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Lake View: The majesty of the Great Lakes must be seen from many angles

The Great Lakes have beckoned for more than 30 years now. I have witnessed these inland seas in all their varied moods, from the tranquil silence of a summer afternoon to the pregnant violence of a spring morning. 

There has been much to write, several ways of seeing. In a single paragraph, any decent writer can paint an image of a fawn lapping from the waters of Lake Michigan. Couple that thought to the knowledge of deadly effluents seeking the same lake every day. What matters is the seeing. 

From one angle, the lakes are a last citadel of American wilderness. From another, they are little more than a festering sewer. 

The lakes demand a succession of visions, each equally valid. Only then do we begin to know them.

This manner of seeing began long ago. Jean Nicolet saw the lakes as the main road to China; fellow countryman Réné-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, saw them as a commercial highway headed straight for France. Subsequent centuries brought visions of beauty, visions of wealth, visions of livelihood. The lakes have been hunted, fished, mined, lumbered, homesteaded, citified. Name it, we have tried it, and each thump of the axe has changed our angle of vision. 

We still do not see the lakes clearly; we have raised far too much dust and smoke. But we have tried. Each and every effort tells us something about ourselves, and perhaps something of the lakes. What is contradictory in our vision is the great contradiction within ourselves: the voice of utility and the whispering of the spirit.

 No one person has successfully given voice to this contradiction, blended the spiritual and the utilitarian in a single image of the Great Lakes. There have been lots of scientists who have addressed themselves to nature in the Great Lakes country, lots of literary artists as well. None has come close to marrying the two opposing genres into a competent whole. Scientists are hard-nosed; artists are imaginative. 

We spend too much time keeping the two apart. To see the lakes as our predecessors found them, we need to look at the two alternative visions, romantic and scientific.

Consider, then, the writings of two mid-19th century visionaries: Margaret Fuller and Louis Agassiz. Each is vaguely recognizable. The development of feminist scholarship has made Margaret Fuller a familiar name, while there are more middle schools named for Louis Agassiz than I would care to count. Both lived in Massachusetts in the 1840s. But just about their only common ground was acquaintance with Henry David Thoreau. Each gave Thoreau heartburn, though for different reasons.


Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) was a fellow transcendentalist, with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott and George Ripley, among others, and served as editor of that intellectual movement's  journal, The Dial. As such, she shaped Thoreau's writing career in a negative way, rejecting several of his submissions. She thought he would make a good farmer. 

Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) was one of Europe's leading scientists until he immigrated to America and established zoological studies at Harvard University. Thoreau sparred with him across Emerson's dinner table more than once. The great scientist firmly believed, as did Emerson and most intelligent people,  that spontaneous species generation was an established fact. Thoreau thought he was nuts. It was not the only time Thoreau would be correct, and Agassiz tragically wrong, about a scientific issue.

Margaret Fuller was a true scholar, a rarity for women in her time. Expert in German and German Romantic philosophy, she more than held her own in discussions with the transcendental group. She grew tired of the circle, especially as she never received the promised salary for ruthlessly editing The Dial. Fuller moved to New York City, and accepted a position as literary editor at Horace Greeley's Tribune

Before starting the job, she and two companions took a little vacation. The 1843 result is one of the most famous of all literary works on our region, A Summer on the Lakes.

Her itinerary was ambitious. Beginning in Buffalo in June, she took in Niagara Falls before journeying on to Cleveland, then up the lakes to Mackinac and down to Chicago. She took a side trip through the prairie country of central Illinois, then went on to Milwaukee and Sault St. Marie before returning to Buffalo. A hardy traveler, Fuller toured by steamboat, railroad and stagecoach, and covered considerable ground on her own two feet.

Unlike her friend Thoreau, she kept few notes during the trip, a neglect she quickly regretted when she came to realize what an excellent book the journey would make. Working from memory, she produced A Summer on the Lakes, written in the popular genre known as the travelogue. These sorts of books were fashionable in her day, an alternative to popular fiction. Fuller wrote her travelogue on the transcendentalist model  Thoreau would later use so successfully — a journey at two levels, physical and spiritual.

