The sun shimmers on the blood red water of the Cass River, and fluffy, white seed hairs blanket the shore like snow under the shade of the slender cottonwood trees. Five Michigan Department of Natural Resources workers in olive green shirts wade into the burbling water in galoshes to measure its width and depth with retractable rulers, the arpeggios of the songbirds playing that mysterious chord of nature.
The workers make small talk for a few minutes as they etch their careful measurements onto their notebooks. Satisfied, two of the workers walk down a short distance and stretch a net through the river as another worker pours green dye and the chemical rotenone into the murky depths. Soon, dead fish begin to float to the surface, the rotenone blocking the fishes’ uptake of oxygen at the cellular level. All told, several hundreds of pounds of fish are caught in the outstretched net, as another worker sprays potassium permangranate into the water to neutralize the rotenone as it continues downstream.
The year before, in 1985, the DNR had planted an eye-popping, reel-tingling 2.7 million walleye in the river in the hopes of revitalizing the local game population. Yet, despite such Neptunian efforts, a detailed survey of the day’s catch found exactly zero walleye. Where had the fiction gone? Disappointed, and their job done, the DNR workers dump the catch – a collection, predominately, of undesirable “bottom feeders”. Maybe, the workers wonder aloud, a total fish kill so the river can be replanted with bass, pike, walleye, catfish, and minnows isn’t out of the question.
At a bend in the Cass River, however, a different scene plays out. On ancient, exposed sandstone, a shirtless Indian archer tracks the footprints of the local animals, his bow at the ready, his arrow tipped with understanding. Bathed in a heavenly light and covered with face paint, he knows the ways of man, the ways of the animals, and the ways of the sky and earth. Through his immersion in nature, he has become one, the supreme hunter. An etching of a spiral symbolizes his awareness, the eternal circle of life and the interconnectedness of our actions with the environment.
Few, however, come to the Sanilac Petroglpyhs to learn such lessons. Most, like me, are white tourists, ogling the glyphs that Indians used hundreds of years ago to communicate sacred knowledge with an air of bemused, thoroughly Western curiosity. A fence and a detached, scientific DNR guide separate us from whatever we might’ve learned about ourselves, our cars beckoning to us once we’re done, a welcomed escape back to our regular, regimented lives. Air conditioning, the radio, our cell phones – real life.
The Sanilac petroglyphs are only visible today because of a massive forest fire in Michigan’s thumb in 1881. At the time, the logging business was booming in the area, the thumb’s native pine in high demand. The land however, stripped of the protection of the tall pines, was defenseless against the oppressive, dry heat and high winds of that summer, and when a wildfire set the town of Bad Axe ablaze on September 5, the flames it fueled lit up the surrounding countryside like so much tinder.
Panicked, many survivors fled into the Cass River, black, acrid smoke blocking the sun’s light as far as the eye could see. Almost 300 people died from September 5-7, and thousands more were left homeless and jobless in the Great Forest Fire of 1881’s aftermath. It was a catastrophe, and unceremoniously marked the end of region’s logging industry and a return to an agricultural economy.
About the only positive, on a human level, was that the fire had cleared the dense undergrowth that had for so long had obscured the Sanilac petroglyphs from the loggers and travelers on nearby Cass Road. But did its first discoverers, wandering the scorched earth after the fire, grasp the true meaning of the messages on the smooth sandstone? Or was it but a transient glimmer in their minds, a momentary star that fast faded into the blackness of time?