Making Tracks for four decades

Capital News Service

LANSING — If you grew up in Michigan, might remember reading the wildlife magazine Tracks in your elementary school classroom.

Supported and written by the Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC), the magazine has taught children in and outside the classroom about local wildlife and ecosystems for 40 years.

That’s long enough for editors to see the lifelong impact their work has on its readers, said Tyler Butler, the Michigan Out-of-Doors Youth Camp director, as well as half of the Tracks creative team.

“It’s a wild experience coming across parents who remember reading the publication when they were a child,” Butler said. “Often, these parents have grown into outdoor enthusiasts and natural resource conscious adults that get a reminder of their childhood when they hold one of our publications in their hands.”

Butler and Shaun McKeon, the group’s educational coordinator, create content that meets Michigan’s science education standards. Occasionally they introduce young readers to native animals they may not even know exist.

“We are happy to introduce new and unfamiliar species to our readers and even happier when our readers declare that they now have a new favorite animal,” Butler said.

Their goal is to educate children about natural resources and the Great Lakes region’s wildlife. Each issue contains a quiz and classroom activity to bring the reading to life.

“As time has gone on and kids have gotten used to different types of media, we have had to adjust the magazine,” McKeon said.

Over the years, the magazine’s style has changed to captivate young minds by including more graphics and changing from a newspaper format to a storytelling format. As a print publication, Tracks can be used to improve reading comprehension and engage kids in school districts that might not be completely digital.

The outdoor group also offers a six-day, five-night summer camp to introduce a love for the outdoors to Michigan kids.

Since 1946, MUCC has helped more than 50,000 kids learn about nature and conservation. They camp, fish, canoe, swim, hike and learn about forestry, wildlife identification and archery. Campers can also earn hunter education certificates and learn conservation practices.

The magazine can be found in elementary classrooms all over the United States and is available for an individual subscription.

Jacqueline Kelly writes for Great Lakes Echo.

Pipeline attacks in video game sparks Great Lakes controversy

Capital News Service

LANSING – In the “Thunderbird Strike” video game, the conflict is over oil pipelines crossing Great Lakes landscapes.

Some petroleum industry advocates say that it encourages ecoterrorism. And that’s a serious claim – a federal offense.

A quick synopsis: Players control a figure of Native American mythology on a flight from Canada’s large deposits of heavy crude oil to the Straits of Mackinac. They gather lightning from the clouds and use it to strike representations of oil and gas machinery or to resurrect animals.

“I grew up with thunderbird stories being passed on to me,” said Elizabeth LaPensée, a Native American games developer and Michigan State University assistant professor in the Department of Media & Information.

“We talk about a time when the people will call for the help of the thunderbirds to heal the lands and waters,” said LaPensée,whose ancestry is both Anishinaabe and Métis, as well as Irish-American.

“The game really reflects that. It’s a story that’s combined with an understanding that there will be a time where there will come a snake that threatens to swallow the lands and the waters whole,” she said.

This snake appears in the final level of the game, a visual metaphor for Enbridge Line 5, the controversial pipeline that transports oil beneath the Straits of Mackinac. The pipeline, built to last 50 years, is now 62 years old.

Environmentalists and other critics say it’s old, worn, poorly maintained and in danger of polluting the world’s largest supply of fresh surface water.

The game also features scenes where people cross the screen carrying “No Pipelines on Indigenous Land” posters.

LaPensée advocates for this cause on the “Thunderbird Strike” website, encouraging visitors to learn more about oil pipelines and their environmental impacts.

“Thunderbird Strike” won Best DIgital Media award at ImagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival in Toronto. It’s the leading indigenous media arts festival in the world.

The game doesn’t sit well with supporters of the oil and gas industry, however.

When asked what Enbridge Inc. thinks of the game, company corporate communications representative Michael Barnes provided this statement: “No matter your view on future energy sources, reasonable people understand that destroying or tampering with existing infrastructure is dangerous – it has the potential to harm people and the very environment we want to protect.”

Barnes referred questions to the American Petroleum Institute, which said it doesn’t comment on fictional items like video games.

But criticism has been sparked elsewhere.

LaPensée received funding to make the game through an arts grant from the Minnesota-based Arrowhead Regional Arts Council and the criticism has been especially harsh in that state.

