The Death and Life of the Great Lakes

The Death and Life of the Great LakesThe Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan

The Great Lakes are in my blood. Every summer for as long as I can remember, with only lapses of a few years here and there, I have walked their shores. I am unfamiliar with oceans. These are the only seas I have known, but those coastlines—seemingly endless expanses of sand, water, clouds, towering cottonwoods on the dunes—are my own configuration of the northern shore (to borrow a Lafferty reference). Yet if Dan Egan is correct, we’re missing an ecological catastrophe, or rather a series of catastrophes, playing out beneath their surfaces right now. I recently read The Living Great Lakes by Jerry Dennis, which was a wonderful celebration of the Lakes. In contrast, Egan’s book is a prophecy of the Lakes—not quite a Jeremiad, though I learned of the book from a sign outside a bookstore in St. Joseph, Michigan, saying the author was coming to speak, and I can only hope he is traveling the shores of the lakes talking about his writing with all the fervor of a prophet, and I hope that people are listening.

Because this book needs to be on the desk of every governor of all the states and provinces bounding these waters (and in the hands of everyone who treasures traveling to their shorelines). In the introduction, Egan speaks of seeing old photos of hunters on the Great Plains standing atop piles of buffalo skulls and being amazed today: couldn’t they see what was happening? Didn’t they realize what they were doing? What were they thinking? Egan argues that our grandchildren might well wonder the same thing about us and our lakes.

Egan is a journalist who has been covering the Great Lakes for decades, and this book arose out of the work of that career. What keeps the book from being a grim Jeremiad though or a shrill environmental screed—what makes it a great read as well as a powerful warning—is the journalistic voice Egan brings to telling the historical stories and the personal accounts connected with the picture of unfolding ecological disaster. It makes the medicine go down easier, but it also drives the medicine to the bone.

In a nutshell, Egan illustrates how the Great Lakes have been isolated and protected from invaders for thousands of years, the Niagara Falls providing a natural barrier to invasive species. This was artificial breached by the locks of the Seaway, engineered with the intention of bringing international marine commerce to Great Lakes port cities. Egan shows the ecological catastrophe unleashed by invaders in bilge-water (waves of invasive fish and eventually the zebra and quagga mussels) but also the foolishness: trade promises that never materialized, an average of only two international ships a day and locks that were too small for most of the international cargo fleet the day they opened. Regulating single choke-point could ensure that what has happened to the Lakes doesn’t happen again. Egan’s simple solution is to order the unloading of all international ships at the Seaway onto rail or Great Lakes vessels, something he argues would be incredibly inexpensive compared to the economic damage already wrought by invasive species and the cost of further invaders.

The web of native Great Lakes ecology, Egan outlines, was devastated by invasive species and then pushed ever further off-kilter by stocking them as though they were sport fishing holes with non-native salmon (and the history here is a window into the history of state fisheries). He explains how a single state (Michigan) made unilateral decisions about fish stock that would affect all the lakes. Egan doesn’t place blame but rather tells the history of subsequent boom and collapse and potential rebound. He also explores the “back door” into the Great Lakes, the Chicago Shipping and Sanitary Canal, which opens the door into the Mississippi Basin and thus invasive Asian carp. He explores the spread of mussels to the west, toxic algae blooms fed by fertilizer runoff and loopholes in EPA protections—such as agricultural runoff being considered a “pointless” polluter and thus not regulated and bilge-water not being classified as pollution at all. Finally, he looks at the threats and complexities of thirst for Great Lakes water in an arid landscape.

The story he tells is comprehensive, contextual, and compelling.

And damning.

I’ll be sitting on the beaches of Michigan again this summer, but I won’t be looking at those waters stretching out before me in the same way.

