Sunday, July 02, 2017


Limberlost second growth

In the lives of human beings there is a transition point between the part of childhood called the “adrenarche”, an awkward medical term that means the adrenal glands are waking up and in turn waking up the sexual maturation we call “puberty”.  During adrenarche (9 to 12) we are developing our identities as individuals and in puberty we are using our new identities by testing them in relationships that will be the hearts of families and the driving force of work.  That’s the ideal.  It is shaped by place.

During my own transition, my family traveled to East Lansing, Michigan.  Summer is the time of ceremonials, conferences, Chautauqua, organizational general assemblies, both religious and not.  My father worked for an ag wholesale supply cooperative which was near-religious for him because he grew up on the high prairie in the time of grain elevators when farmers were cooperating to control their own crops.  In Canada this meshed with the communal impulse but on the US side it had to be defended against accusations of communism by idealizing it as democracy in action.  The summer convocation was always on the campus of some agricultural college, that year in East Lansing.

Gene Stratton-Porter

My father’s mother grew up in southern Michigan, so the trip became a bit of a pilgrimage.  We stopped in Mendon, Michigan, to visit distant cousins, one of them Florence Dickerson, the female mayor of the town and another an older woman named Sarah Blum, a treasured friend of my grandmother.  Florence shockingly had had half her face removed because of cancer, but one soon forgot it was different.  Her personality was strong.  

Also we visited the Limberlost, the location of Gene Stratton-Porter’s classic “Girl of the Limberlost” and of several other beloved books I read because they were left from the childhoods of my parents and grandparents on both sides.

The lower part of Michigan and upper part of Indiana was a place of marshes, swamps and flood plains once spreading among massive hardwood forests.  Streams were “soft-bottomed” and so slow-moving that they were reflective as ponds.  One Michigan stream was actually called “The Looking Glass River.”  The drama that fed the Stratton-Porter novels was the ecology-destroying but enormously valuable cutting down of hardwoods to make furniture and homes for the population growing across the country at the “turn of the century” (from 1800’s to 1900’s).  

A Michigan Mansion

People were Victorian/Edwardian in the middle class way, able to build, furnish and decorate rather fine homes.  When one looks at the prominent historical places in Ionia County, Michigan, they are elaborate homes and county seats, the architectural egos of a people just forming “country clubs” and theatrical establishments.  They were upwardly mobile in a way that echoed the British class system.

Stratton-Porter’s heroines (few male heroes in her books) were all girls coming to consciousness as they moved from the relatively involuntary growth of adrenarche into the self-directed purposes of adolescence when -- in this new era -- education became important.  She herself was a self-taught photographer of birds and moths in the Limberlost, a woman of major achievement though she never finished high school.  Her husband was a pharmacist and she was interested in herbalism, particularly celebrating ginseng.  I own nearly all of Gene Stratton-Porter’s novels, reading them again and again.  Visiting the Limberlost was right on the line between fantasy and reality, a favorite "place" of mine.

Stratton-Porter was a bit of a racist, in her day against Asian immigrants because she was living in Los Angeles to preserve her health.  She was killed in a car crash with a streetcar at age 61.  So much for caution.  If she had been more aware and accepting in her youth, she might have written about the Chippewa and Métis who lived interstitially and persistently in Michigan while the farmers used industrial steam engines to drain swamps and process huge trees.  Often stigmatized and unable to access venture capital, the original indigenous people of the area took labor jobs and seasonal work.  It’s a novel waiting to be written.  They are still there, sending their children to Headstart.

Michigan writers seem to sort themselves between whether they are focused on the big industrial complexes, the automotive centers that support major cities and black populations; or instead are concerned with the hook-and-bullet macho tales of Ernest Hemingway and Jim Harrison that persisted in the northern part of the state.  By now, younger writers are facing the collapsed and rusted factories that once supported a flowering middle class and their pretensions, the last of the World War survivors hanging on with their memories in the small towns, today often bedroom communities.  

In sequence, the hardwood forests and slow streams supplied the early rural people with fish, fowl and deer.  Then industrial-level draining (steam engine pumps) diminished the “wild” lands and the trees were cut — both of which seemed like ways of increasing wealth/land until the ecology was changed and the same people hurried to establish the many nature preserves.  None of them would support a bear or a wolf.
When the major factories began, they were a chance to jump up income and learn major mechanical skills while commuting home to the farm.  Some farmers built runways and bought small airplanes like the ones that have been doing “touch and go” practice in Valier this weekend.  With enough growth of income, horizon and skill, a man could go anywhere and thrive.  Naturally, they headed to LA, the same as Gene Stratton-Porter.  A few relocated to San Francisco or even Lake Tahoe.

But a few hung on in the place they knew and, indeed, loved deeply after a lifetime of farming it, walking it, building on it.  After the streams were no longer used for transportation, the families near Portland, MI, who weren’t quite as early as homesteaders, sorted themselves along a country road.  The sources of prosperity that built the big houses were diminished now.  Industrial-style innovations in homes — electricity, piped gas and water — were early and a little risky so that big houses occasionally caught fire but weren’t rebuilt.

This house is now the location of a golf club.

Still arrogant and defensive, the young people sorted themselves into reconfigured families, some clamping onto the known world to prevent it from changing, to prevent themselves from leaving.  Others worked themselves to death on both farms and assembly lines.  The next wars were in Korea and Vietnam, soul-killing.  The drug of choice in this world of psychic twisting was alcohol, encouraged by older veterans who believed the best of times were those spent holed up in a motel with a bottle and woman.  And then drugs.

In the meantime, Gene Stratton-Porter bloomed and then escaped with a camera in her hand.  She was said to have had more than fifty million readers around the world.  Her house still stands in the Limberlost.  We visited it just as I was growing into myself.  The whole planet is different now.  Except in books.

No comments: