English graduate students and faculty members from Northern Michigan University delved into environmental fiction and ecocriticism during a stay on Granite Island Oct. 18-20, surrounded by the grandeur and moods of Lake Superior. NMU is the only public university in the nation to offer a course held in a lighthouse. The immersive experience included outdoor exploration, group discussions, community building and deep writing time.
Professors Jon Billman and Amy Hamilton teach the ecocriticism and environmental writing course. They accompanied three graduate students to the island.
“Isolation and humility are important for a writer's growth,” Billman said. “Writers learn about themselves when they are forced to submit to the rhythms of such a colossal and powerful entity as Lake Superior. This course is the opportunity to go from classroom theory to outdoor practice in one of the most incredible ecoscapes on the planet. Northern offers the most dynamic opportunity of any writing program in the country. To be able to watch a sunrise or a storm come in from the tower of a historic light station is a special opportunity.”
Students and faculty wrote their field observations in journals, including sketches and watercolor paintings. They reviewed books, maps and historic lighthouse keepers' logs. Discussions incorporated course readings, such as Tristan Gooley's How to Read Water and Louise Erdrich's Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country. Students also worked on their capstone writing projects related to Lake Superior and/or Granite Island. Participants were Kristen Codey, Becca Matteson and Eli Sparkman.
“Granite Island's inspirations are multiple and various: from NASA's Truth Station, to the yellow lichen on the boulders of its shores; from the architecture of the 1868 lighthouse built by Civil War Veterans, to the infinite faces of Lake Superior's surface,” wrote Sparkman while reflecting on the weekend. “We could both cozy up as a group in front of the living room gas stove, or seclude ourselves up in the lighthouse tower for a solo writing mission.
“I wrote poems (I don't even ever write poetry!), I did free-writes for sections of my Novel in Progress, I made a map of the island, I rummaged through the bookshelves and transcribed sailor jargon and history. With the mainland of Marquette out in the periphery, I felt both attached enough to my program and writing life and new home to remember my purpose here, but also far away enough to imagine big and dreamy and different like the fiction I like to make.”
Codey said coordinating trips with the wind and water, along with other logistics, was quite a task, but the 360-degree view of the lake made every minute of planning worthwhile.
“The pinks, purples, and oranges reflecting on the waves were truly awe-inspiring,” she wrote. “I loved capturing the moments in photographs and in my writing both in creative pieces and in my Island Journal. I have never taken a class where I was fully immersed in the environment and seeing Ecocriticitical literary references first hand. I've learned so much about Lake Superior and continue to learn about the Great Lake region. I highly recommend this class to anyone with an interest in ecocriticism, recreational outdoors, and creative writing to take this class. I have learned so much about myself as an explorer and writer.”
The former U.S. Coast Guard Light Station is perched on a rocky mass protruding from the water about 12 miles north of Marquette. NMU alumnus and former trustee Scott Holman owns the property, and is committed to making it accessible to his alma mater for research and educational activities.
Granite Island also serves as an offshore solar radiation-monitoring site for NASA's Clouds and the Earth's Radiant Energy System (CERES) experiment. English and science converged when another MFA student, Olivia Kingery, ventured out to the island one afternoon to assist a NASA crew with its climate station, and to winterize the island. The students participating in the writing residency also became adept at reading the NOAA marine near-shore weather forecast, Billman said.
For more information on writing and other degree programs in English, visit nmu.edu/English.