Author Jerry Dennis Kicks Off Third Coast Conversations: Dialogues about Water in Michigan

Author Jerry Dennis launches the Third Coast Conversations series on February 28 from 4-7 p.m. at the Hagerty Center at Northwestern Michigan College. Funded by the Michigan Humanities Council, the series of dialogues about water in Michigan feature invited authors, artists, musicians and community leaders and gather the public to explore the role fresh water plays in Traverse City’s history, culture and sense of place. Following Dennis’ keynote speech, the conversations will break into small-group explorations led by trained facilitators in an innovative conversational style developed by Oregon Humanities. The project aims to create new connections among people who are interested in water and inspire attendees with a renewed sense of local pride in our water.

Dennis, who lives with his wife, Gail, on Old Mission Peninsula, is known for his writing about the effect of human culture on the natural environment. His books include The Windward Shore (2011) and The Living Great Lakes (2004). He was named Michigan Author of the Year in 1999. We spoke with him about pride in our local water and the need to protect the Great Lakes.

Our relationship to water and place is ingrained and obvious, right? What do you hope will come from gathering to talk about it? What might we learn?

Every time I speak in public I take the opportunity to ask people about their relationships with water. I’m continuously surprised and heartened to learn how deeply they care about their waters—and how furious they are when they’re threatened, polluted, or stolen. I’ve been at this long enough to notice trends, and one that’s unmistakable is that people are better informed and more passionate about protecting their water than they were 10 or 20 years ago. Many of our elected officials are aware of it, too. Those who aren’t are getting a rude awakening come election time.

Photo by Todd Zawistowski

Can you think of a particular, recent moment when you felt pride about our region’s water? Take us to that moment and that place?

I’m proud every time I look out the window at the bay or wade the Boardman River or hike in the Sand Lakes Quiet Area. Nothing makes me prouder and more aware of how fortunate we are than to host visitors from places in the world where water is scarce or unclean. I like to take them to the Straits or Sleeping Bear or Empire Bluffs and watch as they take in the view of clean blue water stretching to the horizon. The looks on their faces say it all.

Do you have a favorite place where you connect with water?

A tough question because there are so many, but Gail and I especially love walking rocky beaches on lakes Michigan and Superior and exploring rivers, creeks, and woodland lakes in national and state forests throughout Northern Michigan and the U.P.

What are your greatest fears when it comes to protecting our regional watershed?

My greatest fear is that people will stop caring. I’ve seen it happen in places where the water has become fouled with effluents and clogged with algae. A kind of community despair comes over people and they lose hope that the water will ever be clean.

What are your greatest causes for hope (for the watershed)?

Traverse City is on its way to becoming a globally recognized center for freshwater study. Important work in research, education, and advocacy is being done here by universities and government agencies, by NMC’s Great Lakes Water Studies Institute, and by nonprofits like FLOW, the Conservation Resource Alliance, Inland Seas Education Association, Circle of Blue, and the groups at the Great Lakes Discovery Center and Pier. Their numbers are growing, too.

I’m currently working with an energetic, far-sighted team to establish The Library of the Great Lakes here in Traverse. It will be both a public and a research institution, featuring a fellowship program to bring in scholars and students from around the world, regular exhibits and public events, and is the most comprehensive collection of Great Lakes-related scientific, historical, and cultural materials ever assembled. This kind of activity makes me increasingly hopeful that people will continue to care and that our waters will be protected for many generations to come.