Dan Egan's The Death and Life of the Great Lakes

I’m as anti-pun as the next guy, so forgive me: I was sucked in by the sea lampreys.

I started Dan Egan’s The Death and Life of the Great Lakes with the same admixture of dread and enthusiasm I feel staring any book on the environment. We’re of course well into destroying the world as we presently understand and live in it, and we’ve got a fair shot of making the whole damn place uninhabitable for our species (life itself will go on; our bipedal + noodly one mightn’t), but in the same way a harrowing fight with one’s spouse can snap one to attention and realize how vital the partnership is, how worth taking more serious and tender care of, there’s a way in which contemporary environmental books, at least for me, make me suddenly more attentive to what we need now to be doing, what ameliorative actions we might presently take.

And so you buckle in on getting one of these contemporary environmental books, hoping there’s enough fascinating stuff to distract from the catastrophe we're continually wreaking regarding the environment. I suppose one upside of living in (but perhaps not through) the anthropocene is that there are really spectacular books to help (some of) us as we try to understand what’s happening. You’ve likely got your list of such books; my two biggies are Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction (2014) and William Stolzenburg’s Where The Wild Things Were (2008), which, together, present a terrifying and illuminating picture about not just the natural environment and how it’s shifting but about humans, as animals, as part of the food chain, part of the animal kingdom. That last aspect—that we’re animals—is a fact I’d argue’s too often lost on us; we think because we’ve got cargo shorts and tire-pressure-sensing valves on cars that we’re different from the lower-down beasts, but we’re emphatically not, at all. In lots of ways (Kolbert does a sensational job of making this clear), our works and methods are simply what any beasts would be given our special gifts (top five human gifts: omnivorousness, endurance, ability to withstand temperature fluctuations, opposable thumbs, language). Anyway—you should read those two books as well.

But today's obligation is to come clean and admit that my duo of biggies is now a trio. Dan Egan’s The Death and Life of the Great Lakes is somehow a missing piece I didn’t even know I’ve been hankering for. To be totally upfront: I'm from Minnesota, and I've got a massive chip on my shoulder about the Great Lakes (given my great state’s bordered by the biggest of em), and so conceivably some chunk of my appreciation for Egan’s stunner’s simple home-state boosterism.

However, my own biases notwithstanding, what Egan’s done here is written a brutal, beautiful take on the last 150-ish years of industrial development regarding the Great Lakes—brutal because of how stupidly, how shortsightedly it’s now clear we’ve been acting, beautiful because, almost (I think) without intending, Egan’s offered a portrait of humans and human engineering that’d make you want to cheer if you weren’t forced to reckon with how monumental the problems our engineering engineers.

So, to get to the sea lampreys, let’s go all the way back to the building of the dams in New York, those that allowed the Great Lakes to suddenly cease being “one giant, slow-motion river flowing west-to-east, with each lake dumping like a bucket into the next until all the water is gathered in the St Lawrence River and tumbles seaward.” (13). That giant river was, as Egan makes clear, a closed system, meaning the ecosystem that developed there was both perfectly unique and balanced: over tens of thousands of years, an ecosystem was able to strike a balance, with various species of fish filling different roles. (Now’s a fair time to note that, yes, lots of other places were closed/unique/balanced before humans came along changing them, but there are no examples of larger or more diverse food chains; the Great Lakes were and are so big it’s hard to even compare them to other bodies of water).

And why were the Great Lakes so cut off? Because “[t]he four ‘upper’ lakes—Erie, Huron, Michigan and Superior—lie some 600 feet above the level of the ocean, which made them unreachable from the Atlantic by boat.” (7) So the water flowed one way, preventing foreign elements accessing them, and they were just way the hell up, making it damn near impossible for foreign elements to get in.

But then we built dams, and here’s the only downside of Egan’s book (though it’s not even really fair to call it a downside). The first dams, which connected Lake Ontario to the Atlantic, were navigational dams (meaning they used gravity, opening and closing chambers to allow water to flow in or out and allowing boats to rise; you should look this stuff up on your own if you don’t already know it; the same mechanics apply in all the 29 locks+dams on the Mississippi, and my reason for handling them briefly here has to do with my own familiarity with the Upper and Lower St Anthony Locks on the Mississipi, locks I spent my early 20s moving continuously through), and these locks/dams allowed boats to come from the Atlantic into the pristine ecosystem of the Great Lakes.

Badness ensues, as you can probably already guess. Among the badness was the sea lamprey, which is a disgusting little transluscent creature whose whole life depends on latching onto a host fish with a big ring of painfully sharp teeth and parasiting it to death. The sea lamprey already existed in something of a stasis in its native habitat—the Atlantic Ocean—but, in hitching a ride on some boat up into the Great Lakes, it was able to find a whole new ballgame to conquer, and conquer it did. Specifically, the sea lamprey destroyed the trout population of the great lakes, which, by itself, sound like no big deal, until you realize that the Great Lake trout were something like apex predators, critical lynchpins in a foodchain that’d been judiciously balanced, naturally, over centuries. The lampreys destroyed all that.

This is where things get biblical: the sea lampreys begat the alewives, the alewives begat the salmon, and, in each of these begettings, Egan shows how the delicate and vital balance struck early on in the Great Lakes is compromised, fractured, destroyed. This review’s not even covering a quarter of the salient, gruesome detail—wait till the full story on how Chicago re-routed a sewage-infested stream, or about how the zebra mussels found a way into the Lakes. But the point is that Egan’s done a horrific, incredible job sketching how it is we’ve ended up with Great Lakes which, a century ago, provided enough fish for everyone in the vicinity but which now regularly only produce toxic algea blooms (believe it or not, it’s the mussels fault for that).

And while Egan offers story after story that makes you almost dizzy at the idiocy of the folks making the decisions, it’s hard not to read the entirety of The Death and Life of the Great Lakes as an almost unbearably sad story about not even hubris, but notions of progress. Those guys that built the first dams? They certainly didn’t have it in mind to destroy one of the most interesting, vital ecosystems in existence. The Big Baddie in the book is ballast water—H2O taken on by ocean-faring vessels, H2O which is used to literally balance the ships and which, by a trick of legislation, isn’t required to be sanitized, meaning boats enter the Great Lakes waterways with all sorts of tiny freeloaders—quagga mussels, sea lampreys, etc.—in their holds. The ballast water issue’s been done for an obvious reason: by not dictating that boats need to fully decontaminate their ballast holds, industry is promoted. And this point’s small, but worth acknowledging: Egan’s right to be furious and hurt about this, but there’s something amazing about the ingenuity involved in building all this stuff in the first place. Are the costs greater than the rewards? Egan’ll likely convince you that, yes, the costs are too high. I agree with him. Yet even knowing that, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes isn’t just sorrowful to read for how much we’ve destroyed an ecosystem, but for a larger, scarier notion, the one that dictates that humans, through their inventiveness and ingenuity, are almost guaranteed to fuck up the old orders, even when we don’t even really want to.

Egan’s is a hell of a book. You should read it if you care about the planet at all, and, of course, if you don’t, you shouldn’t bother reading to begin with.


Weston Cutter

WESTON CUTTER is from Minnesota and is the author of You'd Be A Stranger, Too (BlazeVOX Books, 2010) and All Black Everything (New Michigan Press, 2012).