Minnesota state Rep. Bob Gunther, a Republican, called the Arts Council grant an abuse of funding.

LaPensée was audited, but everything checked out for her, she said.

Minnesota state Sen. David Osmek, another Republican, called the game “an eco-terrorist version of Angry Birds.”

Toby Mack, president of the Energy Equipment & Infrastructure Alliance, accused the game of encouraging eco-terrorism.

LaPensée disagrees.

“Nowhere in the game is there anything that really would encourage that,” she said. “It’s not meant to be violent. It’s meant to say that we can remove these structures in a safe way that will help the lands and the waters and the animals.”

Since the game’s release, LaPensée said she’s endured attacks on her reputation as a professor and game designer. She’s had to change her phone number.

“When the first oil lobbyist group put out a press release, their goal was the complete deletion of the game,” LaPensée said. “So I think it could be feasible they’ll keep following the game, even though everyone who has published about the game to date has not actually played it themselves.”

Kate Habrel writes for Great Lakes Echo.

Artist’s exhibition offers new take on time, space in the Great Lakes

Capital News Service

GRAND RAPIDS — You may have seen the posters — brightly colored, cross-sectioned landscapes that attempt to simultaneously show all of an ecosystem’s flora and fauna. You can find them in grade-school textbooks, hanging on classroom walls and at trailheads throughout the Great Lakes region.

The posters intend to educate viewers about biodiversity and the makeup of ecosystems. But they feel a bit lacking to New York artist Alexis Rockman, who traversed Michigan gathering inspiration for his exhibition “Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle.”

“I would see these posters and I would think, ‘That’s only half of the story,’” Rockman said. “There’s a much darker story that’s happening in these images, and that’s what I’m after.”

Rockman’s response takes the form of five mural-size paintings on display at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. They’re part of an exhibit that includes six large-scale watercolors and 28 of his field drawings.

It will remain on view through April 29.

The paintings share things in common with those educational posters.

They, too, are cross sections that show an amalgam of the scene’s inhabitants. But unlike those posters, they don’t omit invasive species, disease and pollution. And looking at them doesn’t invoke a serene sense of calm, but a discomforting feeling of conflict.

Each painting features a cast of Great Lakes actors spanning time and space. Pleistocene-era caribou march in the direction of floating timber and shipwrecks in “Cascade.” Microscopic actors like norovirus and salmonella are drawn as large as trout and waterfowl.

In “Forces of Change,” a kraken-sized E. coli bacterium wraps its tentacles around walleye and heavy machinery.

The stories are told chronologically. In “Pioneers,” the Great Lakes’ earliest fish — the likes of lake whitefish, lake sturgeon and burbot — enter stage left. The right side of the painting depicts a stream of invasive species cascading from the ballast of a saltwater freighter.

The colors grade from bright blues to warm yellows and greens — a shift from icy clarity to algae-polluted contamination.

Rockman draws inspiration from science and natural history, recalling a childhood fascination with museum dioramas.

“As a kid I’d go to the Museum of Natural History, and then I’d go to a jungle or something, and I’d be like disappointed because I could never see under the water,” Rockman said.

“When I go to these places, I always want to see it through that type of lens,” he said. “It’s this idea of this miraculous view where you can see simultaneity. Scale shifts, different pieces of information — regardless of the limitations of the human experience, you can still see things that matter.”

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The exhibition is born from the 30-year relationship of Rockman and Grand Rapids Art Museum Director Dana Friis-Hansen. In 2013, he asked Rockman about collaborating. The Great Lakes were a no-brainer for the exhibition’s subject matter.

“People are crazy about the Great Lakes,” Friis-Hansen said. “There’s a passion for the Great Lakes for their beauty, for their history, but also for protecting the Great Lakes.”

Rockman sees it as a passion likely to grow.

“The Great Lakes is something that’s right in the middle of America, something that we take for granted, I think, and something that is going to be of vital importance — I believe there are going to be wars fought over the freshwater in the lakes,” Rockman said.

To prepare the exhibit, he visited museums, ate whitefish and spoke with Great Lakes experts.

The concepts for the exhibition’s five main paintings were developed over coffee with Jill Leonard, a Northern Michigan University biology professor.

