Geology Mythology: Theano Point and the Poetics of Time and Matter

This world of the Lake [1]

Since I moved to Michigan—the peninsular state shaped by ancient seas, volcanoes and mile-thick glaciers—my bookshelves have filled up with cairns of rock. Grey schist encircled by a thin white quartz ring, granite slabs with feldspar crystals, smooth sandstone pebbles, fine-grained basalts, Jacobsville redstones from the Keweenaw, an omarolluk from Saugatuck, limestone imprinted with tiny marine creatures, marbled pink discs from Alona Bay.  

In the fall of 2019 I spent a week at The Wilds’ wilderness-immersion artist-residency at Theano Point on eastern Lake Superior. Theano Point is a towering granite bluff at the edge of remote Alona Bay in Ontario, Canada. A bay Lorine Niedecker would have passed by when she circumnavigated the head lake with her husband in 1966. Like her I went to the lake to experience planetary deep-time exposed in rock layered and littered with past and present species—and marked by humans for over 10,000 years. The rocks reveal the stratified story of our biological origins; the over-layers, the more recent human history of occupation and extraction; and the water and its underlying sediments, the detritus of shoreline industries—logging, mining, milling paper, processing iron—and a myriad of nonnative species brought by hull and ballast.

Juxtaposition invites attention to connection [2]

I arrive at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, September 29 after driving straight north for eight hours from my home near Detroit. I pass sandhill cranes foraging in already-harvested fields as they migrate south to Texas and Mexico. I pass through customs at the border with my passport and my dog’s “papers.” I drive by the locks and canals at Sault Ste. Marie—

                                                                                               The waters working together
                                                                                               Gulls playing both sides [3]

—and its pulp and steel mills and hydroelectric sites. The international bridge to Canada crosses St. Marys River which drains Lake Superior into Lake Huron. The river’s rapids were once a meeting place where surrounding “bands and tribes came every summer to fish,” and where in 1668 Father Jacques Marquette established the Sainte Marie du Sault mission. In an 1820 drawing Henry Rowe Schoolcraft depicted a village of fifteen to twenty buildings on the American side and about forty Ojibwe lodges, which he wrote, contained “a population of about two hundred souls, who subsist wholly upon the white-fish.” The Canadian shore housed a few French and English families and the North West Company settlement. [4]

The North is one vast, massive, glorious corruption of rock and language [5]

Two hours north of the border, I turn off Trans-Canada highway 17 onto a slow two-track which terminates at the off-grid camp that sits on a sandy forested ledge at the base of the southside of Theano Point but above the northern edge of Alona Bay, part mountain and part shore. Camp consists of a 1967 Airstream “beachhouse,” an outdoor kitchen with a propane-fueled three-burner cooktop, an iron fire-ring, a solar shower, and an outhouse. The camper has been retrofitted with an army-issue barrel stove for heat, built to be transported. On the north end of the Airstream is a double bed, on the south a couch and desk, including a solar power battery inverter, with stove and wood in the middle. The wood floor, reclaimed from a school gymnasium, is partially painted in red, black, blue, and white.

Katie, my sole companion for the week, is a medium-sized mostly black mixed-breed dog. After briefly exploring our camp, we scramble down the ledge to the shoreline below and find a crescent shaped rocky beach. The beach rock has been sorted into similar size by waves. Bats fly overhead as it grows dark. At the Alona River’s rocky mouth, water cuts a path through the stones. A fish head bobs in foam; Katie inspects it. A palm-sized green frog, Rana clamitans, darts from rocks into water.

As I walk I take notes and photographs. Occasionally I don’t write down anything until I’m back indoors or in my car. On the relationship between walking and writing, Cole Swensen notes, it’s “in the fugue that writing and walking fuse, which implies, as has been proved, that writing is the erasure of memory, and as such, annihilates the past, as does walking.” [6]

Always litters of bones at the line between known and wild worlds [7]

The northern part of the Great Lakes region is still slowly rising from isostatic uplift, released from the pressure of glaciers from 10,000 years ago. As the Pleistocene ice retreated, entire geologic eras were scraped clean off and deposited in unsorted piles of rubble in New York, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana. Gaps like these are called unconformities; in the Michigan Basin, this particular gap is called “The Lost Interval.” No rock in the Superior region is less than 280 million years old. Fossil records leap from trilobite to the Paleo-Indians who hunted the margins at glacial ice-limb edges.

After Europeans came, the furs went first, then the trees. Sturgeon were tossed from nets onto piles in search of more favorable species, and then burned on pyres, or used to fuel boilers on steamboats. They are a rarity now, though the lakes don’t lack for bodies. As extinctions rise and biodiversity decreases, ecosystems will instead lack variety.

