand on the street in flip-flops in
the chill air, feeling the hot cup in my hand, the fine texture of its
paper, feeling as if Ive just come awake from a dream.
And what I carry around in my head is this, the image of the water, of
looking around 20 feet in any direction, and beyond my periphery the
lake darkening to the color of light in a storm. Sometimes I see fish
slicing around my field of vision - silver missiles headed to deeper
The work day is about to begin; traffic pours past on the four-lane
parkway. I wonder what the people driving by think of me, when Im
swimming out there along the buoys; and in a time when there is too
much news to think about, I hope they think nothing at all.
When the oil spill in Michigan began, I heard about a memorial service
for Paul Miller, a 22-year-old Marine corporal from the nearby village
of Lake Ann, who was killed on July 19 in Afghanistan. Later in the
week, I stood in the funeral home, not far from the beach where I
swim, and stared at Corporal Millers flag-draped coffin.
I thought this: that the worlds troubles can be nearer to us than we
think, flowing in our direction, flowing toward home.
And while its true that we used to live in Lake Ann, and our son may
have played summer baseball with Corporal Miller years earlier, I
dont remember meeting him. Maybe I passed him on the street, a tyke
headed over to the ice cream shop with his parents, where we were
standing in line, too, with our children, all of us oblivious to the
news to come, the depth and coldness of the water ahead.
This was reprinted with permission from the New York Times, which
published the essay last week. Doug Stanton is founder of the
National Writers Series, a year-round book festival, and author of
Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers
Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan and In Harms Way: The Sinking
of the USS Indianapolis.