The large-scale watercolors are concepts that couldn’t fit into the five main murals, Rockman said.

The field drawings are monochromatic animal and plant studies made from site-sourced organic materials. They include a bald eagle painted in sand from the Lake Michigan beaches of Saugatuck and a common loon painted in coal dust from West Michigan’s Grand Haven Power Plant.

The “interpretation” section of the exhibition encourages visitors to respond. They can piece together puzzle versions of the paintings to contemplate connections between events and organisms. They can also write responses to the question: “What can you do to protect the Great Lakes?”

Nearby Grand Haven Public Schools students studied Rockman’s pieces and created art in response. Visitors can view them via QR codes throughout the exhibition. In the education gallery on the lower level are responses to the artwork by teams of elementary school students.

Student responses are inspiring, Friis-Hansen said.

“They’re carrying that thread forward.”

But Rockman sounds less optimistic.

“Dana and I have always believed that education is our only hope, and that’s why we’re doing this, bending over backwards to make work with kids and do educational stuff, and that’s crucial,” Rockman said. “But — I’m not sure. The recognition of being insane is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

“I’m less hopeful than I was 10 years ago, but I still get out of bed and do what I do,” Rockman said.

The exhibition will travel to five other museums after it leaves Grand Rapids: the Flint Institute of Arts, Chicago Cultural Center, Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, Haggerty Museum of Art of Marquette University in Milwaukee and Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis.

Marie Orttenburger writes for Great Lakes Echo.

Woods, whiskey, women and widow-makers caught in lumberjack songs

Capital News Service

LANSING — Winter was the time of year when the North Woods rang with the sound of axes and saws felling giant white pines.

It was the late 1800s, the Golden Age of American Lumbering, and the supply of trees was endless.

That last statement would prove untrue, of course.

In reality in northern Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, the timber moguls, surveyors, speculators and lumberjacks were merely following the path of clear-cutting and exploitation that had already moved westward from Quebec and Ontario, from Maine and New Brunswick, from New England and New York.

Demand for timber seemed insatiable as Americans moved westward, building Midwestern cities like Chicago and settling the prairies of the Great Plains with farmhouses, barns and shops. Railroad routes stretched further and further, with their mega-appetite for wooden ties.

But what of the lumberjacks whose perilous labor built the fortunes of timber barons and who endured the hardships and hazards and isolation of those North Woods?

Life was in jeopardy. Death loomed as branches – widow-makers – fell, as logs jammed in rivers swollen with spring melt and as diseases ravaged lumber camps.

The “Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era” (University of Wisconsin Press) throws light on the lumberjack culture of the era. It’s a revised and retitled version of a 1926 book by Franz Rickaby, an English professor who traveled 917 miles, mostly by foot, from Charlevoix, Michigan, to North Dakota to collect songs of the “quickly disappearing” shanty boys, the lumberjacks.

Some songs describe them sitting around the lumber camps at night, smoking pipes, telling tall tales and playing music.

But others reflect harsher realities, such as a song about a tragedy in Minnesota “concerning a young shanty-boy so tall, genteel and brave. T’was on a jam on Gerry’s Rocks he met a wat’ry grave.”

And consider this one that contrasts labor recruitment promises with grim truth:

“It being on Sunday morning, as you shall plainly see
The preacher of the gospel at morning came to me.
He says, “My jolly good fellow, how would you like to go
And spend a winter pleasantly in Michigan-I-O?
The grub the dogs would laugh at. Our beds were on the snow.
God send there is no worse than hell or Michigan-I-O.
Along yon glissering river no more shall we be found.
We’ll see our wives and sweethearts, and tell them not to go
To that God-forsaken country called Michigan-I-O.”

Some lumberjacks left the Great Lakes region to fell virgin forests elsewhere. One such song tells of a “heart-broken raftsman from Greenville” who worked on the Flat River and whose name “is engraved on its rocks, sands and shoals.” Spurned by his sweetheart, he vows:

“I’ll leave Flat River, there I ne’er can find rest.
I’ll shoulder my peavey and start for the West.”

The songcatcher, Rickaby, was “the source of deeply rooted insights into the gritty, almost forgotten reality” of the “singers and makers” of the songs of the North Woods, retired Professor James Leary of the University of Wisconsin, Madison writes in his introduction to the book.

