A book of more than 500 pages invites comparison to the Bible. North Shore: A Natural History of Minnesota’s Superior Coast is like a bible in some ways: it is vast in scope, thought-provoking, and poetic in places. It is full of passages that invite repeated visits, and reveal deeper meanings with each visit.
The authors are Chel Anderson, who has worked in the Superior National Forest since 1974 and made important contributions to the Minnesota Biological Survey, and Adelheid Fischer, a prolific writer and winner of a Minnesota Book Award for Nature Writing.
The book is a celebration of the big and little lives that make Lake Superior and its surrounding region so richly complex, an eye-opening recounting of human errors that have brought the natural systems close to collapse, and a challenge to readers to consider how we can live so that all of our neighbors can flourish. An important theme is the fact that the North Shore is not only an ancient place, with exposed bedrock about 1.5 billion years old, and an improbably wild place in the midst of the settled Midwest, but also a place shaped by humans.
The structure of the book mimics the geography of the place: major sections describe the big lake’s Headwaters, Highlands, Nearshore, Lake Superior, and Islands. Smaller chapters, almost like sidebars, delve into details of plant life, animal interactions, human impacts, and so on. For those who want to know more, each section is followed by an exhaustive list of relevant books, articles, and internet resources.
Even for those who think they know the region pretty well, nearly every page offers amazing observations. A few examples:
–In the upland headwaters of Lake Superior, the vast Superior National Forest is home to “the highest bird species richness of any region north of Mexico.” And it’s not just a matter of preserving the forest to save the birds, but recognizing that the birds save the forest by eating so many insects.
–In the complex web of life in the big lake, tiny crustaceans called mysids are an important link in the food chain. To avoid predators they spend their days near the lake bottom, as deep as 650 feet, but at sunset they migrate closer to the surface to feed on algae. This daily commute uses up huge amounts of energy, and also probably, incidentally, brings pollutants up from the bottom sediments and redistributes them through the water column.
–The few islands that sprinkle the lake have their own special ecosystems. Less disturbed than the mainland shore, and bathed in cool, moist winds, they are like remnants of the immediate post-glacial period, and are home to an amazing cast of characters, especially mosses and lichens. Susie Island, near the tip of the Arrowhead, is thought to shelter 400 species of lichens, and the mosses, in “almost primordial lushness, form a soft, undulating carpet that can grow to depths of three feet.” It is likely Isle Royale was also similarly carpeted, but early copper prospectors set fires to expose the ore, destroying the mosses.
–The Isle Royale archipelago is the only place in the lower 48 where the sedge darner dragonfly is known to breed. This delicious piece of information comes in a detailed description of a researcher figuring out how female frogs choose where to lay their eggs, and where not to lay them. (Hint: dragonflies eat a lot of tadpoles.)
These are just a few of the hundreds of tidbits that pop from the pages of this comprehensive book. Reading it is like being invited along on expeditions in which researchers discover new life forms in the extreme depths, learn how to restore habitat for coaster brook trout, study how changing water levels affect coastal wetlands, and observe for a lifetime the relationship between wolves and moose.
Though much more than a coffee-table book, North Shore is richly illustrated with photographs, maps, and illustrations. Some of the most intriguing are historic photos of logging, fishing, and other human activities that have impacted the lake and its watershed so dramatically.
The writers tried to include native American perspectives; one section describes early human occupation of the area, beginning about ten thousand years ago, when people used spears to hunt caribou. When whites arrived, the Ojibwe were living well on fish and wild rice. This is one weakness of the book. It would be valuable to hear more from descendants of the first humans who made their homes on Lake Superior, including a description of their spiritual connection to the waters and their thoughts about the region’s ecological health today.
The book ends with a chapter on “The Wild Card of Climate Change,” with predictably depressing warnings of what is only too likely to happen in the next 100 years. Northern latitudes are expected to warm more dramatically than equatorial regions, and Minnesota is especially sensitive to climate shifts because it sits at a crossroads between the prairie, the deciduous forest and the boreal forest. Small temperature differences keep the systems separate. Moose, lynx, and evening grosbeaks are just a few of the species likely to disappear from our state. Some scientists say we should tweak our conservation efforts to create “green highways,” or “conservation corridors,” to enable animals to move safely to new homes. Others advocate for “assisted migration,” actually moving animals and plants north.
The authors had two main goals, both ambitious. One was to help readers “nurture a deep sense of belonging to nature,” which they achieve brilliantly by presenting authoritative science in an engaging way. The second was to motivate all of us to “prioritize this ecological knowledge in our decision-making – both in our households and in our communities.” It’s up to us, they point out, to give ourselves and our fellow creatures time and space to adapt. And it’s up to readers of the book to determine its success in meeting that goal.
I should mention that I was invited by the publisher, University of Minnesota Press, to contribute to the book’s production. This is a new and apparently growing way of helping to pay for worthwhile but expensive writing. My husband and I gave a modest amount, and I feel our investment has been repaid many times over.