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Saturday, September 24, 2016

Would You Believe Saskatchewan?



Not in the picture above, no. That’s Northport on Saturday, with the fourth annual Leelanau UnCaged street festival blessed with perfect weather. Early on Saturday as booths and displays and stages for bands were being assembled, the town had the happy atmosphere of of a county fair but dedicated to arts and music rather than livestock and home canning. So my photographs in today’s post have nothing to do with what follows and everything to do with Northport on Saturday morning. These are the photos I have – what else can I say?




We did not take to the road for a third September road trip and would have been very unlikely [no one caught this typo earlier?!] to go as far as the western Great Plains if we had. Michigan was our vacation ground this year, in the two short forays we made away from home. So what’s with Saskatchewan?

Well, you know I am an avid armchair traveler, so you might guess a book was my passport to Canada, and you’d be right. Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow, part-memoir, part-history, with a couple chapters of gripping fiction thrown in, kept me spellbound in the wee, sleepless hours of darkness and into the morning light. One of the big problems with this book – well, the first, often-noted problem is classifying it and deciding where to shelve it in a library or bookstore, but the second problem, the one that stumps me now, as I try to decide what to say about it and how to choose a few representative quotes, is that just about every sentence and every paragraph of the book begs to be quoted. What a magnificent writer! So maybe I should just open at random and see what I find.

Here, page 28 –
In general, the assumption of all of us, child or adult, was that this was a new country and that a new country had no history. History was something that applied to other places. It would not have seemed reasonable to any of the town’s founders to consider any of their activities history, or to look back very far in search of what had preceded them. Time reached back only a few years, to the pre-homestead period of the big cattle ranches.
What an innocent, thoughtless time, when people were not focused on their own importance! Not like the present day, with its constant personal documenting of every minute! But in retrospect Stegner found the innocence of his childhood years irritating.
The very richness of that past as I discover it now makes me irritable to have been cheated of it then. I wish I could have known it early, that it could have come to me with the smell of life about it instead of the smell of books....
I’m sure Stegner loves “the smell of books.” What he wishes was that he could have known the colorful local past of that ground he walked as a child at the same time he was discovering the world for the first time. And he does not regret everything about his boyhood innocence.
I have sat many times all alone just inside the edge of one of the aspen coulees that tongued down from the North Bench, and heard the soft puffs of summer wind rattle the leaves, and felt how sun and shadow scattered and returned like disturbed sage-hen chicks; and in some way of ignorance and innocence and pure perception I have bent my entire consciousness upon white anemones among the white aspen boles. They were rare and beautiful to me, and they grew only there in the dapple of the woods—flowers whose name I did not know and could not possibly have found out and would not have asked, because I thought that only I knew about them and I wanted no one else to know.

We the readers have all the luck. We have at one and the same time what Stegner wishes he had had together. We have his childhood memories, the sights and sounds and smells of the frontier, descriptions of boyhood scenes and pasttimes, along with a succession of earlier ways of life and waves of inhabitants to the region that the author only collected long afterward, as an adult. Surveying the scope of Saskatchewan’s border history and situating within it the little town he knew, Stegner comes to certain conclusions. He would never want to return to that boyhood home but values having grown up there and sees in the pioneer dream, a few years of success, and the dream’s ultimate disappointment not only his family’s story but a larger arc of North American cultural history.
One who has lived the dream, the temporary fulfillment, and the disappointment has had the full course. He may lack a thousand things that the rest of the world takes for granted, and because his experience is belated he may feel like an anachronism all his life. But he will know one thing about what it means to be an American, because he has known the raw continent, and not as tourist but as denizen. Some of the beauty, the innocence, and the callousness must stick to him, and some of the regret.
I am stopping my quote halfway through a paragraph, imposing restraint on my impulse. Are you interested in small town life? In the history of the North American continent? In the pioneer experience? In writing of the highest caliber? If so, you cannot do better than to read Wolf Willow, by Wallace Stegner. The lines of this book will haunt you even as you read them for the first time.