Rickaby’s granddaughter, Gretchen Dykstra, writes in another chapter about his quest for songs.

“He slept in deserted camps on beds of cedar chips and in dark bunkhouses on grimy straw mattresses,” Dykstra wrote.

Rickaby described finding two songs “from a toothless shanty boy in a small lumber camp” near Allenville in the Upper Peninsula: Entering the lumber camp on an old logging road, “on all sides I saw the charred and fire-eaten stumps of what must have been magnificent trees, the hauling out of which this road was made.”

Coming out of the North Woods at the end of the season carried its own risks, many lumberjacks learned, especially the risk that their hard-earned wages could disappear quickly on liquor and women.

Here’s how one song put it:

“But here’s a proposition, boys; when next we meet in town,
We’ll form a combination and mow the forest down.
We then will cash our handsome checks, we’ll neither eat nor sleep,
Nor will we buy a stitch o’ clothes while whiskey is so cheap.”


New book shows off Michigan’s best waterfalls

Capital News Service

LANSING — “Waterfalls” and “Michigan” aren’t words often paired. Photographer Phil Stagg of Cadillac is on a mission to change that.

His latest book, “Waterfalls of Michigan: The Collection” is the fifth in a series documenting the state’s waterfalls. It contains the most spectacular and easiest-to-reach ones in the state.

And Stagg has been to every single one.

All photos, maps and descriptions in the book are his own. He’s walked every trail, some many times over. He’s taken GPS coordinates showing the exact location of each waterfall.


“I don’t think we realize the rugged beauty that exists in the state,” Stagg said. “That’s become part of my quest: to open the eyes of so many Michiganders who are not familiar with what lies north of the bridge. I hope that they will appreciate the U.P., maybe more than they have.”

There are 202 waterfalls in his book, most located in the Upper Peninsula. The full series includes more than 600.

Each waterfall is accompanied by a picture, information on hiking conditions, danger level from walking on uneven or icy ground, elevation change and a short description of the falls. Stagg also rates each on a “must-see” scale from 1 to 10 and marks the most spectacular sights with a green square.

“Waterfalls of Michigan: The Collection” (MI Falls Publishing, $29.95) contains those that are most beautiful and easiest to get to.

The series got its start in 2008, when Stagg took a photo he loved at Tahquamenon Falls in the U.P.’s Luce County. That photo inspired him in 2009 to seek others.

“I was just trying to find some at that point,” Stagg said. “But then when the idea of actually creating a book gelled in the mind, I thought, okay, let’s get serious about this and try to actually get to all of them instead of finding just the nice ones.”

It took nine years to gather his pictures and field notes. The first book came out in 2016, the other four following soon after.

You’ll find many well-known waterfalls like Tahquamenon, Agate Falls in Ontonagon County and Manabezho Falls in Porcupines Mountains Wilderness State Park in Gogebic County.

You’ll also find several that Stagg named himself — including one in the Porcupine Mountains. Stagg stumbled across it while hiking with his oldest son.

“He yelled at me and said, ‘Dad, there’s a waterfall! You need to come up here!’” he said. “I finally said, ‘Okay, fine!’ So I went up there and sure enough, there was this cute little waterfall. I called it Insistence Falls because he insisted that I go up there.”

Each waterfall-hunting trip he took offered a new set of challenges. Sometimes the falls’ location wasn’t marked on maps. Sometimes there was no maintained trail leading to it. Sometimes the falls themselves were unmarked.

Stagg sometimes had to rely on GPS coordinates or word of mouth to find the waterfalls. When he arrived, conditions weren’t always right for a good picture and he’d have to go back later.

The searches turned him into a hiker, he said. He said he hopes the same will happen to those who pick up his book.

“You can’t see it all, you can’t hear it all, you can’t smell it all from a picture,” Stagg said. “You have to get out there and experience it. The wind’s blowing and you’re hearing the water. You feel the moss along the sides of the river. There’s just so much more dimension to be seen than you can ever get with just a photo or two.”

Books in the “Waterfalls of Michigan” series have been sold across the country, from New York to Florida. Some people buy them to look at the pictures and remember their own vacations. Others plan their own hikes around the information Stagg offers.

