Post # 15

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Post # 15

Quote for the day: "The Lord probably could have built a better river for rum running [than the Detroit River]. But the Lord probably never did."  Roy Haunes, Michigan Prohibition Commissioner. 1920.


Sustaining Lake Superior: An Extraordinary Lake in a Changing World
By Nancy Langston

To gaze out over the vast expanse of Lake Superior from the Porkies, Pictured Rocks, Keweenaw Peninsula, or dozens of other sites, one can’t help but feel a sense of reverence for the greatest of the Great Lakes. Which, at times, makes Nancy Langston’s critically important book painful reading. The professor of environmental history at Michigan Tech has written, what is essentially, a history of mankind’s pollution of Lake Superior and how global warming will affect the world’s largest freshwater lake. It is scholarly but very readable, and filled with startling information.

Langston’s detailed account of the degradation of Superior is a litany of woe. It started with the fur trade. The trapping to near extinction of beaver resulted in the destruction of their dams which controlled floods and provided wetland homes for a variety of wildlife. Furthermore, the silt and sludge released from beaver ponds destroyed fish spawning grounds. The clear-cutting of the great forests around the lake increased the flooding, destroyed more spawning grounds, and huge amounts of sawdust were dumped in the lake. The increased sunlight resulting from the clear-cuting of forests heated up the streams and drove away cold water fish. The huge forest fires that burned through the slashing left by lumbering caused more flooding and deposited untold tons of ash into Superior. When paper made from wood pulp became a big industry around the lake a single mill could use 20 million gallons of water a day which was returned to the lake along with vast amounts of the harmful chemicals that were used to break down the wood fibers. 

The author’s narrative of ignorance, misunderstanding, greed, and simple unconcern by early conservationists and the mining industry is simply staggering. By 1882 copper mines in Michigan had dumped 500,000 tons of toxically contaminated sand in the lake that filled harbors and bays. Early mining of iron-rich deposits was also harmful but nothing like the post-WWII mining of deposits of low yielding iron ore that went through a heavy manufacturing process that resulted in taconite pellets. The production of taconite necessitated huge amounts of water, chemicals, and left tons of toxic tailings.

The Silver Bay Taconite plant, 50 miles north of Duluth, was approved by a Minnesota state review board even though it would use half-a-million gallons of water a minute. The water, now loaded with toxins, including mercury, would be discharged back into the lake. The plant would also dump 67,000 pounds of tailings into the lake on a daily basis. The head conservationist in the state approved the plan because he thought if the plant proved to be dangerous to humans the permit could be withdrawn. When it was discovered the plant was also discharging asbestos into the lake and had contaminated Duluth’s public drinking water it took ten years of lawsuits to halt the damage.

By 1960 the author writes that the lake was at a tipping point and that state and national governments joined together to save the lake. The process was slow but the lake has come a long way toward recovery. The book also covers the damage caused by invasive species, the heavy use of pesticides, early conservation theories, the effect of climate change on the lake, and the revelation that a large percentage of the toxins deposited in Superior are airborne and come from as far away as mercury emitting factories in China.

The book is filled with surprising if not jaw-dropping facts. Such as the fact that in the past arsenic was dumped in the lake in large quantities to destroy the bacteria in human waste being discharged into Superior. Or that when it was discovered that mercury exceeded the EPA allowable levels in humans the water was made safe by decree. The level of allowable parts per million of mercury in humans was simply raised by a government agency. Today it has been found that 10% of newborns in the Lake Superior watershed have mercury levels in excess of EPA standards. And lastly, that a glass of water poured into the lake takes 191 years to finally exit the lake at its only outlet – the St. Mary’s River.

Langston’s book will become an instant classic on Lake Superior. It is endlessly interesting, surprising, disturbing, informative, and ground-breaking.

Sustaining Lake Superior: An Extraordinary Lake in a Changing World by Nancy Langston. Yale University Press. 2017. $35.

Lake Effect
by Erin McCahan

Briggs Henry is eighteen, just graduated high school, has a full-ride academic scholarship to U of M, and intends to be a millionaire by the age of 30.  Yeap, Briggs, still a teenager, has carefully, thoroughly, and thoughtfully laid out plans for his life, and they are all going to turn toes up during a summer spent on the Lake Michigan beach in Erin McCahan's hugely entertaining coming of age novel.  

The indefatigable Briggs has a motto that pretty much sums up his attitude toward life, "I've got this." In his senior year, he did volunteer work at a senior center where he developed ten, what Briggs calls "Old Person Smiles," which he is sure can be employed to handle virtually any situation life throws at him. One of which he calls, "No, Nixon Is Not the Current President Smile." The volunteer work leads to a summer job in South Haven cleaning, painting, and repairing a Victorian house owned by an 84-year-old widow. Lake Michigan is only steps away from the Victorian's front door and Briggs looks upon the next two months as a vacation before his life's plan and lots of hard work starts him toward his first million.    