Knowledge for Sale

Knowledge for Sale: The Neoliberal Takeover of Higher Education (Infrastructures)Knowledge for Sale: The Neoliberal Takeover of Higher Education by Lawrence Busch

Neoliberalism is undermining the values of higher education, according to this concise treatment by Michigan State University sociologist Lawrence Busch. Neoliberalism here is not, as a conservative Christian reader might assume, the liberal boogeyman who has hijacked the university and turned it into a godless secular factory for producing “Darwinist minions,” as (no joke) one student labeled my own. Rather, the neoliberalism Busch discusses is something more widespread (at secular and Christian universities alike) and to be honest a lot more frightening. Busch’s neoliberalism is an economic paradigm, one which most of the world is happily following, a paradigm that says free market competition is the surest means to happiness and prosperity. The neoliberalist ideal is to get governments out of the way wherever possible, let competition thrive, and let the assumedly politically neutral processes of free markets work.

Unfortunately, Busch argues, neoliberalism is a flawed dogma, and its effects become most insidious when they begin influencing higher education:

From neoliberal perspectives, markets are about producing efficiencies and thereby maximizing wealth and liberty. But markets can also be about other values besides efficiency. It is precisely because markets may be designed to optimize or maximize many different values that they must be considered a form of governance rather than some naturally occurring or logically justifiable phenomenon. (132)

The problems with neoliberalism and its march toward ultimate market efficiency are numerous, and Busch highlights only a few in his survey of recent critiques. To start with, markets are not actually natural and free; rather, they are created and regulated, and because of this they can be crafted to enshrine certain values and ignore others. Markets tend to prioritize private goods over public goods. They reduce societies to a collection of isolated individuals who are supposed to make market choices based on self-interest and flawed knowledge. They value certain types of knowledge and ignore others. All of this, Busch argues, makes the acceptance of neoliberalism by governments throughout the world problematic, but these issues become even more heightened when they intersect the values of the university.

Busch makes arguments for the problems of privatizing knowledge, of creating partnerships between private companies and public universities, and of seeing education as a purely individualistic commodity as opposed to a social good at public schools supported through public funds. These universities were founded on the belief that the knowledge they produced and the citizens they educated were public goods and should thus be funded by the common purse. As market forces have been introduced to (supposedly) make higher education more efficient and competitive, this has instead the effect of walling off the commons. Knowledge becomes seen as proprietary, a means of generating income for universities that are seeing their public support continually cut. Bureaucracy proliferates to protect this knowledge, to compete for funds, to seek corporate support or partnerships, and to enhance controls and efficiencies. In short, universities become more like businesses.

For many, this doesn’t seem to be a problem. I hear constantly that the field of higher education is changing and that we have to change with it if we hope to remain competitive. The problem though, and Busch’s primary point, is that universities by their very nature are supposed to do things that in themselves critique and at times openly contest the neoliberal paradigm, revealing it to be the value-laden (not neutral or natural) system that it is. The kind of goods created by universities are not private goods, and they are not always amenable to market forces. Indeed, some of the most important work of universities is the production of “slow knowledge,” results of investigations that take years or even decades, that cannot easily be monetized and that may never have a payoff in dollars and cents. Such research is devalued in a university unduly influenced by neoliberal pressures. In addition, certain forms of knowledge (humanities and the arts, for instance) become seen as luxuries because they don’t have the same market value in the way STEM fields do. Instead of being seen as essential forms of knowledge for perspective and cultural literacy, a common and not a private good, they become seen as a poor investment for students and thus an easy target of cuts for administration. Finally, market pressures applied within the university undermine the freedom to pursue (and support) research that exposes harmful effects of big business or corporate sponsors, an obviously corrosive influence on how universities ideally function.

Such examples might seem obvious, but Busch’s concern is that concepts of competition, efficiency, and market forces have become so ubiquitous in our society that they become seen as tools to apply in any situation, regardless of context. They seem so natural in our lives, the way we run our businesses and the way many of us wish we would run our government, that they begin to be seen as self-evident axioms for the way society should be organized. The problem though is that when administrators trained in a business mindset begin applying these paradigms to the university, the university’s ideals and purpose become compromised.

We talk about competing in a “knowledge economy,” where higher education begins to be seen “solely as an investment in one’s self, an investment designed to enhance future earnings.” (49) (Again, I hear language like this all the time.) The danger, Busch argues, is that technoscientific knowledge prioritized in this way (technical training to get a job) is only one aspect of knowledge, and our market economy biases us toward giving it too much value. Rather than an economy of knowledge, Busch claims, we need to recognize that we function in an “ecology of knowledge,” where things like local knowledge, cultural knowledge, moral knowledge, and social knowledge are tools in our epistemological toolbox alongside technoscientific knowledge.

