Review by Deborah K. Frontiera
In her new book Impermance: Life and Loss on Superior’s South Shore, Sue Leaf details the constant change in Lake Superior’s south shore through memoir-like phases of her own life and relationship with the lake in an artistic way with vivid descriptions. Both people’s lives and the geology of the shoreline are ever-changing, impermanent, as the title of her book states. In her introduction, she lays out the differences between the geology of Lake Superior’s north shore where she grew up and the south shore near the Apostle Islands in northern Wisconsin where she and her husband spent their summers. But she also visited many other south shore areas throughout Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, from Ontonagon, to the Keweenaw, to Sault Ste. Marie. On page 29, she writes:
“As beleaguered parents who just wanted a little sleep, our beach vacations offered us a respite from demanding schedules. … We languidly supervised from our low-slung sand chairs, gazing out over Superior’s horizon and wondering if all the blueness was a decent representation of eternity, appreciating how the long view soothed us.”
Then she muses over history through thoughts of a lightkeeper’s isolation, the droughts of the 1980s, evidence of erosion of the cliff on their property, and the effects on the shore of global warming.
“With this cabin, we were embarking on a new way of experiencing the world, and the past was blurred, a distant shoreline whose features made indeterminate by the lake becoming something new …” (pg. 34)
I could relate, since my husband and I also have a cottage—although on a smaller lake—but from which we can watch the shore, the sunsets, the geese and their annual set of goslings.
The fourth essay, “Red Clay Cliff and Sandy Beach”, is a key place in expressing the theme of her work. With scientific details, Leaf outlines all the geological processes at work in the constant erosion of Lake Superior’s south shore. Examples across northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula demonstrate the impermanence of the shoreline, and how individuals and the two states are trying to cope with speeded-up shoreline loss. These efforts have been expensive, extensive, and not “permanently” successful. Again, I could relate to the years of heavy construction to move US 41 between Lower Portage Entry and Baraga several hundred feet farther inland to keep well away from the eroding cliff along that portion of the east side of Keweenaw Bay.
The human factor is very present. Changes to the Ste. Marie’s River over history, the “linchpin” of the lake with its locks and increased shipping. The effects of copper and iron mining, clearcut lumbering, and other use and misuse of the whole area’s resources. From pages 84 and 85:
“We cut the pines until they were gone; we drained the marshes until they were gone; we shot passenger pigeons until they were gone. When faced with a bountiful continent brimming with resources, Americans have been unable to exercise moderation. … So undeservedly blessed with abundance, we gobble it up with no eye to the future. We buoyantly see the beginning, we imagine the middle, we turn a blind eye to the end.”
In balance, there are examples of restoration of some of these same areas and the work of people to preserve and protect wilderness spaces. Part III of the book lists specifics: Black Creek Nature Sanctuary, the efforts to restore breeding areas of the piping plovers on Long Island in Chequamegon Bay, Wisconsin, and protection of wild rice beds by state and national governments and Native Americans. I particularly enjoyed learning about the migration of Native Americans from eastern forests to the Apostle Islands and the sacredness of wild rice. People do care these days and there are many more efforts to preserve what we have. This does not leave out the difficulty of balancing private land with public use, which she discusses in conjunction with the establishment of the Apostle Islands National Lake Shore. The question comes up—what exactly does “wilderness” mean?
There is so much more than can be discussed in this review of Impermanence: Life and Loss on Superior’s South Shore. But I am confident that all readers will learn something they did not know before. Even those who have read, or written, much about Lake Superior and its geology and ecology will find something new, or at least a different perspective.
Impermanence: Life and Loss on Superior’s South Shore
By Sue Leaf
University of Minnesota Press,
release date, January 9, 2024, paperback $19.95