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The Great Lakes: The Natural History of a Changing Region

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Ever since French explorer Samuel de Champlain's first taste of what he called "la mer douce" -- the freshwater sea -- the Great Lakes have been admired, exploited, and renewed. This vast region is a study in contrasts: a hub of industry that's the resting spot for billions of migrating birds. 40 million residents, immense untamed forests. 95 percent of North America's fresh water and a dumping ground for poisonous wastes. The Great Lakes is an authoritative, accessible look at an ecosystem in eternal flux. Written by one of North America's most acclaimed science and nature writers, the book explores the area's geological formation and its role in human history; its diverse plant, bird, and animal species; and its significant physical, climatic, and environmental features. This captivating tribute to the Great Lakes region is also an essential guide to the challenge of preserving the natural world.

320 pages, Hardcover

First published September 26, 2007

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About the author

Wayne Grady

51 books34 followers
Wayne Grady is the award-winning author of Emancipation Day, a novel of denial and identity. He has also written such works of science and nature as The Bone Museum, Bringing Back the Dodo, The Quiet Limit of the World, and The Great Lakes, which won a National Outdoor Book Award in the U.S. With his wife, novelist Merilyn Simonds, he co-authored Breakfast at the Exit Café: Travels Through America. And with David Suzuki he co-wrote the international bestseller Tree: A Life Story.

He has also translated fourteen works of fiction from the French, by such authors as Antonine Maillet, Yves Beauchemin, and Danny Laferrière. In 1989, he won the Governor General’s Award for his translation of Maillet’s On the Eighth Day. His most recent translation is of Louis Hamelin’s October 1970, published by House of Anansi Press in 2013.

Grady teaches creative writing in the optional-residency MFA program at the University of British Columbia. He and Merilyn Simonds live in the country north of Kingston, Ontario.

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Displaying 1 - 18 of 18 reviews
Profile Image for Tim Martin.
690 reviews45 followers
March 4, 2017
This was a good, beautifully illustrated, almost-coffee-table-book overview of the natural history of the waters and land around (and beneath) the Great Lakes. I found it a nice, general introduction and it enjoyed how it was gorgeously illustrated with many excellent full color photos, some beautiful illustrations (the fish ones especially), and a huge variety of maps.

The first chapter, “The Freshwater Seas,” is a good overview of the Great Lakes as a whole and what this book in particular is going to cover. There is some human history – Native American and European – of the region, the author discussing for instance how Champlain dubbed the waters of Georgian Bay (and by extension, the entire Great Lakes) la mer douce (“the freshwater sea”). Early on the author sets forth how the book is going to be organized, as it will look at the various ecosystems of the Great Lakes. Choosing – sensibly – to focus on trees as the basis of the region’s terrestrial ecosystems, the author said that despite the existence of industrial areas, farmland, wetlands, etc. the region is essentially “a series of contiguous forested ecosystems.” A helpful colored map shows the eight forest (or forest-grassland transition) ecosystems that make up the region.

One sobering fact from the first chapter is that only about 1% of the Great Lakes is “new water, added by rivers and the streams feeding them from the surface, by groundwater reservoirs around their peripheries, and by precipitation.” All this added water is offset by outflow to other lakes and eventually the sea as well as evaporation.

The second chapter is all about geology, the history of the land itself, the organisms that used to live there, and how the Great Lakes were formed. Though the Great Lakes has a rich fossil history, I hadn’t realized that thanks to the glaciers of the Pleistocene, “geologically speaking, there is virtually nothing in the Great Lakes basin between the Devonian and the recent past,” something referred to sometimes as the Big Gap. Lots of interesting paleontology is explored briefly (accompanied by a few illustrations), such as that in 1888 British ornithologist Henry Seebohm proposed a theory of adaptive radiation for shorebirds, that alternating periods of cooling and warming drove waves of shorebirds from their homes in the polar regions, each wave becoming separated populations that eventually developed into different species (“a difference of a few degrees of longitude at the start could mean the difference between one destination in southern North America and another in tropical Asia”) and that archaeological sites in such places as Gainey, Michigan and Cardoc, Ontario showed that Native Americans hunted a variety of now extinct megafauna such as woolly mammoths and mastodons. If there is one major takeaway from this chapter, it was that the Great Lakes are astonishingly young, “having assumed their present shape only about 4,000 years ago, around the times that the great pyramids were being built in Egypt.”