The market economy is not the end all and be all of the good society or what it means to be human. Yet our application of its modes and models to the university threatens to silence one of the strongest voices we have for critiquing, questioning, and broadening that view.

Victoria: the Queen

Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an EmpireVictoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird

I remember an evening class session my first semester as a history PhD student at Notre Dame held in the living room of a professor who has since passed away in which this incredibly erudite historian made a case for empire. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but the crux was a contrast between the relative peace that prevailed between various peoples who saw themselves as part of a single empire against the contemporary strife of nationalism among the ashes of collapsed empires. I remember that many of us were still young enough to find this idea shocking, distasteful, and certainly heretical to our American ideals of democracy. The democratic, in-fighting cities of Greece were the good guys, after all. The absolutist, domineering emperor of Persia was the singular Bad Guy.

Because that’s the problem with empire, isn’t it? You need an emperor. It never seems to work to unify a disparate collection of nations or peoples under the authority of an elected body. (Or at least, it didn’t work for the Romans for long, and one could argue whether the United States is in some respects simply a relatively young experiment in democratic empire-building.) It doesn’t work because an empire doesn’t really want all its constituent pieces represented. It just wants them unified, and the best way to do that is to place them all under the authority—perhaps only a symbolic authority, though sometimes that’s the strongest authority of all—of an emperor.

We’ve forgotten what a Christian idea this is. Christianity was not born in democracy, nor does it tend toward it. Every day, Christians around the world pray for the coming of a kingdom, an empire with a benevolent Prince of Peace as the ultimate, un-democratic authority. This was an ideal I was first introduced to in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, when the ghost of Severian’s tutor walks his pupil through what Severian assumes are progressively higher and more developed forms of government until the tutor asks in what relation Severian stands with most loyal, obedient companion. Democracy, Wolfe seemed to be saying, does not have a monopoly on virtue and loyalty. Indeed, these might flourish more easily in an empire ruled by a worthy leader. (And much of the plot of this five-volume epic is the story of Severian becoming a worthy emperor.) Famously atheistic Terry Pratchett makes a similar argument in the character of Lord Vetinari, the benevolent dictator of the Discworld’s most fabulous city.

This isn’t an argument against democracy, or even an argument that one form of government is better or worse than another. But it is an argument that to understand other peoples and periods (and maybe even our own theology) we need to at least consider giving up the notion that democracy is inherently and without question the best or the natural progression of all states. When we do, we might be in a position to understand the life and significance of someone like Queen Victoria.

As Julia Baird sets out in this sweeping biography of the life of the queen (and empress), Victoria reigned over an empire that during her lifetime grew to encompass a quarter of the world’s inhabited landmass and hundreds of millions of subjects—arguably the largest empire in history. Yet her life and reign (second in British history only to the currently-reigning queen) spanned the industrialization of her empire and a growing tide of liberal reforms. Under her rule (though not always with her support), Reform Bills expanded the voting franchise, and new laws began modernizing women’s rights and protection of children and workers and even animals (through anti-cruelty laws). Throughout a reign lasting from 1837 to 1876 (she came to the throne at the age of only eighteen), Victoria balanced being a figurehead and yet a real, forceful symbol of devotion to empire with the exercise of true political power.

Baird does a tremendous job mining primary sources and balancing her treatment of Victoria as a person with the context of the political and social world that was being transformed around her. From her stormy relationship with her mother to her adoration of husband Prince Albert and her veneration of his memory after his death decades before her own, to stubborn battles of will with the various Prime Ministers she outlasted and outlived, to her (previously often censored) relationship with her Highlands servant John Brown, Baird shines the light on Victoria the woman—often stubborn, selfish, and self-interested, but just as often stubborn, indomitable, and compassionate. Throughout, Baird highlights what it meant, for men and women, to have a woman as sovereign in a period when the rights of women in Britain were still developing.

