August 23, 2015
Just in from a weekend at Beaver Island. I was up there with my friend and colleague Kyle Whyte, and my student Zach Piso. Kyle is scoping out the possibility of a workshop/retreat focused on environmental philosophy, and he has the idea the Beaver Island might be a good location for it. There are some major plus points. We spent a good 15-20 minutes watching a bald eagle that was lording it over Miller’s Marsh, then when came back by the marsh that evening, there were four sand hill cranes standing within a car-length of the road. In short, it more than passes the test for scenic beauty and opportunity to experience nature.
Of course, we’re post-postmodern hipsters here in the blog, so we’re a little put off with the whole idea of experiencing nature. Nature, after all, would be a social construction, wouldn’t it? Maybe we’re better off just saying that we enjoyed seeing a marsh populated by some sensationally large birds. Yet we could go the full hog and push the line that what’s what on Beaver Island is not exclusively the wildlife and relatively untrammeled ecosystems. It’s the overwhelming sense of place.
And there are many things of human origin that contribute to the sense of place. Michiganders typically know about this guy James Strang, at one point in contention with Brigham Young for leadership of the Mormans following the assassination of Joseph Smith in 1844. Strang wound up on Beaver Island with a contingent of disaffected Mormons, where he eventually declared something rather like the ISIL caliphate that is dominating the nightly news (albeit without the beheadings). There is pretty good stuff on Strang to be found at Wikipedia, so there’s really not much point in going on and on about him here.
We might be slightly better advised to indulge a tangent on Protar. Protar’s house is on the National Register of Historic Places (or some such official designation), and we were able to drive up and walk around it without interference. Protar is a long story, but he is a revered figure up there because he served as the island’s only doctor prior to his death in 1925. He was, however, trained as an actor, leading me to think that he was the 19th century version of Marcus Welby (I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV). Tip of the Protar iceberg, these facts, but definitely part of the Beaver Island sense of place.
We did hear some of the Island’s distinctive Celtic music, which relates to the Irish on the Island. And we should also note that there were Odawa living on several of the islands in the Beaver Archipelago back in the days of Strang and Protar. They were excellent fishermen (as were the Irish) until a sudden collapse in the fisheries there in the 1940s. It occurred to me that Beaver Island is a lot less accessible today than it was in the 19th century, when there were hundreds of vessels plying the waters of Lake Michigan on a regular basis. These days you can fly in all year around (not something they did in Protar’s time) but the ferry that runs to Charlevoix is the main commercial ship going in and out on a regular basis.
I went up there looking for the North American home of Simone de Beauvoir, the prominent French existential feminist. I was thrown off by some work by a contemporary existential feminist who refers to de Beauvoir as “the Beaver.” I won’t speculate on the subliminal themes here, but Kyle informed me that the French would have referred to the place as l’île Castor. Food? Not so much in our brief experience. We did eat some local whitefish, but though I’d say the places we dined were just fine, I don’t think you’d go to Beaver Island for food culture. That’s generally true of the U. P., too. It’s a bet they’re missing so far.
And we didn’t actually see any beavers.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University