In Briggs' short life, the Henry family has gone from riches to rags.  Dad had an Oldsmobile dealership. When GM dropped the car Mr. Henry took a buy out and invested all his money in property. This was in 2008 when the economy crashed and property values left the Henry's penniless. The family went from a mansion to what his mom calls a "shoebox." The 28-foot yacht was sold, and they even had to give away their dog. So being a success and making money is very important to Briggs.

The book is filled with memorable characters but Briggs' Grandma Ruth and Mrs. Bozic who hires Briggs for the summer steal every scene in which they appear. Mrs. Bosic is Serbian and has an accent that twists English into knots. The first time Briggs and Mrs. Bozic meet and the lady tries to teach Briggs to correctly pronounce her name is nearly as funny as the Abbott and Costello "Who's on First" bit. Briggs also acts as the lady's chauffeur and finds himself driving Mrs. Bozic to countless, what she calls, "her funerals."

Grandma Ruth is also in her 80s. She is stern, tight-lipped, often gruff, and demanding. She also can't stand sarcasm which Briggs spouts with the regularity of Old Faithful. Grandma Ruth's graduation present to her grandson is a ficus plant which she dares him to kill. Briggs knows there's, "No saying no to Grandma Ruth. Not even no, thank you. She was a kind of a fascist, and my parents were not a part of  the resistance movement." Grandma also liked to arrive without warning and leave without goodbyes. Or as Briggs says, "Coming or going, she was like the wind. The wind or diarrhea."

Then there is Abigail, the intriguing and rather mysterious girl living next door to Mrs. Bozic. Briggs finds himself attracted to Abigail even though she seems somewhat eccentric, doesn't like to talk about herself, has a tongue sharper than a filleting knife, and is addicted to Oreo cookies.

Briggs is in for quite a summer, one that will challenge his belief in his master plan or even trying to make a plan. The book is billed as a YA novel but this on-the-cusp-of-senility reviewer enjoyed the book immensely. Maybe because like everyone else my age, we know carefully laid plans are as changeable as Michigan weather. Any adult will enjoy this smart, funny, and wise book and will be sorry to turn the last page because they'll want to spend more time with the characters. 

The Lake Effect by Erin McCahan. Dial Books. 2017. $17.99

Robert Wangard

This is the first mystery I have stumbled across by Robert Wangard, a retired Chicago lawyer who summers in northern Michigan. It appears I have some catching up to do if this mystery novel is as good as the six previous mysteries featuring Pete Thorsen, a Frankfort, Michigan lawyer. 

Attorney Pete Thorsen has had trouble in the past keeping his nose out of official police business. The Benzie County Sheriff has developed a pronounced dislike for the attorney because Thorsen has embarrassed him in past investigations and shown up the sheriff for being obstinate, narrow-minded, and a poor investigator. When Bud Stephanopoulis, a semi-retired investment banker and a semi-friend of Thorsen’s is shot by a sniper while jet skiing on Crystal Lake it looks like Thorsen is once again going to be drawn into the sheriff’s orbit.

No one knows if the victim was just unlucky enough to be a random target of a thrill killer, or if Stephanopoulis was the target of a hit man. The killing strikes close to home for Thorsen because his teenage daughter was also riding a jet ski at the time and only ten feet from the banker when he was killed. A tip sends the sheriff after a veteran just returned from Afghanistan who suffers from PTSD and has anger issues. The sheriff thinks the suspect is faking PTSD, and the case against the soldier tightens when the gun used to shoot Stephanopoulis is found in a memorial the veteran built to honor his buddies who never made it home.

The banker was supposedly retired, but Thorsen discovers the dead man was pitching an unethical, if not illegal investment scheme. Worst still, Thorsen finds a letter in the dead man's  possession recommending the shaky investment portfolio written on Thorsen's stolen letterhead and bearing his forged signature. Pete is forced into conducting his own investigation into Stephanopoulis’ life and death in order to clear his good name as an attorney.

Thorsen’s daughter is spending the summer with him before heading east to college and is eager to join the investigation as her father’s Dr. Watson. The father/daughter relationship is finely drawn, the minor characters are more than paper cutouts, and even the victim comes across as both interesting and someone who wouldn’t be easy to warm up to.

Wangard has constructed a believable and tightly plotted mystery that keeps the reader guessing to the end and then slips in a surprising twist. The author does a fine job of capturing the feel and ambiance of the heavily visited Sleeping Bear Dunes and Traverse City tourist mecca. My only beef with the book’s portrayal of the area is the lack of any mention of the terrible traffic in the region during the summer months. But that seems like nitpicking this fine mystery.

Let’s just say if you’re going north to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park/Traverse City area this coming summer just stick a copy of Wangard’s book in the glove box in case you get caught in a Traverse City area traffic jam. If traffic has stopped moving, the book won’t.

  Victim by Robert Wangard. Amp&ersand, Inc. 2017, $17.95

No comments

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Powered by Blogger.