Wood is consumed quickly in the barrel-stove, and the camper is cold by morning. Katie shivers. I start another fire, then make coffee outside. We climb to the crow’s nest above camp and hear a hawk call, then see it fly off with bent wings. I think it’s a peregrine falcon. They nest in the cliffs here, but I don’t get a close enough look to be certain. I’ve only seen one once before through a scope across the Detroit River, perched on the “W” of the Whittier Hotel. The marginalia in my Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America maps a personal history of dates and places, a habit learned from poet Susan Tichy. We climb further up, only a thin layer of sand and pine needles cover the granite beneath my boots.

Logics of the operative conceptual framework [8]

On the point above camp, I spot a single red-throated loon and two lesser scaups in the bay, find smooth rock tripe and grey reindeer lichen and many more I can’t name. My field guide describes lichen as a lifestyle rather than an organism. Taxonomically lichens are included in fungi, but they are a cooperative venture between a fungus and an alga. With no filtering mechanism, they readily bioaccumulate toxins and can be analyzed to detect radiation or pollution levels. I write in my notebook, lichen life in the margins. And the names: maple dust lichen, sea storm lichen, common freckled pelt, peppered rock tripe. [9]

A coyote crosses the road on our drive north to Lake Superior Provincial Park. I glimpse the first juncos of the season. Today we hike the Nokomis trail where the southern Great Lakes-St. Lawrence forest gives way to the northern Boreal’s pitted beard lichen draping down from the trees. The line an altered forest. [10] We hike past ancient lake terraces and pitted boulders to a view of the valley and Lake Superior. Other remainders are left in the names of places. This trail, Nokomis, the Ojibwe name for the lake, Gi chi Gamiing, the Canadian prospector’s name for the point he patented, Theano. Trace history by syllables. Networks and assemblages. Sites for making meaning. [11]

We trek down to Old Woman Bay and see a single immature American golden plover ambling at the sandy river delta. A man fishes. I talk to his wife. She tells me he’s fishing for salmon. Tree sparrows scatter by the picnic tables as we leave. Katie sleeps. I am too tired for notes when we return.

Poetics in a context of collectivities [12]

I sleep with the light turned low like a child and have strange dreams. At night, every sound on the metal exterior is amplified. I go out with a flashlight to see what’s banging against the north end of the camper. First, I see a frog, momentarily stunned by the flashlight’s beam, and then notice the duct tape that has come loose from a window frame and pull it off. Back into bed. Cold face wash in the morning, then beach, then coffee. Katie curls on couch in camper as I read Geology of the Lake Superior Region by Gene L. LaBerge. Colder today and wet. Superior in light rain blurs into sky.

Asbestos fibers circulate Superior from discharged taconite tailings after processing and transshipping iron ore. Iron ore was once mined from banded-iron formations like those in the Gogebic range in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Bacteria and photosynthetic algae fossils from Proterozoic seas preserved in these iron-bands mark the planet’s chemical transformation into an oxygenated environment. Great blooms of these organisms made iron insoluble while also releasing oxygen into the atmosphere. This series of changes, now known as the Great Oxidation Event, eventually leads to multicellular life. Translate matter tied to time into image. Iron into mountain stay, into us.

The geologic knowledge gleaned from mining processes is tied to the excavation methods and historical circumstances of their discovery, and also to their side-effects and by-products. “The sleight of hand of the Janus-faced discipline of geology (as extractive economy and deep-time paleontology of life-forms) is to naturalize (and thus neutralize) the theft of extraction through its grammars of extraction.” [13] I burn more wood. Ash wafts down onto the pages of my book. Rain slows. One more trip to the beach for water before night. Sun almost set, we watch the final oranges fade, cloud and sun plait the still water surface. Katie barks at a single floating gull.

Exclusions matter both to bodies that come to matter and those excluded from mattering [14]

Another walk along the rocky beach with Katie reveals a golden-crowned kinglet, orange tuft hidden, and an unidentifiable fly catcher, only distinguishable from four others that breed here by its voice. Katie is impatient as I try to locate the black-capped chickadee in the branches above us—lake travel notched by chickadees whistling at the edges.

Almost three billion birds are missing from the skies since the 1970s, a decline of nearly 30%. Among the hardest hit, grassland birds and warblers. [15] It was the grassland species that made me fall in love with birding during my years living in central Illinois—the drably streaked field sparrow with its sweet soft trill, or the infrequent buzz of a grasshopper sparrow in the tall grasses. One factor in their decline may be neonicotinoids, a neurotoxic insecticide used to coat seeds. Exposed white-throated sparrows migrating up through Ontario needed extra time at stopover sights to recover from the toxin’s effects and had trouble gaining weight needed for flight, factors that led to reduced survival, postponed breeding and fewer offspring. [16] I write:

                                                                                              cause delays in travel in
                                                        a review of intentions but not their consequences [17]

Brian Teare, in “En Plein Air Poetics” writes that “the local level is in essence a scale model of far larger intertwinings, a small instance that repeats biospheric patterns that are of course literally quite different in scale and temporality.” [18] In Illinois, I heard the white-throated sparrow’s oh sweet Canada Canada Canada song outside my bedroom window on winter mornings, now, living farther north, I hear it in summer.

