Book Excerpt: “Impermanence: Life and Loss on Superior’s South Shore”

The following is excerpted from Impermanence: Life and Loss on Superior’s South Shore (University of Minnesota Press, 2023) by Sue Leaf. In the memoir, Leaf shares her lifelong connection with the south shore of Lake Superior, the lake’s natural and human histories, and her experiences occupying a rustic cabin on a rapidly eroding lakeside cliff. In the following excerpt, she ponders the future of the property.

A larger question remains: who does, in truth, own the beach? Who is responsible for protecting it? In a moral universe, is the beach privately owned or part of a communal trust? What would happen if, as Dr. Chu predicts, beaches disappear? People would lose the solace that water, sand, and wind afford, the wide stretch of horizon that offers the long view, something that is sorely needed these days. I have found that a long view on a beach encourages a long view in my life.

Beach is also habitat for wildlife — access to the water for beavers and mink, to food for migrating shorebirds. Endangered piping plovers nest on exactly those kinds of sand beaches that are disappearing north of Milwaukee. The rare little bird with its rounded head and black neckband has responded well to protection under the Endangered Species Act and had a record number of breeding pairs in 2017. If Lake Michigan’s west-coast beach disappears, that is habitat lost to a recovering species.

We did not expect to confront the tension between individual property rights and the commons in 1988 when we first stood on the red clay cliff and gazed out over the water. Writ large, like Concordia’s effort, or writ small, like our neighbor’s, we should all be wrestling with where the line is drawn.

As I age, I find myself in odd harmony with the ever-changing beach and the receding red clay cliff.

When I was younger, I was aware in a theoretical way that life was constantly changing. I accepted that, but took comfort that even though I, myself, was temporary, the wider world would remain, for my children and my grandchildren. There would be white pines and chickadees, the Boundary Waters, and the Grand Canyon in all their majesty. What thinking person really believes that today? In my sixties, I am all too acutely aware of how transient our pleasures are. Technology increases in complexity, and the number of people using it grows exponentially. Global warming casts its pall. I can barely acquiesce to my own death, much less that of our cherished cabin site, much less that of the natural world.

But time at the lake should be sacred time, and so I am intent on making peace with this unsettled existence. I cultivate serenity, looking to the horizon as the sun rises and scanning the water to see what eternity looks like. I gaze across at Minnesota’s shore, its distant hills bluish and hazy. It is my native land. It tells me where I’ve been. It is silent on where I’m going.