My feeling for what constitutes my home ground has shifted in recent years, the terrain smaller with each passing year. No longer for me the entire county or even the whole of our township, my home ground is apolitical and nondenominational. It does contain two important cultural centers, but between the two poles of St. Wenceslaus Church, the neighborhood’s spiritual home, and Fischer’s Happy Hour Tavern, its social center, lie no towns or villages and, other than farms, only scattered rural businesses. Landforms are modest, rolling hills, some sand dunes, others clay.
My neighborhood is an intimate landscape, the scale not grand or imposing except where a view opens out onto Lake Michigan. Small creeks and streams meander unobtrusively through hidden low areas. Swales are inconspicuous unless one takes the time to see them. Remaining forest is mostly (with one notable exception: Houdek Dunes Natural Area) farm woodlots, unremarkable to the passing motorist or cyclist.
Cherry orchards are the primary agricultural activity, with scattered small corn- and hayfields, home gardens, and small populations of livestock and poultry. A few horses grace the landscape. Here and there a farmstand, in season, animates the roadside.
This was Ojibwa and Ottawa land before Europeans ever saw it. The first rudimentary white man’s roads began at Lake Michigan and followed well-worn Native American footpaths. Most of the lakeshore roads and paths near me are now on private land, however, so my home ground, from the vantage point of hills looking out at the lake, does not extend to the shore.
In more recent history, the area became Bohemian country. Immigrants arrived from Czechoslovakia in the late 1800s and put down roots. The little cemetery at St. Wenceslaus church, built to serve the community of Gill’s Pier, is full of Houdeks, Jelineks, Kalchiks, Kolariks, Korsons, Kovariks, Reichas, Roubels and Sedlaceks. So is the current telephone directory and (here on my cookbook shelf) Favorite Recipes: St. Wenceslaus Altar Society, Gill’s Pier (1998).
Fischer’s Happy Hour Tavern, where our host these days is Paul Fischer, son of universally beloved Stan Fischer (gone but not forgotten), began life in the heart of Gill’s Pier as a general store. The little community had its own post office (opened in 1883, closed in 1908) and twelve houses, and a one-room school (later converted to a private residence) was established at Gill’s Pier in 1856. The tavern-keeper for years was “Happy Joe” Korson, in whose old farmhouse we now reside. Now even the old piers are gone, the piers where boats on Lake Michigan docked to take on wood, first for fuel and later as lumber for building in distant places like Chicago, but the tavern remains, a landmark and refuge for locals and visitors alike.
This small area is saturated with history. My aim this year, however, is not to research the cultural past but to immerse myself in the natural present of this limited, circumscribed bit of northern Michigan that I call home. Driving slowly the neighborhood back roads, hiking hills and woods with my dog, I have a certain degree of familiarity or couldn’t call it “home ground” at all. I know where to look for morel mushrooms and where the first spring beauties will bloom. I see the tracks in winter of deer and field mouse and have followed paths taken by coyotes. (We hear the coyotes at night, too, often—though not, I suddenly realize, lately. Why not? What has become of them?) But driving slowly, even walking, is moving through, and this year I want to do something different.
I want to take an hour each week of this new year to sit still in some corner of my home ground, to take note of everything happening there, to be immersed, and to make notes and sketches. No camera. Only pencil and paper. A full hour of sitting still outdoors may be difficult in January, but I’ll bundle up and do the best I can.
That’s my plan. This blog is my way of committing myself to the plan.