An Interview with Dave Dempsey author of “The Heart of the Lakes”

The Rapids where Lake Huron enters the St. Clair River, ca. 1900-1925 (LAC MIKAN no.3336384)

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NiCHE editor Daniel Macfarlane recently interviewed Dave Dempsey about his new book titled “The Heart of the Lakes”.

DM: Can you briefly tell the reader what your book is about?

It’s a story about water and its role in the development, decline and recovery of a specific place, the water-dependent corridor of Michigan that spans two straits and Lake St. Clair.  I tell the story not in a linear, historical fashion but as the water flows, from Lake Huron to Lake Erie.

DM: Why did you choose “water” as the lens through which to explore the history of this region? What can a focus on water tell us about history?

To a great extent, how a society treats water reveals its character, even its soul. Water is essential to life, and if we treat it with neglect or abuse, we’re abusing ourselves.  In a region where water is naturally abundant, that is doubly true.  Water is an excellent prism through which to view history.

DM: The Detroit River, Lake St. Clair, and St. Clair River are all international border waters – how has this affected their history? Has being a border led to better environmental protection, or worse?

I think this has evolved over time.  For a century, the U.S. and Canada treated boundary waters as a pie sliced in two pieces, one for me and one for you.  At that point domestic waters received more government attention, although far from enough. Since the signing of the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, these waters and others along the U.S.-Canadian border have received a growing amount of binational attention, particularly as ecosystem thinking took hold in the 1970s.  The two nations and tribes and First Nations truly do regard them as shared waters now.   Of course, they and we still have a way to go to achieve a full recovery of this corridor as well as the Great Lakes as a whole.

DM: Do you think Americans and Canadians view these three border waters differently? 

Not as much as they used to, but it’s true that they value them sometimes for different reasons. The most notable difference in the corridor is on the upper reaches of the St. Clair River, adjacent to what’s called Ontario’s Chemical Valley.  On the Canadian side is a job-intensive industry with a checkered pollution history. On the U.S. side are a number of public drinking water supplies that have suffered from spills on the Canadian side. In recent decades there’s been more communication and cooperation across the boundary, but more could be done.

DM: What are the challenges and opportunities that come with writing history for a general audience?

The main challenge is restraining my urge to wade into the arcana of environmental history. The level of mercury in the Detroit River in parts per million in 1970 may fascinate me, but it’s unlikely to have a similar significance to a reader.  So writing history for a general audience is good discipline; it requires a writer to think more deeply about what matters and what doesn’t.

DM: What did you learn that surprised you while making this book?

That things are better in this corridor than I realized.  Big problems persist but we’ve come a long way.  A century ago these waters were treated as an open sewer. Now we’re seeing a recovery of fish and wildlife and a return to enjoying and protecting these waters. People are catching edible fish, swimming in these waters, and celebrating. It’s refreshing.  I’ve spent most of my career hearing about environmental risk and damage.  A good news story renews my hope.

What makes you most optimistic about the future of Detroit-St. Clair water corridor? What worries you the most? Is there a sustainable future in store for the geographic region covered in this book?

My optimism chiefly comes from my increased awareness, as a result of writing the book, about the many people and institutions working together to restore this corridor. The Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan, municipal, state and federal governments, and most of all concerned citizens.  Human energy and will is the closest thing to an inexhaustible resource that we’ll ever see.  Not surprisingly for someone who has spent a career around government, my chief worry is that special interests will once again buy off politicians and reverse this progress.

As for a sustainable future, we can get there if we can agree on a definition.  Right now the term means something to a relative view.  We have to communicate, educate and listen better to avoid squandering the gains we’ve made. 

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Daniel is an Associate Professor in the School of the Environment, Geography, and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. He is an editor for The Otter-La loutre and is part of the NiCHE executive. A transnational environmental historian who focuses on Canadian-American border waters and energy issues, particularly in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, Daniel is the author or co-editor of six books on topics such as the St. Lawrence Seaway, border waters, IJC, and Niagara Falls. His book "Natural Allies: Environment, Energy, and the History of US-Canada Relations" was published in summer 2023. His newest book, an environmental history of Lake Ontario, will be published in September 2024. He is now working on a book about Lake Michigan and eventually hopes to eventually write a book on the environmental history of the Great Lakes. Website: Twitter: @Danny__Mac__

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