The Death and Life of the Great Lakes

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I’ve just finished reading Dan Egan’s excellent book The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. It’s essential reading for anyone looking to understand the history and ecology of our freshwater seas.

I first heard of Dan Egan’s book, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes during an interview on WORT radio here in Madison. I caught the final few minutes of the discussion and made a mental note to check out the book sometime soon. It took me a few more months than intended to get a copy in my hand, but it was well worth the wait. The book is outstanding. Not only is is one of the most comprehensive summaries of the ecology and history of the Great Lakes I’ve ever read, it’s also a real page-turner.

Page-turner isn’t exactly what you might expect to hear about an environmental history book, but Egan’s skilled writing propels the story along through time and rapid ecological change. At times the book reads like a mystery, with a nugget of information planted at the start of a chapter drawing the reader’s attention through the subsequent pages in search of the surprise twist that you know is coming. The book is immensely engaging and speaks volumes to the care and craftsmanship that the author put into its research and writing. 

Personal interviews and historical research fill Death and Life from beginning to end. Egan starts out with basic hydrology–where the water comes from and where it goes–and then launches into the story of how the once landlocked lakes were connected to the sea to form a fourth seacoast intended to rival the economies of the most powerful US ports. From there the story cascades through invasions of exotic fish, aquatic population crashes and explosions and human interventions that promise to save the lakes, only to falter in the face of new invaders and new ecological disruptions. Through it all you have to marvel both at the massive damage caused by connecting these freshwater seas to the ocean, and the ability of the Great Lakes ecosystem to adapt to new species and establish new food webs that have the potential to restore native fish stocks that were once on the edge of survival. 

In the end, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes strikes a tone that is both cautionary and hopeful. The book outlines simple but politically challenging steps that could prevent further ecological disruptions and showcases a few stories of rebirth in the face of serious environmental challenges. The Lakes have been in an almost constant state of change since the first connection to the sea was made by the Welland Canal, and at first that change was entirely destructive. The Great Lakes certainly have died in many ways over the last 70 or more years, but they’ve also been reborn again and again. The news isn’t all bad, there is reason to be hopeful that future change can restore a balance to the Lakes that has been absent for decades.

Egan’s book does tells a compelling tale of destruction, of ongoing challenges and of the ecological rebirth in the Great Lakes. He provides essential background to help us understand the ecology of the system as a whole, and a framework of understanding to guide future choices about how best to protect the Lakes. If you live an play in the Great Lakes Basin or care about the future of clean water and healthy fisheries anywhere, you’ll want to make sure you read this essential book.

If you’re looking for a quick summary of the book you might want to check out the following interviews that Dan Egan has done over the past several months.

On Point Interview

Minnesota Public Radio Interview

PBS Newshour Now Read This

Living on Earth

WORT Interview

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