Thursday, September 22, 2016

In Which We Explore the Other Side


Sign encountered in our travels to the Other Side

Other Side, yes, but not at all the Dark Side. Hardly that! Our annual U.P. getaway, lovely as it was in so many ways, had been just too short after a summer of retail captivity, and while I was hungry for more time out in the world, David had been thinking about the area where his grandfather had farmed and where his grandparents are buried. We had not made an expedition over to the Michigan’s Lake Huron shore, the “Sunrise Side,” for about fifteen years, and it’s not much over 200 miles from Traverse City, easily close enough to make the trip with a single overnight.

And so we started out on a Monday morning.

When we drive up to the U.P., we take either 31 or 131, so neither of us had been east of Kalkaska for a long time. On the west edge of Luzerne, stopping to let Sarah have a run and do a little exploring of her own, I found the first discovery of the day’s explorations, a mysterious and fragrant green plant co-existing with patches of wild blueberries and lichen. This is what sweet fern looks like. Its fragrance, however, is the real excitement, and I was holding and smelling it for the first time in my life. Unbelievable!

The next surprise was no farther down the road than Mio.



You don’t have to be Catholic to explore and be impressed by the Our Lady of the Woods Shrine (“a Pilgrimage with Mary”). The inspiration for the shrine came to a young priest in 1945, and work was begun in 1953, “without a penny to spend and two borrowed shovels,” says the free brochure. My first question on seeing the very large and complex structure had been how a little parish in Mio, Michigan, had ever raised the money for such an ambitious construction. The brochure’s answer:
Much of the work was done by hand with the aid of a huge scaffold, a homemade elevator, shovels and wheelbarrows. It is estimated that 25,000 tons of native Onaway stone and an equal amount of cement were used to construct the shrine. The Shrine rests on footings that are 8 feet deep and 4 feet wide. The finished product is filled with spiritual and natural symbolism of Michigan.
Indeed, Mary has a lot of company. We approached the Shrine from the back, pulled off the road by the sight of it, and so we came around to the front by the right wing, that part dedicated to Michigan – the Upper Peninsula, Tahquamenon Falls, Father Jacques Marquette, and the deer of the Lower Peninsula. Have you ever heard of St. Hubert? He is the patron saint of hunters. My artist husband appreciated the wildlife sculpture as much if not more than the statue of the saint.




Built into the towering, curving stone wall are many niches and grottoes, and more statues stand in the gardens, as well. There is Our Lady of Guadalupe from Mexico, Our Lady of Fatima from Portugal, from France Our Lady of LaSalette and of Lourdes, and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel from England. I was especially charmed by the colorful Our Lady of Czestochowa, an image that owns a most colorful history, which I quote here only in part:
In the 14th century, the painting was sent to Poland in response to a dream had by Prince Ladislaus of Opola. An attack by the Tartars prompted the Prince to flee with the painting. He stopped in the town of Czestochowa. The painting was installed in a monastery and church there that the prince built for its protection. The monastery was overrun by the Hussites in 1430, but they were unable to remove the painting. 
 In 1655, Poland was overrun, leaving only the area around the monastery remained unconquered [sic]. After those remarkable events, Our Lady of Czestochowa became the symbol of the Polish National Unity and was crowned the Queen of Poland.


Russian troops in 1920, we are told, withdrew when they saw an image of the Virgin Mary in the clouds.

The Shrine is worth traveling to see. It is beautiful, both in itself and in the work and faith it represents. On October 9 a Year of Mercy Mass with Bishop Raica will be held at 11 a.m., outdoors, weather permitting. In case of inclement weather, the mass will be celebrated in adjacent St. Mary’s church.




Moving right along....

David and I cannot claim to have discovered the Au Sable River, but we did manage on this trip to find many beautiful little county roads, giving onto even smaller access roads that allowed us appreciate the river from uncrowded, tucked-away vantage points. “This is great!” David exclaimed joyously. “I don’t have any idea where I am!” To which I responded with matching happiness, “I’m not even looking at the map any more!” 

On one tiny dirt trail when we had to pull over to let a vehicle pass in the opposite direction, David and the other driver stopped to exchange a few brief, friendly words. In parting, David said, as he often does to gallery visitors in Northport, “Enjoy the day!” and the other fellow replied, “Keep ‘er watered down!”





