Taking Your (Literary) Place in the History of the World

SoutheastAsiaMonday as I was tutoring my Chin friends, the two school-age boys, Moses and David, expressed their frustration with learning to write in English. Both are making strides in speaking and understanding speech, but in their classwork they find it difficult to transfer their newfound confidence with the spoken English word to paper. During the discussion that followed, David (14) said “English is too hard. I have to write a poem. What is a poem?”

What is a poem? What a question. I tried to answer this question by comparing poetry to other forms of literature. For instance, I said, To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel (long fiction) and there are short stories (short fiction) and poetry would be even shorter, often rhymes, and usually follows some sort of pattern or rhythm. Then I began to recite some Robert Frost to give him an example.

I got confused looks in response.

David was recently supposed to read To Kill a Mockingbird in English class. I’m pretty sure he got to at least chapter 10 and as I looked through the book (which I haven’t read since I was his age) in order to help him with an essay a few weeks ago, I really felt for him. It would be hard enough to read a novel written in “proper” English for someone who just started to learn the language two years ago. But that book is written in dialect. Oh, my.

We got through our lesson, I answered some questions about how to buy airline tickets for a trip they are taking to Texas for a friend’s wedding, and then I got in my car and began to drive home to start making dinner. It was on the drive that it it hit me: The Chin do not have anything that can compare to the vast body of literature, both past and present, that exists in the English language.

They do not have libraries filled to bursting with novels, plays, short stories, poetry, histories, religious works, or diaries in their native language, one of almost 50 spoken by their ethnic group alone. The only written works I have seen in the Chin language they speak are the Bible and the English-Chin dictionary. I’m not sure what else exists out there, but their language did not even have a written form until at least the 1800s, so there can’t be much.

As a native English speaker who grew up with a history and a body of literature that is written and read, I can hardly conceive of not having hundreds of years of thought to access at the turn of a page or the click of a mouse. It is not that these lovely people do not have a history, it’s that they cannot access it.

Over the past couple years as we have met each week I have explained various American holidays, which often entails explaining American history, which then occasionally requires a lesson in world history. As a history buff and a history minor in college, I know all of this information off the top of my head. But when I ask my friends the history of their own country, I can get very little information from a time before the oldest in the family (at age 42) was alive. I cannot fathom knowing only what has happened in my own lifetime.

Why do these people not know their history? The biggest reason is because in Burma/Myanmar they were impoverished and persecuted. You don’t wile away the hours reading or even talking history when you are struggling every hour of the day to make a living from poor soil and avoid harassment by a military regime. The secondary reason is because no one wrote it down.

When you write, whether you write personal letters, diary entries, emails, blog posts, self-help books, novels, or histories, you preserve a small part of life for the generations that will come. If your words survive on paper or in digital form, people who live long after you are gone can surmise how you lived, what was important to you, what you feared.

When you write, you are in a small way immortal. That’s powerful stuff. It should cause us to examine what we are saying to posterity when we write, when we post on Facebook or Twitter, when we choose to put our nebulous thoughts into little black characters on a page.

What history are you writing? What legacy are you leaving? Does it say something important? Or will the generations to come find ours a trivial generation not worth studying?

My Chin friends are writing themselves a new history in a new country with new freedoms and new challenges. I hope my own small contributions to the vast body of literature in English will be so brave. And I hope yours will be as well.

Hiking Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore: An Introduction

Thirteen years ago during a sweltering summer heat wave I joined my fiancé and my future father-in-law, sister-in-law, and brother-in-law at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore for some backcountry hiking and camping. It was my first hiking trip. I was nineteen. Despite the record heat, a huge thunderstorm the first night, and the hatching of about 7 billion black flies that loved nothing more than swarming our sweating brows and biting us fairly relentlessly, I loved it. Over the years, I went on a few more trips with my husband’s family, and once just the two of us, in various state forests and trails. But my own family didn’t hike. Or camp. Or even vacation all that much. (I realize that not everyone would consider carrying your home and food on your back for miles every day a vacation.)

Nevertheless, when I suggested to my sister a few months ago that we start going on an annual sisters’ hiking trip, just the two of us, she was totally game. What better place for our first trip than Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore?

This coming weekend, my big sister and I will be hiking along the gorgeous shores of Lake Superior, looking for fantastic rock formations and waterfalls, slapping mosquitoes and black flies, and sharing some quality time sans progeny.

The National Parks Service website for Pictured Rocks has a free 191 page PDF detailing the history of the park. In case you’re not inclined to read that much, here are a few excerpted portions that can act as a bit of a mini history lesson on how the park came to be (full text can be read here). One helpful note: it really starts on page 30 (for some bizarre reason, all the chapter end notes are at the beginning of the PDF).

The National Park Service was the last of the public agencies to turn its attention to the north woods and its problems of resource management and economic development. Isle Royale, the first national park in the north woods region, was established in 1941. Local efforts to establish parks at Indiana Dunes and Apostle Islands were frustrated by a federal establishment that failed to see the recreational potential of the inland seas. It was only with the Great Lakes Shoreline Survey in 1958 and the federal government’s expansive approach to regional redevelopment in the early 1960s that the National Park Service became a force in the protection of Great Lakes landscapes.