They’re an introduction to something Michigan isn’t well known for — but perhaps should be.

Kate Habrel writes for Great Lakes Echo.

Books celebrate Upper Peninsula language and literature

Capital News Service

LANSING — The Upper Peninsula has been omitted from at least two maps of the country this past year.

When an online ticket marketplace left it off an interactive map in June, a customer support representative joked on Facebook that they “got the important part of Michigan.”

A month later, Walmart forgot to include the U.P. in a graphic.

The snubs aren’t without precedent –- a page did it in 2013. The peninsula was even omitted from a state tourism campaign graphic in the 1980s, said Kate Remlinger, a Grand Valley State University English professor.

It’s easy for UP residents to feel unappreciated. Two recent books attempt to set the record straight.

Remlinger’s newest book, “Yooper Talk: Dialect as Identity in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula” (University of Wisconsin Press, $24.95) is the synthesis of a two-decade study of a peninsula that’s been stigmatized in part because of how its people speak.

It’s a dialectic concoction arising from the interactions of the native Ojibwe peoples, transplanted East Coast and Midwest residents and the British, Western and Central European, Scandinavian, Finnish, Russian and Chinese immigrants who settled there.

The dialect is mocked by some who associate it with the backwoods and backwardness, Remlinger said. Some students from the U.P. change their speech to avoid teasing, she said.

“If you want to find out which groups are stigmatized in a society, look at which dialects are stigmatized,” she said. “There’s a one-to-one correspondence.”

Remlinger first visited the U.P. in the late 1990s as a graduate student in sociolinguistics at Michigan Technological University in Houghton. She began to talk to friends she met from the peninsula about how they talked differently from where she had lived in Kentucky and Ohio.

The book is a product of those and other conversations over the years–an exploration of the U.P.’s identity and the Yoopers who live there.

“I’m especially interested in identity and how people use dialect as kind of a badge of identity, of who they are,” she said.

Remlinger’s book explores U.P. identity with clarity, driven by anecdotes and historical accounts. She goes beyond speech analysis, providing enough narrative and peninsula history to engage readers lacking a linguistics background.

Another new book celebrates the Upper Peninsula’s often-overlooked literature.

Ron Riekki grew up in Palmer and Negaunee, adjacent towns 15 miles southwest of Marquette. He’s now a successful author, poet, playwright, screenwriter and anthology collector. His newest collection, “And Here: 100 Years of Upper Peninsula Writing, 1917-2017” (Michigan State University Press, $29.95), is partially a response to the lack of pride his teachers showed in U.P. identity.

Someone once asked Riekki if he called himself a “Michigander” or a “Michiganian.”

“My response was that I’m a Yooper,” he said. “And as a Yooper, I grew up with a strong sense of a lack of U.P. literature. As I grew older, I realized it existed; it just wasn’t taught in the schools.”

Local bookstores didn’t promote it, he said. Many Michigan anthologies left U.P. writers out. They might include authors who wrote about the U.P., but many of them weren’t natives.

There was almost no inclusion of classic peninsula writers like the acclaimed literary writer Bamewawagezhikaquay, also known as Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, an Ojibwe woman born in Sault Ste. Marie in 1800.

The anthology compiles short stories, poems and even the lyrics of Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” It includes established names like Ernest Hemingway, Steve Hamilton, Thomas Lynch and Emily Van Kley. And it contains local authors and poets.

Writers like Kathleen Heideman welcome the exposure.

The anthology includes one of her poems, an excerpt from a series inspired by the brokenness she felt during interviews with the people of Negaunee, a former mining community. The mines are long dry, but ore can still be found scattered on the ground.

Heideman isn’t from the area but eventually moved there from Minnesota after she fell in love with the peninsula’s can-do spirit. She now lives in Marquette.

“When you fall in love with the Upper Peninsula,” she said, “you feel like you can’t live any other place in the world.”

This is Riekki’s third U.P. anthology – the first focused on new writings, and the second, published in 2015, featured U.P. women writers like Andrea Scarpino, a poet who moved to Marquette in 2010. Now the two are working on a Great Lakes anthology set to publish next year.