From the Lumberman's Monument overlook

The little crossroads of McKinley was almost nothing but wonderful old log cabins. Log and stone – the vernacular architecture of northern Michigan. Not a starter chateau in sight!




Much of what we traveled over to Tawas to see would not be interesting to other people – a house and barn here, there an empty country corner filled with goldenrod where the primary family farm once stood, a peaceful country cemetery, and the framed photograph of a now-deceased old-timer, one of David’s shirttail cousins, in the restaurant where we ran into the cousin in person fifteen years before. That was the personal part of our pilgrimage, a kind of family time travel.




But we also experienced time travel of a different kind in the sweetly unspoiled nature of the Lake Huron shoreline. Do you remember Traverse City’s East Bay in the middle of the 20th century? The little mom-and-pop motels and tourist cabins ringing the beaches? That is Lake Huron still today, from Tawas north to Alpena. The place we stayed had modern siding, but the line of little cabins looked like Monopoly houses (only white instead of green), and inside the knotty pine walls had that rich patina only time can bestow.



Door hardware and wall decor were many decades old, as well. The floor had a few perceptible slopes and dips, but that is all part of the charm of time travel.

I did not realize until morning that our road had curved around the shore as far as it had to reach East Tawas, and so the sun rose up the shoreline, rather than straight out across Lake Huron where I had expected it.











Downtown Tawas is lovely. It's also full of little surprises if you look more closely.





Carved wooden door


Lighthouse at Tawas Point


Farther north, little, hidden-away Harrisville was delightful!


Lovely lakeside park and marina (out of camera range) in Harrisville

Old historic train depot, Harrisville

We used to travel over to Alpena every spring when end-of-winter cabin fever got too fierce, and in those old days our destination was a marvelous old used bookstore and antique shop that reliably yielded up treasures. The bookseller has been up in Calumet for years now, but Alpena’s lovely old buildings are still there, and the town has a more prosperous atmosphere than we remembered from years ago. For instance, we had lunch in a hip little bar/restaurant that would have been unimaginable in Alpena’s old days. The front opened to the street, and there were tables out on the sidewalk. How Parisian!






All in all, we felt we had been away from home much longer than two days. We had seen so much! We saw old sights and new sights ... old places we’d seen before but didn’t remember ... things we thought were new that probably weren’t ... new places that will be new to us again the next time. All that was and will be fine. What I do hope is that the modest, unpretentious, friendly and welcoming atmosphere of the Sunrise Coast won’t change too, too much by the time we see it again. Maybe we shouldn’t wait too long? We definitely need to plan for a longer stay the next time.




Michigan! How fortunate we are to live in such a varied and beautiful state!



Saturday, September 17, 2016

Scent of Apples, Lead Me On and Carry Me Back


But when nothing subsists of an old past, after the death of people, after the destruction of things, alone, frailer but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, smell and taste still remain for a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, upon the ruins of all the rest, bearing without giving way, on their almost impalpable droplet, the immense edifice of memory. 
 - Marcel Proust, Swann's Way

This, friends, is why one reads Proust! He penetrated so deeply into the passing moments of his life that he fixed them, for us, and for all literate time. When other books disappoint, when sleeplessness comes in the dark of the night (as it did to the narrator of Remembrance of Things Past), one can pick up any volume of Proust, open to any page, and be calmed and made happy. It is even possible to close wakeful eyes (without turning on a light to read) and rehearse in one’s mind the beginning of a lengthy section of the story – the differences between the boy’s bedroom in Combray and his hotel room in Balbec, the ways in which his expectations of Balbec fell short of its complicated reality, his imagination’s pictures of places not yet visited and the magic of their place names....

And so I put aside Daniel Defoe one night in favor of Proust, and the next day another magical book came my way, Wallace Stegner’s unclassifiable Wolf Willow. Almost immediately, reading the introduction by Page Stegner, my Proustian literary antennae began quivering.
It is the history of a small town called Eastend (renamed Whitemud in the narrative), where Wallace Stegner spent the most formative years of his childhood. And it is also, by synecdoche, the chronicle of a process of white settlement on the northern plains, a process that reaches its climax and end in this particular short-grass subdivision of southwestern Canada. 
 But Wolf Willow is utterly atypical of conventional history. What we have here is history filtered through the evocative and judgmental mind (and memory) of the region’s most illustrative native son; Stegner’s response to his subject is a kind of stratified formation of anthropology, sociology, geography, geology, and ecology applied to a literal place—and to literal place as a state of mind.