Chapter three is one of three chapters that focuses on one of the forested ecosystems of the Great Lakes region, in this case the boreal forest, which stretches along a significant length of the northwestern Great Lakes basin around Lake Superior. Part of the largest forest type in the world, the circumpolar boreal forest comprises one-third of the Earth’s forested lands (but only 14% of the forest biomass, as trees in equatorial rain forests are often considerably bigger). The Great Lakes basin portion represents the southernmost extent of the boreal forest, a “close-canopied forest in which the predominant tree species are a black and white spruce, jack pine, and to a lesser extent, red and white pine, balsam fir, and tamarack” along with quaking and big-toothed aspen, paper birch, and balsam poplar. As one might guess from that list of tree species, information on trees comprises a large portion of the chapter and for the most part it is interesting (Black Spruce I read for instance makes up more than 50% of the forest biomass, has shallow roots – never penetrating than about 8 inches into the soil – and has been found growing on floating islands of sphagnum moss with no soil whatsoever, albeit as small, stunted specimens).

Chapter three isn’t all about the trees though, as the author delves into sphagnum moss (a host to entire colonies of microbes, insects, and worms, which in turn feed a wide variety of vertebrates, that like “a coral reef in an ocean…acts as a living substrate for hundreds of complex and interdependent organisms”), woodland caribou (increasingly scarce and unlike their northern counterparts do not migrate and do not form large herds), the many owls that call the forest home, and the “irrepressible gray jay,” sometimes called the moose bird, the venison heron, or whiskey jack or whisky john, a corruption of its Cree name, wis-ka-tjon.

Chapter four is devoted to the most extensive forest of the Great Lakes basin, the Great Lakes- St. Lawrence Forest, which is itself divided into several different ecoregions. Trees once again get a good portion of the chapter as the author discussed the major species of this region – the sugar maple, American beech, yellow birch, American basswood, eastern hemlock, eastern white cedar, and eastern white pine. My favorite tree by far that was discussed was the white pine, a tree once so important for the British navy that large forest reserves were set aside for naval use, something that infuriated the American colonists as much as the tax on tea and was a major spark for the Revolution; “it was not for nothing that the emblem on the first flag of the revolutionary forces was an eastern white pine.” Overall this was an excellent chapter, with lots of great information and photos of moose, beaver, muskrats, porcupines, black bears, monarch butterflies, morels, and more. Though only touched upon briefly, the author wrote that an “isolated, remnant population of the endangered red wolf,” known as the Algonquin wolf lives in Ontario, a fact I was unfamiliar with (as I had thought the red wolf was confined to the southeastern United States).

Chapter five was focused on the Carolinian forest, dominant in the southeastern portion of the Great Lakes basin, a species rich ecosystem that is “an exotic incursion of tropical lushness into the temperate zone, an intriguing hint of the southern bayou country” (though that is a characterization I would take exception to, as this region he describes is not particularly “bayou” like and is a dominant type of forest though the warm temperate southeastern United States). At least in the Great Lakes basin, 80% of this forest was at one time sugar maple and American beech, along with American basswood, nine species of oaks, hickories, and elms.

Chapter five was still an interesting read though, with great coverage of sugar maples, silver maples, why leaves turn red (red comes from anthocyanin, manufactured by the tree to protect dying leaves from the sun, as leaves without chlorophyll when hit by sunlight inhibit the intake of nitrogen and anthocyanin helps with this), red foxes (with some coverage of the debate over whether or not existing red foxes are now, thanks to introductions, either identical to the European fox or hybrids of the now possibly gone native red variety), several wildflower species, opossums, and the war between cowbirds and the birds they brood parasitize (some species just build over cowbird eggs, with yellow warbler nests having been found with up to seven layers of buried cowbird eggs).

Chapter six, “life in the margins,” focused on ecosystems beyond the major forest types, namely wetlands, urban wildlife, and something called an alvar, “ecosystems of grasses and other herbaceous plants and sparse, shrubby vegetation growing in extremely thin soil on beds of limestone or dolostone,” an ecosystem unique in North America to the Great Lakes basin (though found in Europe; the word is Swedish). Alvars are hostile environments of thin or no soil, baking sun, too much water in spring but nevertheless home to rare plants and animals.

