“The Lake Is Alive” – A Note on Maps and Language

…the most vital of all issues — the process of life itself.
-Pierre Trudeau, on the signing of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, April 15, 1972.

When I posted the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission’s latest map of Lake Superior mining over the weekend, I didn’t expect it to generate nearly as much traffic as it already has. Save the Wild UP put the map and a link to my blog on its Facebook page; other organizations and individuals picked it up from there. So I’m looking at a little spike in traffic and trying to figure out what it tells me.

One thing it tells me is something every how-to on blogging will tell you: images work, and they work better than text. The conventional wisdom is that online readers aren’t necessarily interested in reading essays and disquisitions, or reflections on language. They want it very short, simple and preferably with funny pictures. I don’t know how much there is to that conventional wisdom (and it’s encouraging to see it challenged), but my writing tends to run against it, and so, this morning, did my thinking about that map of Lake Superior mining. You can run with me for the duration of this short note, or go search for gifs. It’s entirely up to you.

Three-quarters of the traffic spike on that mining map came from the United States, most of it from Michigan, where Save the Wild UP has a constituency and where people have a real stake in the new mining around the Lake. Almost all the rest of the traffic came from Canada, where most of the new mining, leasing and exploration are concentrated.

Of course, water knows no borders or boundaries. So when studying this map it’s important to see the Lake and its environs as a whole freshwater ecosystem, a biosphere, a living place, and understand the pressures that mining on both the Canadian and the U.S. sides will exert — or, to go back to what I said at the end of my last post, is already exerting on the Lake and the life it sustains.

That big-picture perspective on the Lake is one I’ve been trying to develop and appreciate, but I feel I haven’t yet found the right language. Talking about whole freshwater ecosystems and biospheres and so forth doesn’t quite capture it, at least not for me; I find it boring and much too predictable, all very late-twentieth century, the vocabulary of a muted, quasi-scientific environmentalism that people have gotten used to ignoring.

Maybe it’s better simply to say, the Lake is alive. That is something a map like this can’t quite convey, as it tries to give the impression that the Lake’s geography is fixed in place. Instead of drawing or studying a map that describes the static geography (or geology) of the Lake, let’s try to appreciate the simple truth that the Lake that is a fluid place, and understand that what’s happening right now in Thunder Bay or on the Keweenaw Peninsula, or at the mouth of the Michipicoten or St. Mary’s rivers, isn’t just isolated or restricted to that place; it’s happening on Lake Superior and in the life of the Lake. The task, then, would be to map not a static geography or territory but an incessant, fluid deterritorialization.

Actions and events ripple and flow and move across the Lake; and at the same time the Lake is so much greater than the mere sum of all the actions and events that will diminish its life-force and force it, from all sides, to become something other than it was. Why? Because the Lake is alive, which means the Lake is already, incessantly, in millions of movements and in billions of ways, becoming something other than itself.

Those who live around the Lake are also alive in the Lake and the Lake is alive in them. Listen to Pierre Trudeau. The process of the Lake is the process of life itself; the story of the Lake is the story of life. In the most famous telling of that story, in the book of Genesis, the spirit of God moves across the waters — Gitchie Manitou, the Great Spirit, over Gichigami, the Great Water — to create life; but after that first movement, life is in the water and the water moves in everything that is alive and everything alive moves in it. It is life itself.

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