A journey in the field equipped now with facts and terminologies, matter for poetry [19]

Next morning outdoor shower, it’s a warmer day so mist is rising on the rocky point and in the trees and around the bay. We hike to the lookout bluff on the original mining road from 70 years ago that divides the point in two. Ditches, pipes, and craters score the landscape. Robert Campbell, a Canadian prospector, discovered trace amounts of uranium in the pitchblende here in 1948, and wrecked his small boat, the Theano, on the point’s shores. We veer left for the lookout; while straight leads to the abandoned uranium mine. Only traces were ever found and the mining lasted less than a year:

                                                          atom knowledge
                                                          distorts real & imagined

The Superior region’s crystalline basement is composed of mostly greenstone belts with granite intrusions. Gneiss belts are part of this underlying structure too, and at three billion years old are a billion years older than the greenstone. Comparatively, the lake is quite young, at only 10,000 years. Superior fills a basin created from volcanic activity and subsiding along the Midcontinent Rift and is edged by basaltic lava flows, like the Keweenaw Peninsula. Katie and I spent a week the previous fall across the lake on the Keweenaw on Rabbit Bay, a bay parenthetical to this one. A friend’s cottage heated by a cast-iron stove, a sandy beach, snow, small sauna, iced-leaves floating on lake skein. There I wrote a poem titled “Rabbit Bay,” and the form—dense blocks of verse broken up with short imagistic fragments—I would come to use in my Great Lakes sequences began to manifest. Manipulating scale in textual patterns. Soft rock overlying this basin was eroded by glacial lobes retreating then advancing until 7,500 years ago when the lake settled into its present shape. [20]

Heather Green, poet and translator, describes how in translating she envisions the poem as “a crystalline structure,” its points: images and nouns, and its “energies” that “travel between and among these points in the text.” She considers “the way the light of our attention” plays on those “multifarious connections.” [21] Theano Point’s massive sheets of ledge rock extend deep into the lake. I try to canoe alone around the point’s front edge but the water is choppy and the slapback from the bulging granite keeps sweeping me into the bay.

Apparatuses are not mere observing instruments but boundary-drawing practices [22]

Returning to Lake Superior Provincial Park, we trek around Orphan Lake through hardwood and evergreen forests. The trail ascends for a Superior vista, then descends quickly to a pebble beach where the waves receding over rock sound like radio static. We follow the trail back along Baldhead River, past waterfalls to the opposite side of Orphan Lake. Moose droppings here, though I never see any animals larger than a coyote during my trip. Katie hikes at least twice as far as me with her wandering and can barely wag her tail after. On our drive back dark comes quickly, around curves, up and down ridges, on road cut through rock. Lake and low clouds are separated in blackness by a thin mantle of coral-red.

Subjects produce their structures, and my placement in them, my situated knowledge, and the language, grammars and forms I use are part of the telling. Juxtaposition and parataxis bring the intra-action of elements and their contingencies into relief. [23] In the evening, I leave the camper for more water, but climb to crow’s nest first. Katie sleeps and so is left behind. Inside the forest it’s much darker than our camp in the clearing. A few steps in, I see a ruffed grouse, northern relative of the greater prairie-chicken native to Illinois. It shuffles back and forth in the leaf litter and then struts out of sight. I step forward and flush a dozen more from the branches.

Fast-moving out of slow geologic time [24]

Pine needle in coffee this morning. We walk the rocky beach in the bay again as far as we can until it’s too narrow and filled with large sharp boulders. One winter grebe drifts on water. Katie is restless, chickadee sounds its name, red squirrel scolds. Late morning back at camp, I hear frantic bird noises in one of the white spruces in the nook at the base of the point. A huge flock of white-winged crossbills has descended in search of seeds. Like their name implies, their bills are twisted, an adaptation that helps them pry open pinecones for seeds.

White spruce’s strong pliable roots were used by Anishinaabe people for lacings in the construction of birch bark canoes. Eastern white pines—old giants that covered much of the northern Great Lakes Basin—were mostly clear cut by the end of the 19th century, in part, for ship masts. Black spruce are easy to pick out in the cacophony with their squirrel cone-clipped club-shaped crowns. Balsam firs’ pointed spires reach beyond the canopy ceiling. It’s a clear night after an evening rain, and I walk down to the beach at night. The moon, suspended, lights a path on water.