Chapter seven focuses on the ecology of the Great Lakes themselves and instead of trees being the stars, fish understandably are, everything from deepwater sculpin to surgeon, salmon, lake trout, alewives, and more getting interesting coverage. Not only are fish discussed but the author delves into mayflies, ring-billed gulls, cormorants, and other organisms as well as facts about the waters of the lake.

Chapter eight is titled “Invasions” and is about the natural history and impact of the many introduced species of the Great Lakes basin, notably carp (which do well in eutrophied lakes such as Lake Erie – which have very little oxygen – and unfortunately in their feeding disturb lake bottoms, depriving native fish of spawning sites and killing plants that are the main food supply of many species), zebra mussels (the discussion of which includes information on native Great Lakes mollusks and the Great Pearl Rush of the late 1850s), introduced salmon, gobies (the round goby may comprise upwards of 50% of the fish biomass of the Lower Great Lakes), garlic mustard, and purple loosestrife (the latter two weeds on land). An opening quote the author provides (from _Pandemonium_ by Andrew Nikiforuk) sets the tone early on; “[w]hat was a distinct North American body of water…is now little more than a degraded multicultural aquarium.” Depressingly, before European settlement, there were 150 native fish species in the Great Lakes; now, half of those have declined or vanished outright and 162 new, nonindigenous species now live in the Great Lakes.

Chapter nine is on the future of the Great Lakes as a whole. Some of the topics covered are similar to what was discussed in the previous chapter. Major topics of note include inevitable coverage of the industrial and agricultural pollution of the Great Lakes and the efforts to clean up that pollution, the threat posed by introduced species coming from the ballast tanks of ships arriving from foreign ports, and water diversion and use threats that will serve to lower the levels of the Great Lakes.
Profile Image for Emilian Geczi.
5 reviews
December 6, 2010
The author writes in clear, accessible language, with the meat of the book devoted to the history and ecology of the three main types of forests found in the Great Lakes basin: boreal, Great Lakes, and Carolinian. The lake waters themselves -- their food webs, native and introduces species, and the effects of industrial pollution -- are the focus of other large chapters of the book.

The book is beautifully illustrated, although with a very strong bias toward featuring sites from the Canadian shores of the lakes.

My only criticism is that, after stating that "dunes support more unique species of plants, insects, and animals than any other ecosystem in the Great Lakes", the author proceeds to devote exactly three paragraphs to describing them. That was a disappointment. I also would have liked to learn a little about human uses of the lakes -- such as tourism or the economy built around fishing industries -- other than as dumping grounds for our wastes.

But overall, this was a great and very clearly written introduction to the Great Lakes.
Profile Image for Barry.
227 reviews1 follower
May 11, 2021
Early on the author makes the point he is organizing this story via trees. Trees group together based on soil, climate, etc. So it makes sense and we can all relate to trees. Having said that, it isn't just about trees. The various ice ages are explored with their impact. Lake Huron flowed into Lake Ontario via Lake Simcoe a few thousand years ago! Melting glaciers change things. Plant and especially fish species have changed dramatically over that last few hundred years. I knew about the Goby, but not most of the others. Shocking stuff.

I grew up and have lived my entire 60+ years in the Great Lakes basin. I learned a lot.

My one complaint is not enough is said about the Niagara River. It only gets mentioned as a barrier until the Welland Canal was built. No mention of how polluted it was in the 70s and 80s (look up Love Canal in Niagara Falls NY). I fished there among signs stating how few of the fish to eat and none if pregnant. Other bodies of water are described in this way, why not the Niagara? Also, the falls itself has migrated up river. Not mentioned. Seems to me a big thing for a "Changing Region". But, I might be putting too much emphasis on the river based on growing up there.

Good book. Worth reading, and you'll love it if you know your tree species.

