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Living the Great Lakes by Jerry Dennis

Robert Downes - August 24th, 2009
The One to Read this Summer
The Living Great Lakes by Jerry Dennis
By Robert Downes 8/24/09

Informative, wise, funny -- and an adventure story to boot -- The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas by Jerry Dennis is a page-turner that reads like a novel while informing you on par with a college education on the history, geology and biology of our region’s greatest resource.
Published in 2003 to widespread acclaim, The Living Great Lakes is this summer’s selection by TC Reads, a community book club sponsored by the Friends of the Traverse Area District Library that takes a crack at a different title each year from April-October, followed by a public event with the author.
The book delves Michener-style into the natural history of the Great Lakes, taking you back 600 million years or so to a time when Northern Michigan lay beneath a saltwater sea, filled with critters whose exoskeletons would someday become our Petoskey stones.
But before you can grow bored with the Paleozic Era, Dennis skips to the recent past and his adventures getting seasick on his first tack with the Chicago-Mackinac Race; or the fun of crewing on the Malabar on its cruise along the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Every page reveals something new to hold your interest -- everything from the Mormons and their ‘kingdom’ on Beaver Island to funny stuff about the crusty characters who pilot boats on the Great Lakes for a living. He also has a magician’s skill at capturing scenery in an engaging way -- one of the most difficult tasks facing any author. Too often, nature writing runs aground on the shoals of inertia, but Dennis ‘floats your boat’ with uplifting metaphors and insights.
A resident of Old Mission Peninsula with his wife Gail, Dennis has been writing about nature, the environment, and life on the water since 1986 for publications ranging from Canoe magazine to The New York Times, Smithsonian, Audubon, Orion, Field and Stream, Wildlife Conservation, and National Geographic Traveler.
He is also the author of Canoeing Michigan Rivers, It’s Raining Frogs and Fishes, A Place on the Water, The Bird in the Waterfall, The River Home, and From a Wooden Canoe, many of which were illustrated by his friend, artist Glenn Wolff. Last year, the two collaborated on a special limited edition book of just 125 copies entitled Winter Walks, which was printed using archaic linotype and engraving technologies which haven’t been used in decades.
Dennis’s career has been showered with honors: among others, he was named “Michigan Author of the Year” in 1999 by the Michigan Library Association, and The Living Great Lakes was named the “Best Book of 2003” by the Outdoor Writers Association of America.
Here’s what’s new with author Jerry Dennis:

NE: What are you presently working on?
Dennis: I’ve been sequestered for a couple of years, working on what turns out to be three books. I’m about three-quarters finished with one, halfway with another, and have a good start on the third. Plus I’m working with a team of talented filmmakers from Ann Arbor, Chicago, and Boston to adapt The Living Great Lakes into a PBS series.
Damn! No wonder I’m dragging butt.

NE: When will your new books be published?
Dennis: The plan is for the books to come out in 2010, 2011, and 2012. The television series should air in autumn 2011.

NE: What inspired you to write your new books?
Dennis: A magically prolific winter three years ago when I shut off my phone and computer, closed the drapes, and wrote every day for three months about
subjects that had been on my mind for years — things like time and transience, abundance and diversity, fugues, storms, caged birds, solitude, wind. I had in mind the ancient Japanese prose genre called zuihitsu, or “follow the brush.” I followed a felt-tip pen down the page for three months and in the spring discovered a stack of manuscript pages half a foot high on my desk. I’ve been pulling stuff out of it ever since.

NE: Your book, The Living Great Lakes, has been chosen as this year’s TC Reads selection. Can you tell us a bit about why you wrote that book and what kind of effort went into writing it?
Dennis: I’m deeply honored that the book was chosen for TC Reads, and especially pleased because the journey from Traverse City to the Atlantic on the schooner Malabar is so central to the story. I wrote the book because I felt the lakes have never gotten the attention they deserve and I wanted to awaken people around the world to their significance. And also because I’m in love with the place. The book took five years to write, most of it full-time. Life’s too short to put that kind of effort into something you’re not passionate about.
NE: Was it hard sustaining yourself during the years you were researching and writing the book? How did you get by?
Dennis: No harder than usual. You get creative. The advance from my publisher covered the first couple years, and my wife, Gail, who was freelancing as a graphic artist at the time, picked up a lot of the slack. After that, it was just a matter of robbing Peter to pay Paul -- getting paid to do other books, for instance, including two I collaborated on with immensely talented friends: artist Glenn Wolff on a book of essays titled From a Wooden Canoe; and photographer Ken Scott on the coffee-table book Leelanau: A Portrait of Place in Photographs and Text.

NE: You seem to have had considerable success in the field of outdoor journalism. Do you have any advice for budding writers?
Dennis: There’s no mystery to it: read constantly, write constantly. Read everything you can get your hands on and analyze what works and what doesn’t work. And write every day. Write until your fingers bleed. After a few years you’ll start knowing the difference between the good stuff and the bullshit. At that point, if you don’t feel joy while doing the work, you probably should look for something else to do.

NE: Are you optimistic about the future of the Great Lakes, or do you have concerns over their protection?
Dennis: There are lots of reasons to be optimistic — and probably just as many to be worried. I’m more optimistic now that at any time I can remember, but I’m concerned, as always, that people will quit caring. That’s why I take so seriously the task of balancing pessimism and optimism in my books and now in the PBS project.
You want readers and viewers to take notice of what’s going on and to come to a deeper appreciation of the place and even fall in love with it enough to get involved in protecting and restoring it. But I can’t believe it will happen on a large scale if people are continually slammed with the message that they’re to blame or at fault for the mess we’re in. Shame is rarely a productive emotion.
I’m careful never to send the message that things are hopeless. There is hope. Nature is incredibly resilient. And most people are well-intentioned. Nobody wants to foul the planet, after all. We’re just shortsighted and greedy and apparently willing to go on making the same mistakes over and and over. But we can rally. And we’re good in a crisis.

NE: So much of your work has involved writing about life on the water. Why the fascination?
Dennis: There’s only one explanation. I grew up on Long and Silver lakes, south of Traverse City, and spent my formative years hiking the Lake Michigan shore, fishing and canoeing the Boardman, Platte, and Manistee Rivers, and tramping around every lake, pond, puddle, and creek I could find.
Michigan’s rivers and lakes exerted such an irresistible pull on me that I dropped out of college twice. I finally had to drag myself away to Kentucky, where all the lakes and rivers are brown and infested with cottonmouths, before I could focus long enough to get a degree. Now Gail and I could live just about anywhere in the world, but we choose to stay here. We seem to have no choice but to regard the waters here as essential nourishment.

NE: Do you ever get tired of writing about the Great Lakes? Have you said everything there is to say?
Dennis: Haven’t gotten tired of it yet. The book that is most nearly finished is about the lakes, and I’m finding plenty to say in it.

NE: Any future projects in mind?
Dennis: Dozens, hundreds. I’m banking on somebody coming up with a cure for mortality.

NE: What’s your favorite place on the Great Lakes?
Dennis: Among my favorites are Point Betsie, Good Harbor Bay, the Keweenaw Peninsula, and several remote places on the north shore of Superior and in the North Channel of Georgian Bay. But my hands-down favorite? The place at the top of my most cherished list? Where I go when the world’s got me down? Where I want my ashes spread?
Sorry. Not even with red-hot needles under my fingernails...

Jerry Dennis will be honored by TC Reads with a reception and reading at the Traverse City Opera House on Oct. 22 and another public event to be announced.

  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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