1. Kirtland’s Warbler: small songbird that nests in young jack pine forests in northern Michigan, Wisconsin and Ontario, Canada. Requires large stands of young, dense jack pine forest and yet has one of the most geographically restricted breeding distributions of any bird in the continental United States. Now recovered.
Believe it or not, a recent dinner conversation in our household has been, not endangered species, but the Midwessay (thanks for that portmanteau). My husband David hails from Missouri, a state that fits the Midwest geographically but borders the South to such a degree that it might as well be called southern. I am born and bred Michigan with all that means about living in a state so far north you need a passport to go further. I had asked David to name a classic Midwest author, and he said, Mark Twain. At my raised eyebrow—I think of Twain as specifically Twain, a rare bird—David says, Twain’s work runs right through the heartland and his humor is pure Midwest. Hmmm. Twain’s humor flutters in a low-growing jack pine behind what I’m really thinking: maybe, with all those writers who, like Twain, stand as singular and individualistic throughout the flyover states, it’s too wide an area for definitions. And if that is the case, what of that potential subgenre, the restricted distribution of the Great Lakes essay. What of its breeding space?
2. The Cisco: of the eight species of Cisco fish, three are extinct (Longjaw, Blackfin, Deepwater) in the Great Lakes due to pressures from overfishing and invasive species.
So, I ask him, among the many species of writers, what are the literary markers Midwest writers might share. They roll off his tongue so easily I know he believes them even if he turns out to be dead wrong. He says, the road, pastoral nature, small town rurality, and plain talk. And indeed, that ancestral DNA seems spliced into much of the Midwestern novel. I long to embrace these older criteria, keep hold of that Midwest romanticism spawned by iconic fiction writers now gone: Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather and so many others. But I doubt his list applies to Midwest nonfictionists—then or ever. Even plain talk seems less likely in this age when language is both homogenized and bastardized. And when I consider the Great Lakes essay, and the breadth of writers practicing it, that list becomes more endangered.
When David turns my question around, my writers are: Aldo Leopold and Sigurd Olson. And my literary DNA? Damaged landscape, ruined wilderness, water degradations, human self-deception, and grief. Though my essays nod toward his old school list in motif—I still celebrate light on the fields, crests of snow on frozen lakes—my underlying concerns have shifted their genetic code toward the so-called “nature writers.” Because of them, some days, I swim in sorrow, in darker waters. I miss the comfort of those other fictions, remembering how Cather’s settings seemed to mirror what once existed outside my farmhouse window. Now, not so much.
3. Piping Plover: coastal beaches traditionally used for nesting have been lost to commercial, residential, and recreational developments. Humans and climate change raise and lower the water levels of many lakes and rivers. Too much water floods the plovers' nests. Too little water allows vegetation to grow, making these sites unsuitable for nesting. Near extinction.
I am of that old school Midwest: farm and fields and dark humor, of that people who tend toward the self-effacing—not out of true humility but because we just don’t easily reveal ourselves—too afraid the big light will confirm our faults. At the same moment, I’m of the present-day cacophony of Great Lakes writers expressing land grief, water mourning, and the spotted-egg emotions of eco-loss. In my farm memoirs and regional essays, my content rarely strays far from the deeply personal experience of place. But that place has changed dramatically. My writing twenty years ago was marked by Cather’s light and Harrison’s hunting grounds; now it’s crowded with shoreline riprap, phragmites, the complexities of climate change and justice culture. And now my readings lean into urban immersion, including Anna Clark and Mona Hanna-Atisha. And also, often, the melancholy of grief for those creatures we will never see again. Of the Great Lakes species I list here, the only one I’ve had the honor to actually see is the plover. Bobbing on an isolated shoreline, stocky and quick. I think I felt its hunger, its fragility.
4. Copper Belly Water Snake: inhabits shallow wetlands along the edges of larger wetlands where they can hunt for frogs, but they also require multiple wetland types as well as adjacent uplands. Threatened.
I tried to address these complexities in ELEMENTAL: A Collection of Michigan Nonfiction, an anthology I edited of essays by Michiganders (WSUP). I wrote about dualities of place: industrial-rural, urban-agricultural, interior-coastal, wilderness-ruin—all influence our identity, perception, social consciousness, even prejudices. Couple that with interstitials we do not see from an airplane window: interconnected economies, cultures and sub-cultures…. And what of diverse communities, from ancient Anishinaabe who followed rivers through the peninsula to nineteenth century Dutch settlers in the flatlands of Zeeland, from Finnish miners of Iron Mountain to black Americans of the southern diaspora, from Hmong to Arabic immigrants—each story different. I suspect the essay thrives in multiplicity, and in a resulting tension. But I wonder, does nothing unify us? Because our world is broken, is brokenness our only unity? I wade into metaphorical wetlands, searching for a multi-colored beauty that will thread us together, will blur the boundaries of dualities enough to find common ground—in living and in words.
5. Canada Lynx: A beautiful species more common in Canada, though still threatened, where its population follows the cyclic populations of the hare. In Michigan, due to habitat and food source loss, very rare.
Definition, if possible, may be a matter of focus. The Great Lakes essay is often tied to water, not prairie, or not often. More like a Venn diagram, our circle and rough boundary being the Niagara escarpment that shapes us, that cradle of geologic wonder. My imagination rises from the five big waters it contains and a peninsular consciousness, shaping both identity and sentences. The models leading me: Janet Kaufman, Jerry Dennis, Stephanie Mills, Kathleen Stocking, Toi Derricotte, Mike Delp, and of course Jim Harrison—and this doesn’t even mention the journalists—many who have taken on these issues for decades. (Of course, the poets and fiction writers are right there on this issue as well, too numerous to name here.) Species loss, destruction of place and culture punctuates our writing across the genres. I go on, my tufted ears hunting for a rabbit to follow—is our common ground really that lost world, that elegized romanticism David associated with the Midwest? What we don’t have instead of what we share?