The national lakeshores of the Great Lakes have all had a challenging management history. In 1987 a Sierra Club spokesman referred to these units as the “orphans of the National Park Service.”

The NPS article mentions that the North Woods region had a difficult time of it transitioning the local culture and economy from one of almost exclusively logging and mining operations to one focused more on tourism than extraction.

The Pictured Rocks and the Grand Sable Banks are two of the most striking scenic features in eastern North America. The multicolored sandstone cliffs stretch for fifteen miles along Lake Superior’s south shore. The Grand Sable Banks are a dramatic four square mile perched dune created 10,000 years ago by the last glaciation. Between these spectacular features is a landscape of inland lakes, spectacular waterfalls, and miles of sand-graced strand. Had this area been located near the early population centers of the United States it would have emerged at an early date as a major tourist destination. But geography assured Pictured Rocks region a very different history. While tourism and urbanization embraced and degraded Niagara Falls, Mammoth Cave, and the Hudson River valley the Upper Peninsula of Michigan remained a remote resource frontier. The Pictured Rocks were little known and seldom seen by out of state visitors until after World War II.

Despite the serious exploration and mapping of the region in 1820 (the Lewis Cass Expedition), the shoreline still failed to gain much national interest. In the early 1800s, people were far more interested in finding copper deposits than in developing hiking trails. There were a couple attempts mid-century to develop hotels and tourist areas, but they did not succeed. It seems that Mackinac Island was about as far north as most tourists could hack.

After 1846, the Lake Superior country had to compete for attention with the vast and widely heralded vistas of the Mountain West. When Horace Greeley of the New York Herald editorialized “Go west, young man” he meant the Lake Superior country. Yet the Mexican War changed America’s conception of its frontier to the far west. The mineral resources of northern Michigan continued to be developed, but by the 1850s, the northern lakes region ceased to attract much national attention. The strongly romantic images of the Pictured Rocks created by Schoolcraft and the other scientific explorers retreated from public consciousness. While the Keweenaw became famous for copper and the Marquette Range for iron ore, neither was an attraction for the genteel travelers of Victorian America.

The handful of tourists who did visit the Pictured Rocks required heroic determination. Artist A. L. Rawson spent part of two summers exploring the area in the mid-1860s. In May 1867, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine published his extended account of the Pictured Rocks illustrated by eighteen drawings. Rawson was not disappointed by the “fairy-like forms and colors” of the cliffs which he esteemed were “a truly grand procession of wonders, not equaled in its kind in all the world.” Although Rawson strained to convince readers that the region was “a pleasant summer retreat” he had to admit to “some few disadvantages, the chief of which is the appalling fact that it is about two or three days’ canoe journey, either way, to a beef-steak.”

Over the second half of the 19th century, the area was bought up by rich industrialists who created expansive and exclusive clubs for other rich folk who wanted to try being “rustic” for a while and hunt game. But finally in the 1920s, more “normal” people got the chance to see the Pictured Rocks on regular boat tours. The Depression put a stop to most of what little tourism was happening before WWII. Luckily, though, the region was a prime candidate for reforestation by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and during the 1930s a transformation began that would eventually take the Upper Peninsula forests from clear-cut stump graveyards to a flourishing ecosystem once again. And after the war, with American industry at its zenith, there were finally the resources and the will to make it a bit easier to get around the Upper Peninsula.

In the 1950s, with the explosion of automobiles, a northern Michigan vacation was made much more accessible to the many Americans who were now taking much needed vacations. More and more people could afford summer homes Up North. And when these urban people saw how lovely and how valuable the scenery was, irrespective of its economic possibilities, they started to work to preserve and protect it.

The depth of emotion that summer cottagers began to attach to the north woods is illustrated by the memoir of James R. Bailey, a lower Michigan resident who grew-up spending his summers at a cabin on Grand Sable Lake. “When I was a child growing up in Ithaca, Michigan, it seemed that my whole life was consumed with my next visit to the Cabin. I found security in the fact that the Cabin was there, no matter what happened in my life I knew that the Cabin existed, in all its beauty, in the harsh Grand Marais winters, the grizzly Canadian winds and the unpredictable Spring rains. It was there alive, not only in my memory but in reality, I didn’t have to actually be there, just knowing it was there added to the comfort level of my state of being.” Ironically, in 1985 Bailey lost his family cottage to the Nation Park Service’s land acquisition program.

The NPS article has a detailed explanation of all the various steps that were taken, thwarted, and taken again to make the Pictured Rocks a national park, and it is an interesting read (if you’re into that sort of thing). But since I know most of you probably don’t fall into that camp, I will tell you that the first bill to reach the Senate wasn’t until 1961! And it wasn’t until 1966 that the Pictured Rocks were finally declared a National Park. It was the first lakeshore to be thus designated. And this momentous turn of events came about more than 300 years after the first recorded European visitor, a French trapper and fur trader by the name of Pierre Esprit Radisson, who first encountered the Rocks in 1658.

Now, 354 years since Radisson floated through the cold waters of Lake Superior, my sister and I will be hiking this marvelous landscape. Upon our return, you can rest assured I will have plenty of photos to share!