337 reviews2 followers
March 3, 2021
An overview of the natural history of the Great Lakes watershed, both the Lakes themselves and the surrounding terrestrial and wetland ecosystems. A bit on the dry side for a book about the world’s largest freshwater bodies, at least in comparison to Dan Egan’s excellent “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes” which is more of a chronological narrative and is specific to the aquatic ecology of the lakes, particularly the impact of invasive species. However, this one is more comprehensive and is a good all-in-one reference.
Profile Image for Andrew.
40 reviews
November 11, 2022
Super fascinating and informative. Deepened my love of this region and expanded my appreciation of it by far. The latter part is kind of a bummer as the effects of people and invacious species on the lakes are recounted, but that's not a critique!
109 reviews
October 2, 2022
I have lived in the Great Lakes region all of my life. The natural history of the region
and the beauty is celebrated here with many striking photographs. I enjoyed it Greatly.
447 reviews1 follower
Shelved as 'gave-up'
May 9, 2022
Definitely a coffee table book and not at its best on my phone while I'm breastfeeding at 2 AM. A nice overview of the geography, geology, ecology etc. of the Great Lakes Basin. A lot of stuff I know and some things I didn't. Not sure I'll make it through but it would be nice to have a physical copy in the house as a reference.

Did not finish! It'll be fun to browse through it one day.
305 reviews6 followers
June 3, 2013
At first glance, I was drawn to the opening chapters which cover the history. geology, formation, and glaciation of the Great Lakes basin. And to be honest I didn't think I would be that interested in the chapters and flora and fauna. The first chapters did not disappoint. The later chapters, to may delight, were very interesting and readable. Each page, it seems, contains one or more interesting tidbits which keep the interest high almost right to the end. The writer does a fine job with both his writing style and the majority of his research.

The book would have received 5 stars were it not for the very end which bemoans global warming and lists all of the dire consequences we MAY expect and COULD witness and MIGHT happen. Although I am certainly aware that the climate is changing (and in fact has never remained stable since the earth was formed billions of years ago), I am not convinced by the so-called main stream consensus that we must grimace and recoil from the doom and gloom inevitably in our future. Mr. Grady mentions Al Gore in this section causing its credibility, for me, to plummet. In light of the recent disclosures of fudged data and outright deception by those promoting global warming, I would have preferred a more conservative approach to predicting the lakes' future.

Overall, however, this is a very good read.

Profile Image for Mark Schultz.
200 reviews
March 5, 2017
The Great Lakes: The Natural History of a Changing Region, by Wayne Grady, 2007. Canadian science writer Wayne Grady has written a great book about the Great Lakes. I do not read much science, but this book taught me a lot while giving me lots of joy. I’d recommend it to anyone planning to spend some time in or around the Great Lakes. Wonderful insights into geology (the Niagara Escarpment runs from east of Niagara Falls all around the northern edge of Lake Michigan and forms the backbone of Door County); archeology (the oldest known record of life on land on Earth are fossils on the shore of Lake Huron); zoology (the differences between bobcats and lynxes); botany (now I know it’s the white cedar, indigenous to the Great Lakes Basin, that has the flat needles and the gray papery bark), as well as dozens of absolutely beautiful photographs. The book nurtured my commitment to learn more about, and to enjoy and protect, the Great Lakes.
Profile Image for Lew.
12 reviews
July 26, 2012
I really enjoyed this book. It can be a bit dry and textbook-ish at times, but at other points it reads very well for the subject matter. Overall though, it is a great overview of the geology, history, science, ecology and human impact on the great lakes. Not to mention some great photography and informative illustrations.

The book obviously can't go very deep into each subject, it would just be too much. It does include and extensive "further reading" list at the end which may prove useful.

I learned a lot, and hopefully I retained much of the info.
Profile Image for Nicole.
304 reviews
January 10, 2015
Not a book to typically read straight through from beginning to end, but I have really enjoyed this one. The first couple of chapters were a little dry, but the rest were informative and engaging. I lived for eight years near the shore of Lake Ontario. I now live a few hours from Lake Superior, and it's interesting to learn the natural history of the Great Lakes region.
Profile Image for Kym Teslik.
23 reviews10 followers
July 20, 2015
Written sort of like a textbook, but with much more character, this is an excellent resource for anyone looking to learn about the Great Lakes (geologic history, ecology (including various ecoregions around them), current threats to its health and biodiversity). It feels like a class by a teacher who you can tell is really interested in what they're teaching (which is my favorite kind of class!).
Profile Image for Amy Paget.
335 reviews2 followers
June 13, 2015
The Great Lakes: the national history of a changing region is a gracefully written natural history. Growing up beside Lake Superior, this was a 'must read' for me. The text is very readable and the pictures are glorious. Our continent's inland seas must be protected.
575 reviews5 followers
October 20, 2014
Good book to scan if you live here or visit here. Especially intetesting are the geological and forestry sections.
Displaying 1 - 18 of 18 reviews

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