Friday, May 26, 2017

The Terroir of Door


There is something a little odd about living in the spacious suburban home of someone you've never met. And I hadn't made things easier by zipping off regularly to visit some park or preserve. On my third day at Write On! I finally met Jaime, the organization's administrative assistant—a title that I'm sure doesn't do justice to her role in keeping things afloat.

One problem the center faces is finding places to hold workshops, readings, and other events in a part of the world where community spaces are scarce. (My upcoming workshop was scheduled for the basement of an art gallery in Sturgeon Bay.) Jaime showed me an impressive architectural rendering of the new residency building they were going to build (evidently designed to house five or six writers at the same time) and an enormous events center, which would be located across the road in the field where the mystery bicycler now loved to roam. 

"Now that Egg harbor is in the process of building a new community center," Jaime told me, "We're trying to determine if we really need to build such a grandiose center ourselves."

Poking around online, I noticed that in March a group of concerned citizens sued the city of Egg Harbor seeking an injunction to halt construction of the community center, arguing that the village never held a public referendum on the project, as required by law. Evidently the city overcame that hurdle at its next meeting by rescinding the statute requiring a referendum, and later formed a Friends of the Library group to more easily move the project ahead. Such controversies are endemic to village life, I suppose. From what I could tell, the "concerned citizens" are mostly concerned about their taxes, and it got me to thinking about old Ibsen plays and the squabbles that occasionally erupted on Northern Exposure. But this is for real, and it undoubtedly affects the community vibe.

“It’s created this feud and disharmony in the village that is affecting a lot of people,” one member of the friends group remarked in a recent Door County Pulse article. “That is a really bad side effect. People are angry. There’s tons of misinformation out there. This is a pretty nice little village and to have this fight going on is not a nice thing. It’s going to take time to heal."

The judge who heard the case denied the request for an injunction but described the actions of the village as "bad." Removed from the realities of the situation, I am charmed by a world in which words and phrases such as "tons of," "bad," "pretty nice," and "not nice" are still in common use.

I finally met Jared, the center's director, the next morning, though the timing was not propitious. I arrived at the center at the same time as a woman with whom he'd scheduled a meeting, and the three of us stood together in the front hall shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries. I knew that Jared wanted to make me feel welcome, but that he also wanted to get on with his meeting, so I thought I would add a touch of levity by showing him what I'd just bought at a hardware store in Fish Creek. Fumbling awkwardly through the plastic bag I was holding, I finally produced my contribution to the writing center—a plastic hard-boiled egg slicer.

"We used to have one of those," Jared said with a smile. "Sometimes people accidentally walk off with things."

On that note I made my exit, though for the next hour, as I sat at the desk in I my upstairs bedroom/study, I could hear the murmur of voices below me, punctuated from time to time by Jared's deep, mellow, rolling laugh, which reminded me of a pot of water slowly coming to a boil. It was a "nice" sound.


The pieces were beginning to fall into place, though no visitor can ever succeed in acquiring even a fraction of the rooted knowledge that the natives possess. Of course, long-time residents often develop very different views of the same neighborhood or and environment. No one—not even Norbert Blei—has ever gotten to know the peninsula fully.

I was discussing this issue with Peter Sloma, the bookseller, one day. I think we got on to the subject by way of a discussion of how the vocabulary of a given language shapes the thoughts of anyone who uses it. I believe this theory can easily be overstated. To be bound by our language presumes that we already know it fully. But during our discussion I brought up an example of a French word that has become useful to English speakers: terroir.

That word probably has meanings of which I'm unaware, but it's often used in the wine trade to refer to the effect that subtleties of a given locale—soil, weather, drainage, climate—have on the flavor of a wine. And it's true that wines from plots in Burgundy a few hundred feet apart can have distinctly different tastes, due to the differing terroir.

I mentioned to Peter that I'd been reading a little book called The Novelist's Lexicon: Writers on the Words That Define Their Work, in which Annie Proulx makes a case for expanding the application of that term to include the way that a given work of fiction is tied to the locale where it takes place. In short, the soil we walk on, the air we breathe, and the people we rub shoulders with—our personal terroir— shape who we are and how we behave. "The characters bear the same relation to a region as the grapes do to their vineyard," she writes.

It all sounds a little deterministic to me, and perhaps Proulx would agree. She adds:
"Just as grapevines are subject to the vagaries of weather and cli­mate, so are the lives of the characters affected by forces they cannot control: weather and climate, as well as economic and political decisions made by strangers in distant cities. This half-recognized powerlessness often afflicts the characters with submissive resignation (mythologized as “toughing it out”) and hopeful faith in a deity. And those humans and animals who came before, and whom we know only through archaeological evidence, still cause deep reverberations of the past which continue to sound in the fiction, if only faintly."
I find this theory unappealing and inaccurate, which might explain why I don't like Proulx's work much. On the other hand, I evidently accept it to some degree, because when I visit a place, I'm on the lookout for details that will offer a point of ingress into "what's going on," as if I could come to an understanding of the soul of Door County by watching people buy jam at a local farm market.

I made my most fruitful contacts along these lines on Thursday morning at the Great Lakes Book Club. It was a brilliant morning and I wasn't sure the conference room in the Marine Museum in Sturgeon Bay was where I wanted to be, but I took the plunge, and was very impressed by the men and women, most of them retired, perhaps, that I met there. They were serious-minded, articulate, concerned about their beaches and woods and communities, and surprisingly well-versed in environmental law. No one butted in, no one rambled on, and Jared, who was running the meeting, hardly felt the need to say a word. It probably helped that the book under review, Dan Egan's The Life and Death of the Great Lakes, is fascinating, well written, and pertinent to the club's theme.


One of the Write On! board members had brought along a retired ore boat captain who showed us a video and answered questions about his trade. Someone said, "You should write a book like the one we read last summer. What was it called? Captain's Daughter?"

"You might be referring to a little blue book called Ship Captain's Daughter," I said.

"Yeah. That's the one." I had to smile. I had been involved in editing and designing that little book, and I was happy to know that people way off on the shores of Lake Michigan were enjoying it. 

One woman told me after the meeting that she'd lived in Door County for seventy years. "And I'm fifth generation," she added.

Another man, originally from Cleveland, told me he'd written a book about the good old days in Sturgeon Bay. I could find it downstairs in the gift shop.

And I was chatting with another man when his phone rang. After taking a look at the text, he said, "I have to get going. The water has been over the causeway to the Cana Island Lighthouse, and I've got to go re-grade the road now that the wind had shifted. But one thing I want to tell you. If you haven't been there already, you should go see the Ridges."    

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