This treatment of her personal character is balanced with enough context to help the reader place Victoria and her family in the center of shifting European politics and historical developments. Her children and grandchildren were scattered across the royal families of Europe, with repercussions up to the time of First World War. The ultimate fate of her granddaughter, wife of the doomed Tsar, in the Russian Revolution is well-known, but I had not realized the intricacies of what the rise of Prussia in the late 1800s (eventually ruled by Victoria’s grandson Kaiser Wilhelm) implied for family loyalties even before the Great War. Baird does a good job giving an overview of these complexities (and among the German kingdoms this could easily become dizzying) without getting lost in the details.

Finally, Baird finds a balance between the civilizing aspects of empire and the brutal realities this often entailed—usually for subject peoples. She doesn’t shirk from outlining the forgotten wars that played out on the fringes of the empire, like the Taiping Rebellion in China that she says cost millions of lives. At the end of Victoria’s reign, the Boer War in South Africa was pitting British imperialism against descendants of Dutch settlers in a conflict that put to rest ideals of empire as a benevolent force in light of the realities of forced relocation, concentration camps, and a naked bid for mineral wealth. Tangentially, Baird’s account outlines the true magnitude of the “Scramble for Africa”, in which colonial powers carved the continent between them and laid the groundwork for conflicts that would explode across Europe in the First World War. It made me wonder whether a more nuanced exploration of the conflicts that have shaken Europe might usefully recast them in light of the consequences of exploitation on the edge of empire, which historical treatments have often kept off the primary stage of history.

In my own fiction, empire often functions as a monolithic background in my fantasy. Empire is an easy background for epic. Allegiance to a distant, aging, perhaps half-forgotten emperor has something of romance, and I’ve looked at what loyalty to a larger ideal embodied in the person of an individual in a few of my published stories—”The Glorious Revolution” and my Wizard’s House sequence. I’ve also explored what the character of an empress forced into power might be like, in “Deathspeaker,” which is forthcoming in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. But all fiction is only a mirror, and it is only as rich as the history that informs it. I’m coming to realize that books like Baird’s and the characters like Victoria who return to life through them are essential for literature and that the interplay between history and fiction– even fantasy– might be closer than I realize.

Praying with Icons

Praying with IconsPraying with Icons by Jim Forest

Sometimes arguments are not won by logic or reason or even by words. Sometimes the best case for certain beliefs is made by a story, an experience, or the testimony of beauty. How many people have chosen to create a marriage by following a logical argument to its conclusion, for instance? With our evangelical theological heritage though, we often tend to think our religious beliefs play out almost exclusively in the realm of logic and reason. Or at least we act like we do. (This is where you get the modern ugliness of young earth creationism and strict Biblical literalism.) Theology though—or at least the religious life—is the testimony of beauty played out through history. One of the ways this is most apparent in Orthodox Christianity is in the heritage of icons.

As Jim Forest’s book illustrates, the concept of the icon itself is in some ways an icon of the Church itself. Theologically, icons are a symbol of the Incarnation—that what before was ineffable has now become flesh. They are also a representation of sanctity: saints whose lives have been transfigured by holiness into Christ-likeness remain not simply as a concept or memory but as an abiding spiritual presence. And again: they are windows into the historical life and testimony of the Church— who these people were, how they lived, how they have been cherished. This historic testimony is alive in all its forms and hymns, in its music and liturgy, but it is perhaps most present in the vivid, luminous faces of its icons (both on wood and in flesh).

Because of all these reasons, though Forest does not lay them out systematically, his work, Praying with Icons, is not as much a manual of praxis or a straightforward study in iconography (though there are introductory chapters on these topics as well as on the creation of icons). Instead it becomes in some sense a primer on the Church itself. The bulk of the book is a series of meditations on several important icons. Though to me the selection seemed a bit haphazard and heavily Russian-influenced, these chapters introduce a wide array of Church tradition, history, and belief through the lenses of icons. The feeling of an introductory primer to Orthodoxy in general was also born out by the selection of prayers included at the conclusion of the volume.