Yes! This, I think, is the book that will, finally, lead me into the work of Wallace Stegner, a writer whose novels have previously resisted my attempted incursions. The first sentence of the first chapter is everything I want it to be:
An ordinary road map of the United States, one that for courtesy’s sake includes the first hundred miles on the Canadian side of the Line, will show two roads, graded but not paved, reaching up into western Saskatchewan to link U.S. 2 with Canadian 1, the Trans-Canada Highway.
Road map! Unpaved roads! U.S. 2 and the Trans-Canadian Highway! (Place names!) With Stegner's words and lines my imagination flies northwest-west from the northern lower peninsula of Michigan, past the Dakota of my birth, and up to the northern borderland. With the author, I explore and remember the place where he grew up, hearing as a child about “the Cypress Hills,” thinking it somewhere nearby by and not realizing that he lived in the region so named. The town he finds has changed dramatically. Once “bare as a picked bone,” it is now full of trees. The change is charming, but he cannot find in the landscape his own and his family’s past until, coming down to the river itself, where today’s children are playing, he is assailed by a familiar smell, “pungent and pervasive” but at first eluding identification. He investigates further, inhaling the odor of the old bathhouse shack, sniffing a handful of mud. Finally...
I stand [on the bridge] above the water and sniff. On the other side I strip leaves of wild rose and dogwood. Nothing doing. And yet all around me is that odor that I have not smelled since I was eleven, but have never forgotten—have dreamed, more than once. Then I pull myself up the bank by a gray-leaved bush, and I have it. The tantalizing and ambiguous and wholly native smell is no more than the shrub we called wolf willow, now blooming with small yellow flowers.
This smell, Stegner writes, is as evocative as Proust’s madeleine and tea.
For the moment, reality is made exactly equivalent with memory, and a hunger is satisfied. The sensuous little savage that I once was is still intact inside me.

Old apples along farm lane




Is September more redolent of memory-evoking aromas than other months in the Midwest? Sun-kissed apples on trees or in the grass, warm to the touch, or rain-wet apples glistening on branches or bowls of apples on the porch on a rainy day, filling the dense, humid air with their perfume -- apples and sunshine or apples and rain – either conjunction holds volumes, and those volumes open to a succession of years.



The apple tree in my parents’ backyard was an entire universe. That world’s year began for me in spring when the tree burst into generous bloom, its delicate white petals tinged with fugitive pink, bouquet upon bouquet, fragile flowers inviting bees with rich yellow pollen and heavenly scent. During that season I imagined the tree my tropical island, where the staff of life was blossoms in place of bread.

In summer I often retreated high into the tree’s leafy branches with a book, hidden from the busy world of family below and in the house. How seldom human beings look up! They could have seen me much oftener than they did, but I was happy to be invisible, enjoying that childhood fantasy. Sometimes, though, a friend would be invited to join me, and when the playmate was Jimmy the tree became what we called back then a “rocket ship.” We broke off twigs to leave sharp, raw ends and impaled on those points small, hard, green apples to be the control knobs of our ship. We would “blast off” over and over again, leaving earth far behind. Did the earthbound, pedestrian world have any idea what was happening above their heads?



We knew nothing of apple varieties in our family. Fruits of the backyard tree we called “pie apples,” to distinguish them from the “applesauce apples” of the trees in the side yard (the second lot that was also home to a pear tree and raspberry patch). One thing all three apple trees had in common was that the fruit would fall faster than we could usefully gather it up. Good apples went immediately into pies and sauce and, for longer-term storage, into bushel baskets to be stored in the basement “cold room.” (The “cold room” was in the back of the house; frontmost in the basement was the “coal room” with an iron door opening to the driveway for delivery of coal. Learning to distinguish the two names sounding so much alike felt like a giant step forward to my three-year-old self.) But punky, mushy brown, wormy apples had to be picked up, too. They could not be left in the grass to rot. We two little girls, my sister and I (the baby sister still too young for the job), had no objection to the firm, crisp apples (white-fleshed and tart when bitten into), but the others were repulsive to the touch, and my father had to bribe us with coins if he wanted the job done well.



