A Michigan Boyhood

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Cass was one of the notables of the early Middle West. He was governor of Michigan Territory in the days before statehood. Later he became a member of the United States Senate, still later he was an unsuccessful Presidential candidate against Zachary Taylor, and he served finally as Secretary of State in the Cabinet of James Buchanan, eyeing with stony disapproval the convolutions of Buchanan’s course at the time when the rising issue of slavery was being so clumsily evaded and resigning, at last, a few months before the Buchanan administration ingloriously ceased to be. One of Cass’s minor misfortunes was that the art of photography did not develop until he was well on in years; the portrait by which he is remembered was taken when he was old, and it shows an unhappy face with sagging cheeks and eye pouches and a twisted mouth, the eyes having the look of a man who finds the world gone out of alignment.

Anyway, in 1820 Cass led a small flotilla of canoes up from Detroit, cruising along the western shore of Lake Huron, going on up the St. Marys River as far as the rapids, portaging over the height of land to Lake Superior, following the dangerous south shore all the way to the western tip of the lake, going overland by difficult portages to the headwaters of the Mississippi, descending that stream to the outpost of Prairie du Chien, and coming back across what is now Wisconsin to Green Bay. After a brief pause there for reorganization, Cass went down Lake Michigan to Chicago, then an inconsiderable military station and trading post, from which point he made his way cross country to Detroit, while the flotilla went up along the east shore of the lake to Mackinac and came down Lake Huron by the same route it had used on the way out. All in all, Cass and his men had made quite a trip—four thousand miles or more, up and back, one of the great feats of exploration in American history, done competently and without fanfare under conditions of hardship and peril.

Hardship and peril in full measure, certainly. Travelling the Great Lakes by birch-bark canoe was risky business. The canoes that carried men and supplies were exceedingly frail and would inevitably be twisted into fragments if they were caught in rough water. Inasmuch as the lakes can be as vicious as the North Atlantic when the winds come up, this meant that the expedition had to stay close to the shore all the way, running into the beach and hauling the canoes up beyond reach of the surf whenever the breezes stiffened. To make a traverse across the mouth of an open place like Saginaw Bay, or to cruise along the pictured rocks in Lake Superior with no shelving beach anywhere near, was to risk the lives of every man in the party. Repeatedly they had to camp for two or three days at a time waiting for better weather. Every mile of the way Cass and his men had to carry the certain knowledge that in case of disaster there was no help anywhere within reach. They were on their own.

But there seem to have been compensations: chiefly, a sense of wonder, because this unstained new country spoke a compelling language of its own, which could neither be wholly understood nor in any way ignored. It spoke of darkness and remembered ice, of everlasting winter and a malignant frozen hostility; yet it suggested that terror might not be the last word after all. Here and there, in the configuration of the silent land rising above the blue water, the long bluffs crowned with green unbroken forest, there was the voice of a different spirit.

Go up along the eastern side of Lake Michigan, steer northeast when the land bends away at Point Betsie, and you come before long to Sleeping Bear Point—an incredible flat-topped sand dune rising five hundred feet above the level of the lake and going north for two miles or more. It looks out over the dark water and the islands that lie just offshore, and in the late afternoon the sunlight strikes it and the golden sand turns white, with a pink overlay when the light is just so, and little cloud shadows slide along its face, blue-gray as evening sets in. Sleeping Bear looks eternal, although it is not; this lake took its present shape no more than two or three thousand years ago, and Sleeping Bear is slowly drifting off to the east as the wind shifts its grains of sand, swirling them up one side and dropping them on the other; in a few centuries it will be very different, if indeed it is there at all. Yet if this is a reminder that this part of the earth is still being remodelled, it is’also a hint that the spirit back of the remodelling may be worth knowing. In the way this shining dune looks west toward the white storms and the blazing sunsets there is a profound serenity, an unworried affirmation that comes from seeing beyond time and mischance. A woman I know says that to look at the Sleeping Bear late in the day is to feel the same emotion that comes when you listen to Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, and she is entirely right. The message is the same. The only trouble is that you have to compose a planet, or great music, to say it persuasively. Beethoven could do it because he was made in the image of God; which suggests that probably there is a God, after all.