The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan
The Great Lakes are in my blood. Every summer for as long as I can remember, with only lapses of a few years here and there, I have walked their shores. I am unfamiliar with oceans. These are the only seas I have known, but those coastlines—seemingly endless expanses of sand, water, clouds, towering cottonwoods on the dunes—are my own configuration of the northern shore (to borrow a Lafferty reference). Yet if Dan Egan is correct, we’re missing an ecological catastrophe, or rather a series of catastrophes, playing out beneath their surfaces right now. I recently read The Living Great Lakes by Jerry Dennis, which was a wonderful celebration of the Lakes. In contrast, Egan’s book is a prophecy of the Lakes—not quite a Jeremiad, though I learned of the book from a sign outside a bookstore in St. Joseph, Michigan, saying the author was coming to speak, and I can only hope he is traveling the shores of the lakes talking about his writing with all the fervor of a prophet, and I hope that people are listening.
Because this book needs to be on the desk of every governor of all the states and provinces bounding these waters (and in the hands of everyone who treasures traveling to their shorelines). In the introduction, Egan speaks of seeing old photos of hunters on the Great Plains standing atop piles of buffalo skulls and being amazed today: couldn’t they see what was happening? Didn’t they realize what they were doing? What were they thinking? Egan argues that our grandchildren might well wonder the same thing about us and our lakes.
Egan is a journalist who has been covering the Great Lakes for decades, and this book arose out of the work of that career. What keeps the book from being a grim Jeremiad though or a shrill environmental screed—what makes it a great read as well as a powerful warning—is the journalistic voice Egan brings to telling the historical stories and the personal accounts connected with the picture of unfolding ecological disaster. It makes the medicine go down easier, but it also drives the medicine to the bone.
In a nutshell, Egan illustrates how the Great Lakes have been isolated and protected from invaders for thousands of years, the Niagara Falls providing a natural barrier to invasive species. This was artificial breached by the locks of the Seaway, engineered with the intention of bringing international marine commerce to Great Lakes port cities. Egan shows the ecological catastrophe unleashed by invaders in bilge-water (waves of invasive fish and eventually the zebra and quagga mussels) but also the foolishness: trade promises that never materialized, an average of only two international ships a day and locks that were too small for most of the international cargo fleet the day they opened. Regulating single choke-point could ensure that what has happened to the Lakes doesn’t happen again. Egan’s simple solution is to order the unloading of all international ships at the Seaway onto rail or Great Lakes vessels, something he argues would be incredibly inexpensive compared to the economic damage already wrought by invasive species and the cost of further invaders.
The web of native Great Lakes ecology, Egan outlines, was devastated by invasive species and then pushed ever further off-kilter by stocking them as though they were sport fishing holes with non-native salmon (and the history here is a window into the history of state fisheries). He explains how a single state (Michigan) made unilateral decisions about fish stock that would affect all the lakes. Egan doesn’t place blame but rather tells the history of subsequent boom and collapse and potential rebound. He also explores the “back door” into the Great Lakes, the Chicago Shipping and Sanitary Canal, which opens the door into the Mississippi Basin and thus invasive Asian carp. He explores the spread of mussels to the west, toxic algae blooms fed by fertilizer runoff and loopholes in EPA protections—such as agricultural runoff being considered a “pointless” polluter and thus not regulated and bilge-water not being classified as pollution at all. Finally, he looks at the threats and complexities of thirst for Great Lakes water in an arid landscape.
The story he tells is comprehensive, contextual, and compelling.
I’ll be sitting on the beaches of Michigan again this summer, but I won’t be looking at those waters stretching out before me in the same way.