The U.P., Scarpino said, isn’t what people often think it is. Her family and friends thought she was moving to empty wilderness, not a town where the summers are filled with art shows.

“People always ask me, ‘What’s going on up there?’” Scarpino said. “And they’re surprised that we have such a vibrant writing community and artist community.”

Riekki wants his U.P. to be recognized for the things that set it apart, even from the other part of its own state – an identity that developed independently, largely separated from its southern sister until the Mackinac Bridge opened in 1957.

Stephen Maier writes for Great Lakes Echo.

Bug wars: Samurai wasps vs invasive stink bugs threatening Michigan crops

Capital News Service

LANSING — The samurai wasp could be the country’s best chance at beating back a stink bug that’s invading the Great Lakes region.

That’s what researchers concluded at the recent end of an entomology project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“We’re finding when it has the opportunity to leave the test arena to look for its preferred host, it will do so,” said Kim Hoelmer, an entomology professor from the University of Delaware. “This increases the chances it will attack its main prey.”

The big concern about introducing the brown marmorated stink bug’s natural enemy into the environment was it wouldn’t limit itself to attacking the invasive stink bug, but also go after native stinkbugs.

In laboratory tests the wasp did attack some native stink bug eggs, said Ernest Delfosse, a retired entomology professor at Michigan State University. However, that happened when it was given no other choice. A real-world setting would most likely provide different results.

“In nature, there are other ecological and biological factors that intervene,” Hoelmer said. “If a predator comes across a non-preferred host, it will investigate it then leave it alone.”

The study also produced a wealth of information about Michigan stink bugs.

“We did a lot of collecting of stink bugs all throughout the state,” Delfosse said. “We know a lot more about stink bugs in Michigan than we did before.”

Researchers collected 70 species of the bug, some of which hadn’t been found before. They developed new techniques for growing the insects in labs that produced more eggs to test against the wasp to see how it would respond.

The wasp’s scientific name is Trissolcus Japonicus. Researchers call it TJ for short.

“This will all be useful in evaluating TJ because it’s going to get here eventually,” Delfosse said.

While their lab experiments were conducted, a different strain of the samurai wasp found its way into the United States in 2014. Delfosse said he suspects it most likely arrived in shipping containers from Asia.

It’s unclear what the wasp’s impact will have on the native stink bugs. It’s been found in eight states and the District of Columbia.

What is growing clearer is the damage to American agriculture caused by brown marmorated stink bug in the Midwest and mid-Atlantic states.

It’s hard to fully quantify that damage because of how widescale it is, said Tracy Leskey, USDA entomologist.

“It’s just a really difficult pest to control, because it eats almost everything,” Leskey said

What has been recorded are damages in the millions of dollars. Leskey estimates the apple industry in the mid-Atlantic states suffered a $37 million loss because of the bug. Peach farmers lost more than half of their yield to the pest.

With colder temperatures, the brown marmorated stink bug becomes a nuisance in the house as well. It seeks shelter when the weather changes, something with few practical solutions.

Some people try physical fixes like filling in holes in their house or spraying pesticides around their property.

Unfortunately, the insect is well-equipped to handle both of these solutions, said Matthew Grieshop, MSU entomology professor.

Physical means don’t work because the small bugs fit through tiny cracks.

Pesticides don’t work well either because the stink bug uses a syringe mouthpiece it inserts into plants. It won’t consume much poison on the plant’s surface. It also uses stilts to walk, which elevates it from the surface, allowing it to avoid contact poisons.

Which is why Delfosse says the best chance at lowering its numbers is introducing its top predator in the United States

“TJ, if it’s successful, would become established on brown marmorated stink bug,” Delfosse said. “It would seek out brown marmorated eggs. Over a period of time, the wasp numbers would increase and most of the brown marmorated stink bugs would be attacked by the wasp.”

The brown marmorated stink bug was brought over unintentionally to the country in 1996. Sightings in western Great Lakes States like Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin were reported as early as 2010.

This isn’t the first time scientists have considered a bug-on-bug battle to fight invasive insects. In 2010, Minnesota officials released wasps to lower the emerald ash borer population, an insect that has destroyed millions of trees in Michigan and elsewhere in the Great Lakes region.

Jack Nissen writes for Great Lakes Echo.