Praying with Icons was published as part of an ecumenical series of texts aimed at all believers, so the feeling of a presentation of Orthodox spiritual practice through icons is apt and accessible. My primary complaint with the book is the low quality of images throughout. Though the book is built on the concept of their great beauty, the images reproduced (including the image chosen for the cover of the volume) are poor quality and do little to communicate visually their richness. Though Forest has seen many of these famous icons in person, some images seemed simply too low quality for high-resolution reproduction. Having seen other books where the icons were reproduced with great clarity and color, this was disappointing.

This is a book I would pass along to others curious about Orthodox practices or even to fellow parishioners looking for a simple, accessible adjunct to their own spiritual practice. The meditations Forest writes on each icons are lovely and concise and would be useful to those looking for basic “devotionals” built around these silent but somehow expectant witnesses in color and light to the life of the Church.

The Marketplace of Ideas

The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (Issues of Our Time)The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University by Louis Menand

Our greatest fear as academics might be the fear of being proven futile. We know we’re probably in some respect self-serving and that perhaps we magnify our own importance in the face of what we consider a hostile, indifferent, or Philistine public. But we like to maintain the fiction that we are free from parochialism to pursue the search for truth or something like it (maybe call it “free inquiry”) in a value-free arena. Or at least that’s the ideal, though I don’t think anyone would go so far as to say this is ever actualized or even completely possible. These are ideals, and Louis Menand’s slim volume offers insightful and sometimes piercing examinations of at least three aspects of these ideals: ideas about general education, interdisciplinarity, and the self-selecting nature of how we train PhDs and what we get as results.

This is not a comprehensive critique or “state of the academy” study, though as a recognized scholar Menand has done his homework. Rather, it’s a collection of thoughts from someone who has made a career in the academy and who has passion and respect for what it can be. As he states near the work’s conclusion:

It is the academic’s job in a free society to serve the public culture by asking questions the public doesn’t want to ask, investigating subjects it cannot or will not investigate, and accommodating voices it fails or refuses to accommodate.

Amen. So what’s the problem? As valuable as academic endeavors are, Menand feels certain claims about higher education are not true or have been taken out of their correct context, and he’s biting in his critique when he feels we need to be disabused of such claims. Because some of the chapters in this work were originally speeches, they are for the most part easy reading, even when what he is saying is difficult.

Menand begins with what has become something of a cause in higher education over the past few decades: the idea of general education. Like all of us, he’s sat through seemingly endless meetings of faculty trying to decide what general education actually is and how to provide it to students, whether in shared common core courses or in a system of electives. “General education, he explains, “is where colleges connect what professors do with who their students are and what they will become after they graduate—where colleges actually think about the outcome of the experience they provide. General education is, historically, the public face of liberal education.” Despite a clear importance though, Menand feels that what these conversations at universities across the country lack is a historical context of where this idea came from and why it’s a distinctly American ideal. From its origins at the nation’s oldest and most prestigious colleges and its evolution in response to broader societal changes, Menand argues against a perceived antiquity or changelessness in general education. Rather, he seems to be saying, general education is historically contingent– not unimportant, but neither as uniform, enduring, or timeless as some might argue.

Another topic Menand examines involves another contemporary buzzword (or, depending on your perspective, bugbear): the idea of interdisciplinarity or teaching across the disciplines. Menand argues here, by providing another historical analysis– this time of professionalization of the academic disciplines– that the concept of interdisciplinarity in actuality serves to magnify and cement disciplinary distinctions and divides that are already problematic and largely artificial. The whole discussion of teaching across disciplines, he argues, masks an anxiety of scholars who realize on some level that their disciplinary divisions and structures are at least partially vacuous. “Is my relationship to the living culture,” Menand asks us, “that of a creator or that of a packager?”

All of which brings us back to the fear of futility and Menand’s final and most damning critique. “It takes three years to become a lawyer,” Menand points out. “It takes four years to become a doctor. But it takes from six to nine years, and sometimes longer, to be eligible to teach poetry to college students for a living.” Why is our method of creating PhDs so time-consuming and inefficient? More importantly though, what does this cost the field? Institutions gain cheap graduate student labor, but students labor for years gaining knowledge and expertise that quite possibly will never land them a job or even a completed degree. It’s hard to argue with his views here that in at least some respects the academy has become another professionalized bureaucracy that exists to propagate itself and churn out clones already committed to its ideals and modes of thought.

