- Historic Sites
A Michigan Boyhood
A FAMOUS HISTORIAN RECALLS THE COUNTRY WHERE HE GREW UP
February 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 2
First there was the ice; two miles high, hundreds of miles wide, and many centuries deep. It came down from the darkness at the top of the world, and it hung down over the eaves, and our Michigan country lay along the line of the overhang. To be sure, all of the ice was now gone. It had melted, they said, ten thousand years ago; but they also pointed out that ten thousand years amounted to no more than a flick of the second hand on the geologic time clock. It was recent; this was the frontier, where you could stand in the present and look out into the past, and when you looked you now and then got an eerie sense that the world had not yet been completed. What had been might be again. There was a hint, at times, when the dead-winter wind blew at midnight, that the age of ice might someday return, sliding down the country like a felt eraser over a grade-school blackboard, rubbing out all of the sums and sentences that had been so carefully written down; leaving, barely legible, a mocking quod erat demonstrandum .
Now and then it was a little confusing. The contrast between the old and the new was too great. There was nothing for the mind to get hold of; what probably had been was hardly more real than what possibly might yet be. We lived less than three hundred miles from Detroit, which seemed to be a door looking into the future, showing unimaginable things; and three hundred miles in the other direction, off into the desolate north country, lay the bleak spine of the upper peninsula of Michigan, a reef of the oldest rocks on earth—Precambrian rocks laid down before there were any living creatures to be fossilized, rocks dead since the hour of creation. There was no way to comprehend that reef. The geologists said that it was two billion years old, or perhaps three billion—a measure of the age of the earth—and there is no way to digest any such figures. The mind cannot grasp a time span like that. The scientist’s book is as far beyond our comprehension as the book of Genesis, which simply asserts that the entire job was done in six days, with a seventh day for rest. Take it either way you please, you wind up with something you have to accept on faith.
In any case, the north country is very old. It is also very empty. Take a two-hundred-mile tape measure, long enough to span the lower peninsula of Michigan from east to west, and move it northward, broadside on; once you pass Lake Superior your tape strikes nothing at all except primitive wilderness, clusters of stubby firs, tamarack bogs, and barren tundra, with the leftover fragments of the old age of ice lying beyond. Take the tape on to the North Pole and go down the far side of the globe; you will be deep in Siberia before you strike anything more than a trading post or a mining camp or an outpost of national defense.
It was and is all empty, a land that could not be lived in except by a few undemanding Stone Age tribes, and across its emptiness lies the gray shadow of a profound unease. The ice age, if it comes back, will come from up here. And if that, after all, is a thin chance, a crippling wisdom has reached us in this century: The Enemy may some day come down from the north, aiming at Detroit and Chicago and everything they stand for, including ourselves, bringing fire instead of cold. That is why I can look out of the window in the room where I write and see unobtrusive white domes on the skyline—radar domes scanning the north country with unsleeping attention. To be sure, we do not give them a great deal of thought. Life in Michigan north of the industrial zone is easy and pleasant, with fish to be caught and clear lakes for swimming, lonely streams for canoes and the big lake itself for larger craft; here it is possible to escape from the steamy, overcrowded, overactive Middle West and get back to something we knew long ago, when it was good enough just to breathe the clean air and feel sunlight and wind on your shoulders. But the white domes are there, and it is not quite possible to forget what they stand for. This is the frontier, a place for looking before and after, where we try to think what we shall do with the future, only to discover that we are conditioned by what we have already done with the past. The frontier! Three quarters of a century have passed since we announced that America’s last frontier was gone forever. We were wrong. In spite of ourselves we have moved on into an undiscovered world. We shall always have a frontier, because we are not facing a finite North American continent whose menaces and surprises must someday all be tabulated; we are facing an infinite universe, and the last challenge has yet to be formulated. Possibly we shall encounter it tomorrow morning.
It may be that the Indians knew something.
One of the odd things about this Michigan frontier is that it contained a people who may have been the first metal users on earth; or if not the first, among the first, isolated here thousands of miles from anything that would later be described as civilization. In the land on and near the base of the Keweenaw Peninsula, which juts out into the cold surf along the southern shore of Lake Superior, there lived a people who made things out of copper—axes, chisels, knives, spear points, ornaments of all kinds. They started doing this possibly seven thousand years ago—an immensely long time as human history is measured: before Abraham tended his flocks near Ur of the Chaldees, indeed before Ur so much as existed—and doing it they stood at the very threshold of technological development.