Margaret Fuller had a good eye, and a sound memory for detail. She was especially troubled by America's overweening utilitarian commercial spirit, epitomized for her by the sight of a man reacting to his first view of a Great Lake by spitting into it. Everywhere she went, she witnessed humanity at war with nature. Passenger pigeons were ruthlessly shot from the sky by the thousands, trees hacked down everywhere as unsightly blights on the landscape. The American West was growing too fast, with unseemly and unplanned haste. "Go ahead" seemed the only thought. 

Fuller found in American Indians a more honorable and productive life in nature. Her positive portrayal of Indians, although romanticized considerably, does her great credit, bearing in mind the extreme prejudices of the period.

 Most troubling to Fuller were her experiences in central Illinois, where she encountered too many cases of farmwomen isolated and unprepared for the lives they were expected to lead. In 1843, this was still frontier country, with single farms often set miles apart, connected only by muddy, deeply rutted lanes winding through the unremitting prairie grasses. The life was rough, but wives and daughters, rather than adapting to the conditions, were supposed to be models of eastern seaboard civilization, dainty and refined. Often they were sent east to finishing schools that taught little more than fine needlework, comportment and music — all very well in their places, but of limited use in breaking the prairie to the plow.

With her view of the material Midwest ambivalent at best, it is not surprising that Fuller would seek a more positive message in the spiritual plane of her travels. As she journeyed up the lakes and across the prairies, she saw not only with her eyes, but also with her mind, trying hard to find the true beauty in all this hasty utility. Transcendentalist though she was, even she admitted that the best to hope for was a compromise between nature and civilization, utility tempered by spiritual appreciation. She ended her book on a hopeful note, describing a conversation with fellow passengers as they returned down lake from Mackinac. Much of the talk turned on alternative economic modes, more equitable ways of distributing and using the abundant resources she had seen. America was a great experiment, just getting under way. 

For Margaret Fuller, the journey of 1843 was the stepping-stone to an enormously successful career cut horrifically short. For two years, she served as Greeley's literary critic, attaining widespread recognition for her depth and insight. Growing bored, she accepted assignment as European correspondent for the Tribunein 1847. She spent three tumultuous years in Italy, covering a revolution, marrying, giving birth and fleeing the country — her husband was on the wrong side. Returning with her family to America, their ship wrecked off Fire Island, killing Fuller, her son and her husband and destroying her book manuscript describing the Italian adventure. 

She left a potent legacy, a transcendental vision of the present and the future middle America, expressed both in harsh and honest appraisal of utilitarian habit and soaring hope for the future of the spirit. 

A Summer on the Lakes may be the best book ever written about the Great Lakes. Louis Agassiz followed the travelers' path to the Upper Great Lakes just seven years after Margaret Fuller. Like Fuller, Agassiz took the train from Boston to Buffalo, then hopped a steamer to journey up the lakes to Mackinac. This was a very different expedition, however, in both make-up and intent. Four groups of scientists accompanied Agassiz, 24 in all, exclusively male, of course. This was the mid-19th century, and this was science.

Lake Superior, the book that grew out of this expedition, is for the largest part pretty dull reading. Much of the observation is mundane and outdated, while the travel narrative, written by an assistant, is muted and sketchy. 

The one thing that does stand clear (unintentionally, I am certain) is the degree of hero worship afforded Agassiz by the rest of the team. Here is the story of the great man and his acolytes, off to inspect the north woods.

Agassiz did have a formidable reputation, a training no American scientist could match. In Paris, he had served as close associate to both Alexander von Humboldt and Georges Cuvier, generally regarded as the greatest scientific thinkers of their time. Agassiz's own contributions to paleontological study were not small; he published extensively on fish and mollusk fossils between 1832 and 1845, and was the first to systematically recognize and describe the influence of past glaciations on European geography. Firmly embedded in the Linnaean classification system, his was one of the many expert voices denying the validity of evolutionary theory.

After coming to America, he sought to situate American science on a firm footing by establishing the study of comparative zoology. To this end, he was determined to capture specimens of every species in the American fauna, that he might fit them accurately into the Linnaean classification system. Hence the trip to Lake Superior country.

If I possessed a time machine, there are many historical journeys I would try to accompany. Agassiz's expedition of 1850 is not one of them. The scientists, all of them boasting minimal backwoods experience, made their way up to Sault Ste. Marie and out on to Lake Superior by canoe, fighting black flies and mosquitoes the entire way. They spent about a month exploring the big lake on its Canadian shore, making it as far as Thunder Bay. Agassiz gave a lecture every night.