6. Dwarf Lake Iris: grows only around the Great Lakes, occurs near the northern shores of Lakes Huron, Michigan, Ontario shorelines in cool, moist lakeshore air, on sand or in thin soil over limestone-rich gravel or bedrock. Often found along old beach ridges or behind open dunes, threatened due to habitat loss.
If you look from great heights at the northern hemisphere of the Americas, our lakes are uncultured pearls in the center, a shining of such beauty, they inspire jewelry. A dreamy flyover vision set against reality: Flint water crisis, Pipeline 5, Nestle’s drilling, PFAS, ground water contamination, invasive species, economic disparity, industrial ruin, and plain exploitation. Can I still find a small, ragged, fragmented, purple beauty if I’m willing to look hard? Even if we are surrounded by tainted water leaching through lead-lined pipes, how do we claim resistance just there, behind the shifting dunes? Maybe by claiming the last stands of beauty?
7. Clubshell mussel: prefers clean, loose sand and gravel in medium to small rivers and streams, will bury itself in the bottom substrate to depths of up to four inches. Endangered.
Maybe we are only now exploring Great Lakes nonfiction as a category, thus any definition will be susceptible to criticism. I’ll claim only for me: my consciousness is born of and buried in this peninsular place, in the farmland mostly, but I see writers stepping forth from Iron Mountain to Detroit’s Eastern Market. I suspect we will find our new writers “groundbreaking” in that they will enter those complex dualities fearlessly and will use the essay as resistance—I hope so. I want that. I can’t speak for others, but as I practice it today, my essays dig deeper into a multiplex of grief, my writing opens toward the liturgical even as it becomes more political. My optimism is a shell that opens and closes only in the right conditions. I surface when I rediscover beauty.
8. Hungerford’s Water Beetle: small (less than ¼ inch) yellowish brown water beetles with irregular dark markings and stripes, a crawling water beetle found in only five isolated locations in Michigan and Ontario. The disjunct distribution of this species suggests that it is a relic from glacial periods when cool, fast moving streams prevailed. Endangered.
I often feel kinship with our Canadian literary cousins—because survival, or the more popular word, resilience, has long been a part of their literature. Perhaps it spills on us somewhere below the beaver dams where the water is still full of nutrients. The novelist Jack Driscoll once said we are all about a desire to simply survive—and that makes for grief, someone is always leaving this fast-moving stream. Short story writer John Mauk claims we build longing into our characters because it is core to being human. Survival and longing runs all through the river of being and to some degree the literature of that being, right down to the tiniest insects, what we have to go on without, for as long as we can bear. As far as I know, I’ve never seen a Hungerford’s water beetle, but the idea that it exists creates a real need to say its name, to place it in an essay so someone else will also say its name, and make a claim—I have seen this one, it survives, and that person will maybe write its name. And so on, naming as gesture toward survival.
Same with beauty?
9. Poweshiek Skipperling: small butterflies most often found in remnants of native prairie in Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin and in fens in Michigan. Endangered.
Here’s what I’d like the Midwest and the Great Lakes essay to shift toward—not to define or place boundaries, but individually as we can. Take eco-grief to heart and write our place, this place, in that context. Write water mourning and land truth, the injustices in personal narrative. Couple the loss of a tiny tall grass butterfly with the need for healthy soils, clean public water in every city and town. Call out our own environmental sadness and place it squarely in front of those in denial. Make that part of definition. Yes, search out the tiny yellow butterfly of breathtaking beauty, even if it somehow survives only in the alkaline lowland acres behind subdivisions, but don’t look away from the fact it no longer has its proper home. Perhaps we don’t either.
10. Hart’s Tongue Fern: requires discrete habitat within a very few shaded, moist, intensely green northern deciduous forests, grows within small cracks in large rocks, fissures within the Niagara escarpment on shaded, moist boulders and ledges. Threatened and endangered, depending on where you are.
Maybe, if I can pun sentimental, we essayists should use our heart’s tongues, giving voice, as the poets say, from the fissures, the forest depths, the lost places. My metaphors turn and blur in this new writing, and I realize they are trying to identify more with flora and fauna—almost as if I had no say. Perhaps I don’t. I am pulled by longing. That may be the newer form of identity that is attempting to rise from the waters. Maybe I/we need to howl so loudly, our voices shatter the planes flying overhead.
David and I are back at the dinner table, heads leaning over our garden-grown vegetables, masks cast aside for the moment. He looks up, asks softly, “Do you think people will read in a hundred years?”
Only if we write the truth. Only if the Midwest is still here. Only if a tiny evergreen fern can root again among the rocks. Only if we can walk among the grasses and call their names as though they were family.
Anne-Marie Oomen edited ELEMENTAL: A Collection of Michigan Nonfiction (Michigan Notable book), is author of The Lake Michigan Mermaid (co-authored with Linda Nemec Foster), Pulling Down the Barn, House of Fields (all Michigan Notable Books), American Map: Essays, Uncoded Woman (poetry), and Love, Sex and 4-H (Next Generation Indie Award for Memoir). She has written seven plays, including the award-winning Secrets of Luuce Talk Tavern. She is nonfiction instructor at Solstice MFA at Pine Manor College (MA) and Interlochen College of Creative Arts. Visit her at www.anne-marieoomen.com.