In 2007 I spent the summer circumnavigating the Great Lakes by land and writing. I grew up mostly in the Midwest - Ohio, and like many had never really properly conceived of this peculiarly coherent yet diverse region at my back door. Most people would be astonished at the distance one would have to go to trace aaround the unitary fresh water body of the Great Lakes. It is about 7,000 miles; twice the distance across the continent. Our drastically short estimates highlight the degree to which we do not nearly conceive of the sheer -gravity- of this habitat, and the dispositions of its folks. I wanted to make more than fly-over-territory of the Great Lakes region, lost between the obvious cultured coasts, yet a forgotten third coast for both Canada and the US. I was interested in the extent to which there may be a coherent ‘Great Lakes culture’ that goes beyond Canadian or American nationality, and what this reveals about the grey line between nature and culture. The poems, prose and essay pieces, photos and audio clips, and other material that I accumulated lead to the same essential project in different iterations – a critical master’s thesis; in-progress collections of writing; and an overarching and continually evolving performance project.
This project dwells in the many imperfect, peripheral and heterogeneous places where nature and culture meet in the Great Lakes region. It plays with the idea that though we project onto nature a pristine essence that’s been culturally-saturated, culture- especially in regions like the Great Lakes- is in fact thoroughly naturally-saturated, once we bring nature down ‘off the pedestal’ and see it in the rough corners of everyday life. It proposes that people live ‘with’ and not ‘on’ the lakes and their shores, and implies a psychical, phenomenal kind of sociality in this livelihood. It uses the Great Lakes region as a catalyst to consider geography as an axis of social/cultural orientation, a trans-national Great Lakes identity more heterogeneous than ones ordered around such axes as race, class, gender or nationality, which are such predominant tropes in the postmodern world. Though not without limitations, a geographic identity has the capacity to encompass all these in its spatial orientation. In this project, I want to imagine Nature as a supreme ‘other’ with which we have a radical relationship that expands our capacity to embrace more complex difference, human and non-human.
This project brings to life a set of writing that seeks to critically and creatively engage the diverse central and peripheral places where nature and culture meet all around the lakes – as if they were at a common table. I went everywhere between Toronto; Hamilton; Niagara Falls; Windsor; Sarnia; Parry Sound; Sudbury; Sault Ste. Marie; Thunder Bay; Duluth; the other Sault St. Marie; Green Bay; Milwaukee; Chicago; all the way around the mitt of Michigan to Detroit; Toledo; Cleveland; Buffalo; the other Niagara Falls; Rochester; Kingston; and the St Lawrence seaway and the rivers that connect the lakes- St. Clair, the Detroit and St. Mary, the Strait of Mackinaw. And All these experienced together in all the swimming, walking, wading – all the driving. There were sand dunes in forests; beaches by cliffs; islands past peninsulas; waterfalls before streams. The provincial parks and concrete lots and manicured, one-gazebo town squares that all touched the water. Rushed suburban sunsets; homely downtown beaches; mining piers and fish markets; tourist trap natural wonders; campsites and motels; marina gas stations; ghost forts and first nations museums; diners and drive-ins; state fairs and firemen parades; cottages and tenements, and more. This project plays out experiences at such places to encompass the lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron, Superior, and Michigan and all the people living with them - and myself in their midst as tourist, writer, Midwestern, foreigner.