The days were spent collecting specimens. Being cold-blooded scientists, they naturally used guns to further this work — a dead specimen in the hand is so much more amenable to study. They sought to capture samples of every species of fish in the lake, and to this purpose hired an Indian family to catch them a sturgeon. A bit of humanity creeps into the narrative at this point. The scientists solemnly studied the huge fish for a couple of days while the Indians looked on in shocked amazement. The scientists had no intimation of how hard that fish was to catch, or how hungry the Indians were. They kept waiting for a dinner that didn't come.

For a short expedition, the team did well. They gathered enough information on plant and animal distributions to enable Agassiz to fit the data into  Humboldt's theories regarding the influence of latitude and altitude on species distribution. They also perceived the enormous effects of glaciation on forest types, soil covers and rock formations. In short, the scientists recovered a great deal of evidence demonstrating how the Superior region — and the animals living there — had changed through time.

Returning to the Sault, Agassiz and his 23 admirers boarded a steamboat for the return down lake to Buffalo. The great man continued to lecture, and this time he was overheard by a clergyman who became outraged. Entering into spirited debate, the preacher taxed Agassiz for "denying that the world and its inhabitants were all made at once." For him, the Bible settled the matter. How easy it is to imagine the scientists gathered round, grinning smugly, pitying the poor parson and his ignorance.

Knowing the story of that incident only makes the telling of Louis Agassiz's subsequent career all the more strange. The great man coasted on, basking in the worship, supremely confident in his knowledge, until Charles Darwin destroyed his world. When Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, Agassiz quickly assumed the role of ardent critic. He never relented, maintaining to his death in 1873 that evolution was all wet, that God had populated the natural world with immutable species. Yet he himself had done so much to pave the way for Darwin, showing the effects of glaciers, showing how plants and animals are uniquely adapted to their surroundings, showing how the fossil record preserved evidence of species that no longer exist. 

The clergyman at Sault Ste. Marie could see it, even if Agassiz could not: The scientist's work could only point to the conclusion that the earth's inhabitants were not all made at once. Agassiz just could not take that final step, and admit the validity of a rival's theory. You cannot help but suspect that all that hero worship in Superior Country had done his judgment no good. He died an embittered man, an academic misfit in the most lively scientific field of the 19th century.

Fuller and Agassiz. Two intriguing stories, two different views of life. How to reconcile them? The question is not simply a conundrum fabricated to vex the minds of modern readers. For Americans living in the 19th century, the problem lay at the very heart of their cultural identity. In less than three hundred years, the land they called their own had undergone dizzying transformation, from "virgin" wilderness (actually managed by Indians) to a far more heavily populated and cutover world of farms, mines and cities. The logic of their cultural constructs was catching up, and far too rapidly. Arable land, fresh water, lavish mineral deposits, entire forests were melting away at a breathless pace. Resources that many had said would last to infinity were to disappear within 50 years or so. How to make sense of it all?

More than a century and a half later, we are still trying, and still failing. Even as the Great Lakes continue to change — as the water becomes an experiment in chemical composition, as the land is encased in concrete — we persist in viewing the seascape though cultural blinders. We conquer by dividing. The industrialist scoffs at the urban planner who ignores the scientist who denigrates the philosopher. We see just what we want to see, and nothing more. The naturalist's balanced ecology is the real estate agent's 6 percent. Breaking the thing into parts, we cannot conceive of the whole. 

Margaret Fuller's "Go ahead" spirit lives on, unquestioning in its grasp for profit, unmindful in its destruction of the element we must drink to live. Louis Agassiz's intellectual descendants measure the damage, but too many of us are too  ompartmentalized to see, much less understand.

The Great Lakes are what they are. They are all that Margaret Fuller said about them, and Louis Agassiz as well. They are even more than that, more than the sum of all that we as a culture have written about their watery presence. We do know that they matter, that we cannot long survive a world where one-fifth of the fresh water is rendered unlivable. But that is just a tiny fraction of what we need to understand. When we have all become Louis Agassiz and Margaret Fuller, Henry Thoreau and Charles Darwin, that clergyman at the Sault, then we will begin at last to envision the great inland sea.


Robert Kuhn McGregor, an environmental historian at the University of Illinois at Springfield, is a frequent contributor to the magazine.

Illinois Issues, July/August 2005

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