Donovan Hohn gets spellbound by the water of Michigan


If you grew up in Michigan, moved here or vacationed here, it’s likely you spent some time on the water. It’s not an accident or braggadocio that Michigan is known as the Great Lakes State, sometimes referred to as the “Water Wonderland” or “The Third Coast.”

Not only do the Great Lakes provide Michigan with the second longest coastline of the states — only Alaska’s coast is longer — Michigan is dotted with inland lakes, creeks and rivers offering unprecedented access to water.

Water has also been inspiration for innumerable Michigan writers, such as Jim Harrison, Ann Marie Oomen, Linda Nemec, Jerry Dennis and David Dempsey. Even Herman Melville found inspiration on a harrowing trip across Lake Erie.

Author Donovan Hohn’s new book, “The Inner Coast: Essays,” draws heavily on the power and importance of water. From his essay, “Snail Picking,” about collecting snails as a small child, to “Midwest Passage,” about the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which combines engineering with ecology, to “Zealot,” about Marc Edwards, the environmental engineer who delved into the Flint water crisis.

This is not the first time Hohn has found inspiration in water. His 2012 book, “Moby-Duck: the True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search For Them,” took him on a trip across the world in search for these rubber duckies. Ocean currents took them on far-flung trips.

Although Hohn didn’t grow up in Michigan, his family spent summers visiting a family farm (on the Wisconsin side) not far from Lake Michigan. After attending graduate school at the University of Michigan, he lives in Ann Arbor, which is less than 45 minutes from Lake Erie and on the Huron River.

Hohn has a day job teaching writing at Wayne State University, which he enjoys immensely.

“Most of my students are either first-generation Americans or first-generation college students. I have an inherent love of the public university,” he said.

Hohn, who grew up in San Francisco, said, “I had a love of the ocean from a very early age.”

“When I relocated to the Midwest, I grew homesick for the sea. It’s a mystery why I love bodies of water. It’s why I dove to the bottom of Lake Michigan,” Hohn said. He recounts that tale in his short story, “Watermarks.”

He also finds solace in rivers. “Whenever I visit a river, I have the urge to follow it,” he said.

However, not all his short stories revolve around water. In the extremely poignant, personal and intimate essay, “Falling,” he writes about growing up with his mother, who has moods of unhappiness and sometimes abandons the family.

“It took years to write, and it was hard to write for many reasons. But it was something I needed to write about my childhood,” he said. “To me, there is a lot of grief in the essays.”

At one point he asks his mother to read her diary. She photocopied it for him.

He writes: “I had hoped to find in this document clues that could solve the mystery I have spent most of my life investigating — the mystery of my mother’s unhappiness —and her diary raised as many questions as it answered.”

Hohn said he likes “slow boats.” He once took a container ship across the Atlantic and has paddled the last 70 miles of the Mississippi from Baton Rouge to New Orleans.

He also admits he is a slow writer. The essays were about 15 years in the making, with each appearing in major publication previously.

In his essay “Watermarks,” he explores what he calls the history of writing about water, including works by Herman Melville, John McPhee and Norman McClean.

He writes about the rivers and streams and how “the journey of a river from a source to mouth resembles our own journey from birth to death.”

He also muses with amazement at how early French settlers traversed the Midwest beginning in the early 1600s.

Hohn is also a genius at bringing life to obscure ideas and popular culture.

In “A Romance of Rust,” he tells of his mother’s sisters’ husband who, in addition to teaching biology at an Ann Arbor High School, was an obsessive collector of tools — collecting more than 25,000 tools — 18,000 of which are wrenches.

Donovan’s uncle takes him on a tour of an outbuilding filled with tools.

Hohn observes: “What struck me most was how zoological Tom’s tools seemed. Certain pliers bore striking resemblance to beaks of birds, certain wrenches to the jaws of lizards.”

When Donovan asks his uncle, “Why tools?” his uncle answers, “I guess I just find them beautiful.” In “Romance of Rust,” Hohn finds the existential beauty of the tool in society, and he does the same with the exploration of coastlines and riverbanks.


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