One year when I was six and Deborah three and our baby sister newborn in July, Deborah and I were taken to spend a month with our grandparents outside Springfield, Ohio. Their backyard was orchard but no monoculture: there were apple trees of different varieties, different kinds of plums, peaches, pears, and a grape arbor heavy with fruit over the brick-lined walk from house to outhouse. Here, too, the branches of the apple trees were my private world. One August afternoon as a storm approached I clung near-frenzied to the branches of an apple trees that swayed wildly in the wind until compelled by my grandmother to come down and into the house. (I saw myself as a wild thing of Nature; she saw me as a little child.) The storm arrived and raged. In the aftermath, my grandparents’ transformed orchard was a shocking sight. Fruit littered the ground like hailstones, and it was impossible to take a single barefoot step without treading on bruised and shattered apples, peaches, plums, or grapes. Fruit cultivated lovingly for winter use, as well as for sale, had been laid waste in less than an hour. Nature might not be cruel, but she was definitely unconcerned with human plans.

My adult Septembers continue to be rich in apples. Old orchards in Alger County in the Upper Peninsula, planted to supply lumberjack camps, survive as remnants of those old days, producing apples year after year. Along town streets, washboard roads, and two-tracks, branches hang heavy, trees drop riches to the ground, and the air is filled with apple perfume and wasp flight. Every year I look out again for one particular tree in Grand Marais and remember a long-ago yard sale and the old man who encouraged me to gather up as many of his sweet, yellow-skinned apples as I could carry away.

Then there was the autumn I picked for John and Phyllis Kilcherman. Paid by the box, it was as much as I could do, picking as fast as ever my hands could fly, to fill a single box in two hours. What was the pay per box? That I honestly don’t remember. What I remember is the scent of apples all around, in every kind of weather, cold rain on wet days running down the back of my neck, hands turning numb when the fall weather turned cold, and distant voices from crews in other parts of the orchard, drifting on the wind to where I worked my solitary assignment.

Did my sisters and I offer apples to our teachers when back-to-school time came around? I suppose, perhaps. But the scent of apples does not carry me back to school, I’m happy to say. It takes me outdoors instead, along dusty roads, and up into the trees themselves, branches swaying in the wind.

Comfort me with apples! Bring back to life that "sensuous little savage"!





Thursday, September 15, 2016

Where Is the "Real World"?


View zoomed from my favorite little house in Grand Marais


I’ve fallen away from Robinson Crusoe, not far from the end. If I were a 14-year-old boy (an extraordinary young teen, that is, one with patience for Defoe’s convoluted sentence structure; this is a challenging book to read aloud, I warn you), I’m sure I would be more excited by the plotting and shooting and killing. But would I, even then, accept Crusoe’s hunger for adventure, his determination to go to sea against parental wishes, as his original sin? Can this character really (let’s pretend, for the sake of the fiction, that he is a real person) have wished he’d stayed home and played it safe, as his father had urged? And to answer a question I’d posed for myself in an earlier post, no, he doesn’t seem to have seen his plantation slave-owning as sinful, and venturing off to sea again to buy slaves for other plantation owners he regrets only for the greed of it, not because of any other aspect of human trafficking. 

I’ll probably skim through the remaining chapters but feel no great pull. These days I'm much more pulled to be outdoors, soaking up September light.

“When we get back to the ‘real world,’” David began, as we stood by the door of the West Bay Diner in Grand Marais, on the point of departure.

“This is the real world,” Ellen interrupted, smiling but firm.

“I stand corrected,” David acknowledged handsomely, without argument.

View from the window of our room at the Superior Hotel

I thought back to a trip we made to Mackinac Island in the fall of 2007 (when we were “between dogs”) and David’s comment then that the island was not the real world. Surely it is, I had argued, for people who live there and work hard seven days a week, showing tourists and summer people a good time! That’s what Ellen and Rick do at the Diner, and it’s what Mary and Rick do a couple blocks away, running the Superior Hotel and getting out the Grand Marais Pilot. And they’re not the only ones.

Leelanau County, a beautiful Lake Michigan peninsula, is called “La-La Land” by some. They see it as a retreat for the wealthy, a land of leisure bristling with trust funds and fat investment portfolios, but that is only one picture from the county album. Other snapshots would show carpenters and waitresses, farmers and orchard workers, clerks, teachers, retirees (some but not all rich), millionaires and yacht owners (yes, a few), but also food pantry volunteers and clients, housekeepers, builders, lawn care workers, cooks, bartenders, plumbers, tech support people, disabled veterans, nonprofit volunteers (and paid directors), caregivers (paid and unpaid), artists and writers, small business owners (who wear multiple hats and perform many jobs), and minimum wage workers of every stripe.

 Beer at Garage Bar & Grill
Visitors who call this “La-La Land” don’t see it as the real world because they are on vacation, as we are when we go to the U.P. Vacationers can sometimes mistake residents' lives as residing in a dream. Well, I’ve said it before, but here it is again: Having a dream is easy. Living a dream takes work.

When I first moved into the little bark-covered building on the corner of Mill and Nagonaba in 1997 (already the third location of my business and currently the home of Nature Gems, an even older local business), I told my new landlord I was in it for the long haul. Visitors who haven’t been to Northport for a while find it hard to believe, as I do myself, that Dog Ears Books has been in its present location for a decade already.

In the real world, time sorts out the dreamers from the workers. No, that’s not quite right. Because if we weren’t dreamers in the first place, we would not have chosen this path! What time reveals is which dreamers are willing to put the work into living their dreams and which are not, which sounds like I’m tooting my own horn -- and in part, obviously, I am -- but fresh back from Grand Marais it’s Ellen and Rick G., Mary and Rick C. that I’m singling out for a special salute today.

View down Nagonaba Street to marina in Northport

A salute to Grand Marais is no snub to Northport! Both villages, the one on Lake Superior and the other here on Lake Michigan, have their share of hard-working dreamers, and that’s only one thing they have in common. Isolated, end-of-the-road locations; seasonal economies; struggling small schools; a shortage of summer workers, with that situation exacerbated by rising real estate prices; friendly locals; and beautiful natural settings are other features shared by the two sister villages.

Is it any wonder I feel so at home in my “home away from home” and can enter so sympathetically into the lives of my friends in that other very real world?

In Arcadia
So yes, we came home, but then almost right away we made a little day trip down the coast south, past Frankfort, through Arcadia and Onekama as far as Manistee, a town that seemed like a city to this pair of country mice. Gorgeous old buildings and a lovely riverfront walk! All along the way, too, we found people working. 

I’d mentioned to Ellen, up in sight of Lake Superior, that all summer long when I was indoors in my bookstore I tried not to envy vacationers running off to hike or swim or simply walk the beach, and then there I was, running off to swim in Sable Lake (once!) while Ellen and Rick slaved away in the Diner. I told her there was something about this in Wind in the Willows and would find the quote for her, so here it is. The Mole has just said to himself, ‘Hang spring cleaning!’ and emerged into a sunlit meadow to go off rambling cross-country.
It all seemed too good to be true. Hither and thither through the meadows he rambled busily, along the hedgerows, across the copses, finding everywhere birds building, flowers budding, leaves thrusting—everything happy, and progressive, and occupied. And instead of having an uneasy conscience pricking him and whispering ‘Whitewash!’ he somehow could only feel how jolly it was to be the only idle dog among all these busy citizens. After all, the best part of a holiday is perhaps not so much to be resting yourself, as to see all the other fellows busy working.
That is just how it was again yesterday for David and me. Crews were out working on roads, men and women on lawn mowers busy on the grounds of homes and public places, cooks cooking and servers serving, bartenders pulling draft beer from taps – “busy citizens” everywhere, while we two “idle dogs” played hooky for one more day.


Messing about in boat storage yards....

Riverfront view, Manistee
Street scene, Frankfort
 
Back to Frankfort for dinner at Fusion

Appetizers


Soup

Sushi
We two “idle dogs” had a fabulous day, and now we're back at work. 

Also looking ahead to Leelanau UnCaged, a week from tomorrow. Come visit Northport for the big street fair on September 24!