Tuesday, February 2, 2021

The #Midwessay: Alison Swan, From the Inner Coast

 What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. 

The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond.  These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors

As I write, good people are being robbed. Good people are being robbed of things that, for millennia, were abundant and free. The thieves—who as they thieve, break the law and break faith with their neighbors, over and over—move among us without shame. They deride the Golden Rule. They are neither taken to account nor held to account. Or they are taken to account by fellow citizens and then exonerated by those with the power to enforce good behavior.

These thieves are more often than not well off and well dressed. Quite often they are well respected. They sit, walk, or ride right next to us (when they are not riding over us) at work, at leisure, and at worship. Quite often, we allow ourselves to be led by them. Indeed quite often we envy them; our children emulate them. We learn more about them than we ever needed to know and too little about them that we need to know. They are extractor-exploiters and the über-consumers who underwrite them. Together, they thieve water, thieve land, and indeed thieve the very air we breathe. Among the upper Great Lakes, the place on earth this writer knows best, these thieves are legion.

Some of you will say, now, Aha! I thought that was where you were going with that line of thought. You, some of you are thinking of this writer, are a communist, or a socialist, and I want nothing whatsoever to do with your negative, anti-American ideas. I have my rights! I am free! This is the greatest country in the world! And anyway, how dare you question the American Way. It is a good way and anyone who wants to follow it can. Those who choose to be lazy—well, they are not my concern—which betrays your self-centeredness, I feel compelled to point out.

Some others of you are thinking, Sigh, yes, but these thieves have always been among us and will always be among us. There is nothing I can do. And this is the weird brand of self-centeredness to which Yours Truly is more prone. The question is, among whom have they always been? And don’t some of those whoms share some responsibility for having tolerated the thieves if not necessarily their thieving? And yet. (See above.)

The great conservationist (and Midwesterner) Aldo Leopold, who seems to have learned from the land what Native cultures already know, wrote, seventy-some years ago: when enough have seen and fondled there is no wilderness left to cherish. I love the dunes, I say, have said for all of my adult life. I cherish them and I have surely fondled them obsessively, if only with footfall and gaze, inhalation and listening, and writing, always writing; yet, in 2021 I do next to nothing that could be construed as loving them, except for stay away. Perhaps, by doing so, I defend the dunes’ right to exist. And yet.

The rightly celebrated regreening of the American Northeast (Heck yes I would like to be from a place like Vermont but I was made, mostly, in Michigan) has been facilitated at least in part by the ongoing clear cutting and tree farming of Michigan (and of the American Southeast and the Pacific Northwest, as a matter of fact; two other regions that made me). Just the other month I bore daily witness as acres of second-growth woods were chewed up then burned, in great apocalyptic bonfires, so that a gargantuan cornfield could be expanded. Let me emphasize: the trees were stolen from the land but they were not even used.

As well, the brand-new monuments to greed displacing Michigan’s forests, fields, and shores steal my breath, boards laid one by one, then rocks (Boards and rocks from where? Laid by whom? Isn’t it time to get to the bottom of this rapacious rearrangement of the land that drains to five freshwater seas?). Unless I can continue to find ways to transmute grief into words, by the time my not-a-witch-ness is clear, I will have been compressed to no-breath.

To decide to continue loving Michigan is to decide to continue breathing through colossal grief, to continue writing missives from underneath the rubble, as planes fly the well-heeled back and forth overhead day and night. There is no other way to stay home and stay alive.


Alison Swan’s new collection of poems A Fine Canopy is her fifth book. Her poems and environmental writing have appeared in many publications, including the recent award-winning anthologies Elemental, Ghost Fishing, and Here. In 2006, Alison's first book Fresh Water: Women Writing on the Great Lakes (nonfiction prose) was named a Michigan Notable Book. Co-author of The Saugatuck Dunes: Artists Respond to a Freshwater Landscape and co-founder of Concerned Citizens for Saugatuck Dunes State Park, she has been awarded a Mesa Refuge Residency and the Michigan Environmental Council’s Petoskey Prize for Grassroots Environmental Leadership. After stints on the east and west coasts of North America, Alison Swan settled back in Michigan’s lower peninsula where she teaches environmental writing at Western Michigan University. 

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