Problems of Place: When A Place Chooses You

Surreal:

In November 2015, I found myself driving to East Lansing and sitting across from my now co-supervisor one evening. I remember thinking this guy was unreal for he seemed genuinely interested in my doctoral project and find ways to help my application by asking me to meet with other faculty members who might support it. I remember thinking of this as an out of body experience. I had given up on academia just a couple of years before that. Disillusioned with the nepotism and fed up with a supervisor who went out of his way to get me to leave. So, I left. Yet, life brought me to Michigan, to metro Detroit of all places.

My only memory of metro Detroit before moving there was circling over Detroit airport, looking at the Detroit River and endless swathe of emptiness and thinking who in the world lives here? And yet, here I was scarcely two years later from that thought, applying to graduate school (again), and considering a doctoral project on the Detroit River. I think back at the application process, and aghast at how nonchalant I was—I have no disciplinary training in history; I had two graduate degrees (and a third in progress) already but in different fields; although decently read in environmental history, I knew very little U.S. history let alone Canadian history, and yet here I was wanting to be a North American Environmental Historian!

I had never thought of myself as a historian of North America. Having studied modern Indian history my entire adult life, I had begun an Urban Design master’s because for the first time as an adult, I wanted a degree that might land me a job outside of academia. Over the course of the program, during a design studio on the Detroit River, I had come across a completely manmade island in the lower Detroit River bisected by the political border that no country laid claim on. I found the island curious; why was an island built out of dredge spoils, over decades? Why didn’t either country want to stake claim on it?

A part of the answer was shipping—the island, Crystal Island, was built over the course of mid-twentieth century to ensure shipping traffic moved efficiently. Another part was that the island represented a convenient means to get rid of dredge spoils. As part of the program, during a design studio, I found out there were other islands that had been enlarged through dredge spoils. Looking over maps from the eighteenth century onwards, I began to trace how island contours had changed and tried to figure why. That led to some fun discoveries—like the carving of an island from marsh land by shortening the mouth of one of the tributaries of the Detroit River, or clean contours of another island being a result of Frederick Law Olmsted’s design. Based on the design studio, I proposed a master’s thesis on the Detroit River. That job outside of academia is yet to materialize.

Unreal:

The doctoral project I was proposing—an urban history of the border cities of Detroit and Windsor— was far afield from what I was working on as part of my urban design thesis. At the time, I was trying to think about a political border becoming infrastructure through a case study of the Detroit River. While working on my master’s thesis, I came across dredging data dating back to mid-nineteenth century when dredging was first an activity in the Great Lakes (led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) to ensure adequate depth in shipping channels. The data became the part of a graph and some other visuals. I thought that was the last of that data that I would need.

Yet, as I started my doctoral research, I keep going back to that data. It was an intriguing set of numbers—volumes in different units from different locations with snippets of random information like the Canadians not agreeing to dredging etc. In my second semester as a PhD student, I began work on a paper about one of the most important channels dredged in the Detroit River. At the time, I found next to nothing on that particular channel. I went back to the dredging data and realized that that might be a place to start—unpack the data and the comments to locate interesting stories. In so doing, I landed on an incredible (or so I thought/think) story of a small channel whose dredging became a binational issue complete with apocalyptic doomsday prophecies about the Canadians finding a way to drain the Great Lakes, just to spite the Americans and calls for America to attack and annex Canada, to ensure the latter’s rightful place in history and free it from the shackles of Great Britain.

The paper was eventually published last spring and has formed the bedrock of my larger project (surprise surprise). There were subplots of shipping boosters wanting a larger, deeper channel that ran throughout the Great Lakes—a precursor to the St. Lawrence Seaway. And further subplots of railway boosters want to bridge/tunnel the river. Bridge and/or tunnel proposals were fought by shipping boosters; unlike ships that could not sail in the winter, railroads could transport goods and people throughout the year, a bridge or a tunnel would only further delegitimize shipping. Throughout the nineteenth century, the War of 1812 loomed large over the Detroit River and dredging, for the Americans constantly feared the Canadians attacking the binational channel. Dredging continued and found legitimacy through these fears. 

Material:

My doctoral project, as of today, is an environmental history of the Detroit River, by placing dredging at its center. In so doing, I want to bring to the forefront the material in environmental history and confront the constructedness of nature as well as the everyday accretion and erosion that is infrastructure. In trying to hold on to these multiple strands, I often question myself. I wonder if I will find the sources I keep looking for. If dredging is as rad a story as I think it is. Only former boat captains of the Detroit River who I happened to meet at the phenomenal Marsh Collection in Amherstburg, ON have truly shared my enthusiasm for dredging; the rest of the world including my four-month-old son, give me a blank look. My committee gives me a look of indulgence when they see just how excited I get about dirt.

I feel this is a story that deserves attention because no one’s told it before. We don’t think about just how constructed and maintained the Great Lakes are. We don’t often think about the large ships or lakers as they are called, that continue to course through the lakes despite shipping being an almost defunct industry. We don’t often think about the dredging that continues in the hope that the lakes will be able to handle larger ships that need deeper drafts and ensure a revival of shipping. We don’t think about how dredging has changed our waterscapes—in the Detroit River dredged material has been used to create new islands (to aid ship passage), augment natural islands, channel the river to ensure optimum ship passage.

Yet, standing on either bank, you would not probably think of the monumentality of this enterprise, and its continued fight to stay relevant. Upon reading an initial draft of my now published article, a close friend said she’d never thought dredging could be so interesting. I’ll take that as a win. For more such moments, I will keep trying to show people how dredging as a historical, material, and ecological process needs to be considered. All the while I will continue to question all things midwestern. In the meantime, if you ever want to talk dredging, please get in touch! 

Yet, standing on either bank, you would not probably think of the monumentality of this enterprise, and its continued fight to stay relevant. Upon reading an initial draft of my now published article, a close friend said she’d never thought dredging could be so interesting. I’ll take that as a win. For more such moments, I will keep trying to show people how dredging as a historical, material, and ecological process needs to be considered. All the while I will continue to question all things midwestern. In the meantime, if you ever want to talk dredging, please get in touch!