Poet writes about damages from dementia and to the environment

Capital News Service

LANSING — Janet Kauffman — poet, teacher and environmental activist– writes in the shadow of a wooden raptor statue.

“It sits in the corner, kind of over my shoulder,” said Kauffman, who lives in Hudson. “It sort of captures the tone that I need. I tend to be fairly quiet and reasonable in daily life, and that’s not really what lies below or above. It’s my raptor on the inside.”

The result? Poems containing vivid images and their author’s energy.

This is the tone captured in her latest poetry collection, “Eco-Dementia.” It explores the relationship humans have with the environment, based on her work as an environmental advocate and her experiences with her father’s dementia. This is her seventh book.

The poems of “Eco-Dementia” are a collage of images that inspire visceral reactions. From “Keratella Offshore:”

“…bloom red, balloon, show yourself

whip-snap, weave complex paisley fabrics

from foot-glue, mix media on slow water,

raft the whole conglomeration into shore.”

The book is one part of a mixed-media project, also called “Eco-Dementia.”

The project came together over 10 years. Kauffman had been involved with issues of water quality in Lake Erie, particularly the effects of runoff from liquid manure on farm fields. After years of sitting in on committees, hearings and other meetings, Kauffman said she was frustrated by the lack of real change.

Around the same time, Kauffman’s father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. This forced Kauffman to look at language differently.

“A lot of the poems show the kind of language that my father used,” she said. “When you don’t recognize your own children, when you don’t know where you are and you want to go home — that really had an effect on me.”

It also inspired the word that became the book’s title: eco-dementia. According to Kauffman, it’s the paradox that even though humans love this planet, they still damage it in sometimes drastic ways.

The book is broken into three sections based on that theme.

The first has poems that are more physically oriented, describing the joy found in the natural world. The second is a long prose poem about environmental undercurrents in everyday life set aside for its uniqueness, Kauffman said. The third deals with the sense of loss brought on by dementia.

“I wanted the language to stay as close to feeling like physical material as possible,” Kauffman said. “I love those places where you walk into a stack of grasses or something that’s almost impenetrable. That feeling of being held by vegetation so it’s your equal – I really like that kind of immersion. I hope there’s a little of that feel in the poems.”

Even though the poems are about nature, make no mistake: they’re not about the flowers and plants themselves. From “Every Shot-Through:”

“Don’t say that they’re not

those sticks at your feet,

a lie, a limit, the crimped

stalks of beech drops,

a scrawl diagrammed,

flower and all.”

These poems are more about experiences and connections than concrete things. Readers might not come away with a clear idea of what the poems were about – and that’s okay.

In the end, Kauffman says it’s the overall message that matters most.

“We really need to find a new way of living in the world,” she said. “We have to stop doing the damage we’re doing. We have to stop being crazy. And we have to find a way to protect our planet, protect our home.”

“Eco-Dementia” is available from Wayne State University Press for $16.99. You can find out more about Kauffman at her website,

Kate Habrel writes for Great Lakes Echo.

New poetry collection showcases beauty of Northern Michigan

Capital News Service

LANSING — In his most recent book, poet Russell Thorburn imagines familiar characters from around the Upper Peninsula and beyond.

In “John Lennon on the Beach in the Upper Peninsula,” Thorburn imagines the titled celebrity wading on the Lake Superior shoreline:

“Just the idea that John’s here, his arms wrapped around his body,

like some whaler whose ship went down, glows in me like fire.”

A 2013 grassroots fundraising campaign earned Thorburn the unofficial title of the U.P.’s poet laureate. His recent book, “Somewhere We’ll Leave the World,” celebrates the joy of wandering. It’s his seventh poetry collection.

His poems take readers on what Thorburn calls “parallel journeys” through nature and history. He uses familiar characters and personal experiences to call attention to the scenic beauty of Northern Michigan.

“The Lake Superior shoreline is very unique, and I love walking along the water, especially in winter,” said Thorburn, who lives in Marquette. “These characters, the environment, and my relationship within that environment created these poems.”

John Lennon isn’t the only famous name to appear in the book. Walt Whitman, Billy the Kid and Marilyn Monroe co-star in several poems.

But celebrities aren’t the only people featured in the book. Thorburn also connects the landscape with soldiers in the Civil War.