“Possibly,” Menand argues, “there should be a lot more PhDs, and they should be much easier to get. The non-academic world would be enriched if more people in it had exposure to academic modes of thought, and had thereby acquired a little understanding of the issues that scare terms like “deconstruction” and “postmodernism” are attempts to deal with. And the academic world would be livelier if it conceived of its purpose as something larger and more various than professional reproduction.” What begins as an inquiry into why most college professors tend to lean the same direction politically becomes a critique of the system that produces them and that may actually be counterproductive to fostering the very free-thinking the system enshrines.

At just over one hundred fifty pages, there is a lot to chew on here. Whether or not you agree with all Menand’s claims or buy his arguments, if you’re part of the academic machine this is a book to consider seriously.

There Are Stories in the Wood

I’m accustomed to my wife having the grand visions for our home as far as decorating, re-decorating, renovating, re-renovating, etc. My strategy when she begins one of these projects is usually to keep my head down and stay out of the way. Of course, this is largely impossible, because her projects often involve me building something. There was the dining room table, a while back, and then the built-in bed, more recently.

Her current project has been the renovating/repurposing of our sunroom. The room has always been a bit awkward, a late 50s addition that apparently turned an external porch into a long, narrow space we never quite knew what to do with. It held a tiny desk that I used for what passed as my home workspace, as well as a piano, a couple dog kennels, and assorted randomness.

My wife’s Pinterest-inspired vision for the room was to turn it into a more functional office/study/library, and my portion of this would involve the construction of a custom desk running the length of the room. I love the idea of a mammoth desk, and the skill level didn’t seem to exceed my standard: putting large pieces of wood together in a fashion that would keep them from falling apart over extended usage.

We measured the corner where we wanted it to fit, and I got to work. I had grand ideas of getting beautiful ten-foot planks of some kind of lovely hardwood, and then I saw the prices at Lowe’s. I settled for three ten-foot pieces of regular untreated lumber, which I assume were pine but know from their labels were grown in Idaho forests.

building desk

The trick was finding three pieces that didn’t look like they had fallen off the back of the truck multiple times on the way from the sawmill. I dug through the piles until I found a few that were good on at least one side and relatively straight, and then I stared at them for ten minutes trying to figure out the math. Did I want three that were ten inches wide (which would have made the desk too wide) or three that were only eight inches wide (which would have been too narrow)?

My son, who was helping me out that day, finally sighed and said, “Dad, why don’t you just get a mix so the measurement comes out right?”

Genius. So the middle plank is an 8-inch and the outer two are 10-inchers.

stained desk

I joined them with the magic of a kreg-jig and only modest cussing (actually, it went together pretty easily) and then put 1 x 1 braces underneath and at the far lip. No fancy finishes here. This is going to be a workhorse. My wife reminded me that she wanted a hole drilled in the middle to run cords for those who don’t pen their epics in ink and blood, so I used a 2 1/4-inch hole saw inherited from my dad to make the whole thing look like a doorway for skinny giants.

My wife used witchcraft to find a stain that matched the engineered hardwood floor I installed in the room a couple weekends ago, and she filled in some of the more noticeable cracks with wood filler. On top of that went three coats of a water-based polycrylic, and then it was good to go.

finished desk

Here it is, ready for work. You can see one of the brackets that I used to mount this on the far wall lying on the floor in the middle image above. The brackets I used were probably overkill, but if you know anything about my projects you know they need to be built to withstand the hostility of four rowdy kids. There are two brackets on the far wall and one in the middle, and as you can see here the near end rests on a salvaged file cabinet that my wife painted a whimsical blue.

It’s level, it’s solid, and I have room to sprawl. I like to think that the grain of wood holds stories, maybe compounded of years of soil and sun and wind. If that’s the case, I hope some of that distills into the work I’ll be writing atop these planks.

Or at the very least that they don’t end up crushing my legs.