Driving along the freeway at a good 80 miles per hour, it’s easy to forget just how pretty Michigan is. Surrounded by endless suburbs, seas of soybean, and the perfect symmetry of replanted forests, Michigan looks like the most boring place in the world. Once sacred Indian trails are now well-trodden paths to shopping malls and bland office buildings. The waterfalls, the valleys, the lakes, the sand dunes – it’s hard to imagine the paradise that waits beyond the fluttering plastic bags and McDonald’s wrappers.
Leave it to Detroit-born, former Petoskey resident Sufjan Steven to remind us of Michigan’s rustic beauty and deep history. His 2003 album Michigan conveys in its gentle folksy strums and quiet, almost whispered passages the hushed charm of the self-titled Great Lakes State with unparalleled grace. Tinkling percussive instruments recreate the Upper Peninsula’s Tahquamenon Falls; a cricket teams up with a mighty cymbal, banjo, a piano, and an ensemble of horns and woodwinds to evoke the Sleeping Bear Dunes and Sturgeon Bay.
Don’t get it confused, though – Stevens covers the usual suspects, as well, dutifully chronicling the plights of cities like Detroit and Flint. Here, the comforting patterns or arpeggios of Stevens’ music are whipped up into a frenzied condition, a deliriously dense symphony reflecting the chaotic confluence of man and nature on the Detroit and Flint rivers.
“Once a great place. Now a prison,” he croons on “Oh Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head”.
Still, one senses in his music that the heart of Michigan is somewhere far north of the large metropolises, pumping away in eddying currents in hidden, mysterious glades. Forge and bend steel and iron as we way, we can never produce raw ore. It’s a power that exists beyond us and yet defines our very existence.
Stevens’ “Holland”, I’d say, probably describes the Michigan experience best. A song about young love in the summertime, it ends with the singer naked on Lake Michigan with his girlfriend. The never-ending waves, the moments lost in time and lost in dreams, the memories – it’s the stories, the experiences that are our real treasure, not any particular city or building. I don’t care if it’s inner city Detroit or a cabin near Cheboygan. It doesn’t matter. It’s all just a backdrop for the quirks of the human condition and the majesty of nature.
I’ve had a hard time capturing that sentiment in my own writing, I think. How do you properly describe the bums on 3rd Street in Detroit, the juxtaposition of “secured” parking lots and expensive restaurants with such abject, visible poverty? Or how about when Detroit’s Jefferson Avenue finally gives way to Lake Shore Drive in Grosse Pointe Farms and the picturesque blue of Lake St. Clair floods your eyes? The rush, the exhilaration of being rid of all the tall fences and manicured hedges.
Magic, both black and white – like running down a steep sand dune, weightless and free.