“Union soldiers came back here to heal,” he said. “Quite often I read about people who served in Iraq or Afghanistan — they take a wilderness walk. So I thought, well, this is kind of like a precursor to that.”

Of course, Thorburn didn’t completely ignore the view. Images of nature and animals often surface in his poetry. Foxes are a common sight—sometimes appearing in unusual places. From the poem “Chinese Restaurant:”

“She tells the animal he can eat only what’s

on the carryout menu: egg rolls, noodles.

She shows him a table in the corner, not

understanding why a fox would want Chinese

at this hour.”

Several poems are based on events in Thorburn’s life. It’s those experiences that started his artistic career.

“It began much earlier when I was 18 or 19 in the Detroit area, and I had a garage band,” Thorburn said. “Music was very big back in Detroit, so there’s poems about that. And as a teenager and in my 20s, I wandered around. I hitchhiked. So a little bit of that spirit is in there too.”

Thorburn includes several poems about his time in the Mojave National Preserve in San Bernardino County, California. He was a resident artist there in 2012, staying in a desert study center near Soda Lake.

There’s a little bit of something for everyone in the collection—recognizable faces, natural beauty and musical turns of phrase.

In the end, Thorburn’s poetry insists that the journey is worth as much as the destination.

“I’m not trying to educate anybody, or teach,” Thorburn said. “It’s just to have the poem, and they’re on the journey with me as a reader. I hope you get on the bus and go on this journey.”

“Somewhere We’ll Leave the World” is available from Wayne State University Press for $16.99.

Kate Habrel writes for Great Lakes Echo.

Order Up: The Bear Claw Cafe has bears everywhere but the menu

Capital News Service

LANSING — The Bear Claw Cafe in Copemish is full of bears. Don’t worry — they’re only decorative. But they are part of a unique diner whose owner wants you to look at the animal differently.

The Bear Claw Cafe sits right off a highway not too far from Manistee in the village of Copemish, population 191.

The cafe is hard to miss. Just follow the bear paws painted on the sidewalk — they’ll lead you right to the front door.

The dining room is small — only 10 tables or so — but it has a lot of bears. Teddy bears hang from the banisters, carved wooden bears sit on tables and Polaroids of bears cover walls.

Scott Grant, the café’s owner and operator, describes some of the bear-themed decorations.
“These here are local sightings here in the area of bear that people have gotten to take pictures of,” Grant said. “This guy right here, he’s probably pushing 600 pounds.”

Grant’s not picky when it comes to decorations.

“It’s not hard, anything black bear,” he says. “There’s a story behind most of them.”

Looking around, you might expect a live bear to be flipping your pancakes. In fact, the only thing without bears is the menu, unless you count the burger named after one. “In the fall and in the spring we do a Kodiak Bear Challenge here, which is a 6½-pound burger. You have an hour to eat it. If you eat it, it’s yours. If not, it’s 23 bucks.”

Grant’s passion for bears goes back to when he was a kid, hunting with his family, but he hasn’t gone lately. That’s because in Northwest Michigan, it can take more than a decade to get a bear hunting license. Because of that challenge, a lot of other hunters are eager to shoot a bear, but not him.

The last time he went bear hunting, more than 20 years ago, Grant had a chance to shoot a bear but he says he didn’t want to.

“It just wasn’t what I wanted. I knew that bear was in good shape, and it would probably live for a lot of years, and it was just too small for me,” he said. “It wouldn’t even have made a throw rug. I’m looking for something that will cover my dining room.”

Grant’s other passion is food. After working as a chef in Grand Rapids for more than 25 years, he retired and moved to Copemish. But he couldn’t stay away from the kitchen, so he bought some property and opened the Bear Claw Cafe.

Everything he serves is made from scratch, from the gravy to the bear claws themselves.
“Hanging above my door is my philosophy — ‘simple foods cooked right are delicious’ — and that’s what we do here. Everything is homemade,” Grant said.

Customers may come in for the food, but he wants them to leave with some knowledge.
“People ask me about bear all the time, and I tell them the same thing I’m telling you –you really don’t have to fear bear,” Grant said.

This story was produced under a partnership with Interlochen Public Radio and Great Lakes Echo.