It's possible all the writing I've done over the years has been in some way a response, a pushing back against the isolation and loneliness I felt at sixteen, driving an endless loop between home and school and work, speeding through the rolling country 'burbs of southeastern Wisconsin. There, a farm. There, a subdivision. There, a snowy field. Lots of trees. Another farm. Another subdivision. Endless fields. Growing up in this landscape my edges were smoothed; I was shaped. For me, this landscape was so cold, isolating, lonely. Constantly, I seek warmth, body, connection; I seek community, conversation.
This lake believes it is the ocean. It speaks the same language—a tongue like wind, the only word an unceasing sibilance. Here on Wisconsin's Rock Island State Park, in Lake Michigan, a crowded cedar forest, bark the color of kiwi skin shredding in long strips, opens to white dolomite bluffs. Deflated party balloons, their once-bold foil colors now weather-muted, dot the cliff-bottom. Happy Birthday! Happy Anniversary! They say to some distant individual. Ring-billed gulls search for arthropods and fish, wings bent earthward at the wrists, like paper airplanes made by smart boys. The air smells cleanly of decay, unpleasant but essential, brackish—if this is possible—without the salt. A chair that seems to have made its own self—legs, seat, arms and back composed of the same angular white stones as the bluff—secures the shore, offering challenge rather than respite. Low whitecaps of varying lengths in multiple rows strike shore like strings of Morse code. It isn’t only the water that is unreadable; a few yards down, the beach is covered in a sheet of dried cladophora, algae woven by waves into one giant page, bleached by sun. The sky scours the land for some kind of text but all it gives is confirmation of the rules in a childhood game. Paper covers rock, it says.
The first time I camped along a Great Lakes shoreline was in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. From sandstone cliffs I stared down 200 feet at water the green of oxidized copper. Lake-bottom stones, their size diminished by distance, stared back at me through the deeply transparent water like coins in a shopping mall fountain. Water spilled through narrow nooks in the cliff-tops and fell in powerful, gradually widening streams directly into Lake Superior, as in the introduction to the 80’s TV show Fantasy Island. When I sent pictures and wrote about the trip to friends and family, I mistakenly called the place “Pictured Rocks National Seashore.” Where is this seashore? My friends asked. Oops—lakeshore, I retyped. I couldn’t help feeling like it was a downgrade. But more than that, I was surprised at the ease with which I, an east-coaster, had made the error.
What would it be like to meet this lake on its own terms, having traveled no more than to and from its own shores—oceans, at best, a distant mythos? I wish to be indigenous to every place I visit, to see it as earth entire. How nice it would be to shed the compulsion to compare one landscape to another, to analyze, evaluate. To simply hear what the land says. To no longer have to choose, or love or hate, to let down my guard and feel the power of the sea in this great lake.
Jill Sisson Quinn is the author of Deranged (Apprentice House, 2010) and Sign Here if You Exist (Mad Creek Books, 2020). Her work has appeared in Orion and Ecotone and has been reprinted in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2011 and Best American Essays 2016. She's received a John Burroughs Nature Essay Award and a Rona Jaffe Writers' award. She teaches at Mid-State Technical College in Stevens Point, WI.