Port Huron, Michigan.
It’s the end of April, National Poetry Month. I’ve just returned from a quick trip for coffee and doughnuts at Tim Horton’s in the small oil and gas town of Sarnia, Canada, just over the bridge spanning the St. Claire River. I watched the gas fires burn from the fumestacks there. A long stream of families walked down one of Sarnia’s main streets, pushing strollers and wearing t-shirts supporting Muscular Dystrophy research. Human-sized Bodhisattva statues stood guard in the front yard of one of the Chippewas of Sarnia, who live in the shadows of chemical plants and have a documented birth rate of 33% males to 67% females—the first known instance of such a disproportionate rate anywhere in the world. These chemical plants stretch for miles along the river and it’s thought that the Chippewas have been subjected, in multigenerational ways, to the adverse affects of chemical runoff and exposure.
The Fort Gratiot lighthouse keeps its vigil over the cold waters pouring in from Lake Huron on the opposite shoreline, the American side. My guide, Jim Frank, tells me of suicides in the current, methamphetamines in the neighborhoods, the crazy lady who lives down the road, and other stories he’s gathered through the cold winters and leafed-out summers spent in what he describes as the thumb, or the dead-end, of Michigan.
The old Mueller factory buildings still stand in Port Huron, too. During WWI, the factory produced brass rods—a key step in the manufacture of munitions. It later developed armor-piercing shells—rounds that tore through Rommel’s Africa Corps in WWII. I begin to wonder who the researchers were who developed the rounds, where they might have lived in Port Huron, if one of them woke in the early morning hours to a nightmare of metal splitting metal open and recognized the macabre genius of it, and if their descendants walk the shoreline as I stand watching the lake waters rolling in, wave by wave.
In the year 1679, a Frenchman (Father Hennepin) described the nearby landscape:
“The country between the two lakes (Erie and Huron) is very well situated, and the soil very fertile. The banks of the strait (Detroit) are vast meadows, and the prospect is terminated with some hills covered with vineyards, trees bearing good fruit, groves and forests so well disposed that one would think that nature alone could not have made, without the help of art, so charming a prospect. The country is stocked with stags, wild goats and bears, which are good for food, and not fierce as in other countries; some think they are better than pork. Turkey cocks and swans are there very common; and our men brought several other beasts and birds, whose names are unknown to us, but they are extraordinary relishing. The forests are chiefly made up of walnut, chestnut, plum and pear trees, those loaded with their own fruits and vines.”
I can’t help but wonder what Father Hennepin would think of the bombed-out neighborhoods of Detroit now. Derelict buildings crumbling into ruin. Tree saplings rising from the broken fissures of what once stood within the Industrial Age.
Exquisitely drawn portraits line the hallways at St. Claire Community College. Faces from the years gone by, I think, situated within a framed housing of charcoal and ink. And, like the Bodhisattvas positioned in the Chippewa grass across the water, they pay attention to all that we do, opting not for their own immediate entrance into nirvana, but instead choosing to help us on our way to enlightenment.
At home, I have a small lead soldier from WWI. A children’s toy.
And for almost 100 years, this doughboy has sat patiently behind his machinegun, eyes focused on all that lies before him, waiting.
What am I to make of this tiny statue, with its inherent determination, its steadfast belief in all that might materialize before him?
Fort Gratiot Lighthouse, looking out toward Lake Huron
A truly phenomenal place to read a book or maybe write a new one: The Raven Café.
Lake Huron at dawn.