Tuesday, May 11, 2021

The #Midwessay: Keith Taylor, "The Watery Borders of My Canadian Michigan"

We're back for round 2 of #Midwessay coverage starting back up this week, in which we re/visit essays and essayists from Midwestern states and those of us still in Midwestern states even if we live elsewhere. In our first round we published one week in each state, and now we're swinging back through to continue. Up this week is Michigan, coordinated by Ander Monson. Are you a Michigander? A Michiganian? Do you have thoughts or feelings about our fair water-bordered state and its literature? If an essay captures the workings of the mind, what is the mind of Michigan? Be in touch and send us something.


The Watery Borders of My Canadian Michigan

 Keith Taylor


Sometimes I think that I write about Michigan just so I can figure out how or why I ended up living here for most of a lifetime. Perhaps that’s why many of us write essays about the Midwest: we have to explain to ourselves why we have found this often scorned place such an easy place to live in. Even how we’ve learned to love it. I’ve lived in Michigan for almost 50 years, and the state has been good to me. I have had interesting work; I’ve found places to publish me; I raised a child here.

But I am a Canadian citizen. I have never voted here. When people ask me why I’ve stayed, I say that I married a woman from Detroit who thinks life would be too frivolous if we lived more than a hundred miles from a car factory. There’s some truth in that, although in times of political tension—these times—I admit to a sense of relief that I could escape and Canada couldn’t keep me out. Everyone but my wife wants to move to Canada, right? She considers the move north only in the worst of times—these times—but thinks we would be cowards if we ran. I’m more comfortable with that kind of cowardice.

I am held by this place, the history, human and natural, of it. My wife’s family history in Detroit has kept us involved in the city, and I have come to admire it, respect it, even love it. It is a tough city, one that has had its moments of devastation. If someone could do a survey of the essays written about Detroit, most of them could probably be classified as “ruin porn,” not something I’m particularly interested in writing. I’m interested in the way the city survives, and in its position up against the power of the Detroit River, that fast flowing boundary place. 

On the other hand, I first felt at home in Michigan when I spent time in an old hippie cabin on ten acres surrounded by the Manistee National Forest, a scrubby second- or third-growth forest planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. It is not a dramatic landscape, nothing like the mountains and oceans and deserts that people usually write essays about. It was almost destroyed by resource extraction, fur then lumber. All of that accompanied by a brutal displacement of the native populations. Industrial pollution has affected every acre of Michigan’s forests. Yet despite all of this, I felt at home there, surrounded by those un-dramatic trees.

Five hours north of post-industrial Detroit, three north of the hippie cabin in the forest where I felt so comfortable, after crossing a couple of significant bridges, I can arrive in northern Ontario. Only an hour north of Sault Ste. Marie, I can get a sense of the northern forest of Canada, one of the last great wild stretches on Earth. All I need to do to get there is drive along the edges of the greatest system of fresh water the planet has ever produced, and then cross one of the major rivers connecting those Lakes.

Water. That’s what this place is to me. That’s what I discover when I make the attempt, the essay, to write about it. It’s not the same Midwest I felt in Indiana or would feel in Iowa. Maybe even not in some of those Midwestern states that border on the Great Lakes. The borders of my Midwest, this Michigan Midwest, are liquid, porous, portals to another place where I also belong.

Keith Taylor's most recent publication is a chapbook, Let Them Be Left, about Isle Royale, an island in Lake Superior that should belong to Canada but, because of shenanigans by Ben Franklin, doesn't. He's OK with that. 

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

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