On my last morning, I wake before 6. The stars are still out, but the moon is gone. I hear a great horned owl for the first time, place-formation-in-movement. [25] I write for a few hours and then we pack and clean up camp. Katie is confused when I make her wait outside the camper while I sweep out the sand. After I cross the border I call my partner, Matt. It’s a long drive and I’m tired. Woodsmokeskin, rockknowledge. I trade immersion for more familiar rhythms. I shower with hot water and then sleep. Katie sleeps too. In the morning my daughter Lucy lines up the rocks I’ve brought back by size as a wave would, then stacks them like a monument.


[1] Lorine Niedecker. “Lake Superior.” Collected Works. Ed. Jenny Penberthy. Berkley: University of California Press, 2002.

[2] Lynn Keller. Recomposing Ecopoetics. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2017, 23.

[3] Lorine Niedceker. “Lake Superior.” Collected Works. Ed. Jenny Penberthy. Berkley: University of California Press, 2002.

[4] Margaret Beattie Bogue. Around the Shores of Lake Superior. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2007, 198-200.

[5] Lorine Niedecker. “Lake Superior Country, a journal.” Lake Superior. Seattle: Wave Books, 2013, 11.

[6] Cole Swensen. “Sinclair.” On Walking On.New York: Nightboat Books, 2017.

[7] Ladan Osman. “Landscape Genocide.” Exiles of Eden. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2019.

[8] Joan Retallack. “What is Experimental Poetry and Why Do We Need It.” Jacket 2 32 (2007).

[9] Joe Walewski. Lichens of the North Woods. Duluth, Kollath + Stensaas Publishing, 2007.

[10] The original line reads “The line / is always quietly an altered forest.” Swenson, Cole. “Thoreau: Walking.” On Walking On. New York: Nightboat Books, 2017.

[11] The original is “reasons by syllables.” Crase, Daniel. “Niedecker and the Evolutional Sublime.” Lake Superior.Seattle: Wave Books, 2013. 40. Networks and assemblages and “sites for making meaning” are ideas/language I borrow from Karen Barad’s work on “quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning.”  Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007, 67.

[12] Joan Retallack. “What is Experimental Poetry and Why Do We Need It.” Jacket 2 32 (2007).

[13] Kathryn Yusoff. A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018.

[14] Karen Barad. Meeting the Universe Halfway. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007, 57.

[15] Elizabeth Pennisi. “Three Billion North American Birds Have Vanished Since 1970.” Science. 19 Sept. 2019. 28 Feb. 2021 <https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/09/three-billion-north-american-birds-have-vanished-1970-surveys-show>.

[16] Margaret L. Eng, Bridget J.M. Stutchbury and Christy A. Morrissey. “A Neonicotinoid Insecticide Reduces Fueling and Delays Migration in Songbirds.” Science. 13 Sept. 2019. 28 Feb. 2021 <https://science.sciencemag.org/content/365/6458/1177>.

[17] A paraphrase and slight twisting of the following original language: “Those others have been excluded from a review of our intentions but not from their consequences.” Retallack, Joan. “What is Experimental Poetry and Why Do We Need It.” Jacket 2 32 (2007).

[18] Brian Teare. “En Plein Air Poetics: Notes Toward Writing in the Anthropocene.” Poetry. 21 Jan. 2019. 28 Feb. 2021 <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2019/01/en-plein-air-poetics-notes-towards-writing-in-the-anthropocene>.

[19] Jenny Penberthy. “Writing Lake Superior.” Radical Vernacular. Ed. Elizabeth Willis. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008. 62.

[20] Most of the regional geological information is from these two books: LaBerge, Gene L. Geology of the Lake Superior Region. Phoenix: Geoscience Press, 1994. And, Grady, Wayne. The Great Lakes. Vancouver, Greystone Books, 2011.

[21] Heather Green. “What Sparks Poetry: Heather Green on ‘Villians.’” Poetry Daily. 22 Feb. 2022. 28 Feb. 2021. <https://poems.com/features/what-sparks-poetry/heather-green-on-villains/>.

[22] Karen Barad. Meeting the Universe Halfway. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007, 140.

[23] “Situated knowledge” is Donna Haraway’s concept, and “intra-action” Karen Barad’s.

[24] Niedecker qtd. in: Penberthy, Jenny. “Writing Lake Superior.” Radical Vernacular. Ed. Elizabeth Willis. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008, 69.

[25] Lynn Keller. Recomposing Ecopoetics. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2017, 182.

Tracy Zeman’s first book, Empire, recently won the New Measure Poetry Prize from Free Verse Editions. Her poems, essays, and book reviews have appeared in Chicago Review, The Cincinnati Review, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly and others. She lives outside Detroit, Michigan, with her husband and daughter, where she hikes and birds watches in all seasons.