I have seen the water of Lake Michigan churn, the waves crashing up against the breakwater and slamming into the beach. I have seen Lake Michigan flat like glass, the cumulous clouds above reflected in the water. Today Lake Michigan is neither calm nor choppy. Small swells slosh up against the pier and shore, but they are not white caps. Today it’s sunny, a Saturday. I walk out on the breakwater pier with a few friends, something I’ve done many times before. The breakwater is about thirty feet wide and at the moment rises about twenty feet above the water. A three-foot-high wall of concrete bisects the pier, and on the left-hand side a row of fishermen sit on buckets and drop lines into the water below.
We walk slowly. There’s a bit of a breeze, but there’s always a bit of a breeze. I climb up on the concrete divider and walk along it like I did when I was a kid, one foot carefully in front of the other, then leaping over the periodic gaps. The sides of the wall are covered in graffiti. Some of it I recognize from when I came out here as a teenager: a magic eight ball, a deck of cards, bright green letters asking someone named Lisa to be someone else’s girlfriend. The outline of a jack-o-lantern I posed next to for a picture in high school has faded to the point where I can only recognize it as a pumpkin because I knew what it used to be. The band name “The Smashing Pumpkins” that was once scrawled next to it has completely faded.
Halfway down, the breakwater narrows and the wall ends. I jump off and join my friends who have stopped to look at a group of ducks. The birds paddle in circles, occasionally jabbing the water with their beaks to snag bits of whatever it is they’re eating that’s invisible to me beneath the surface.
“Why are there so many dead fish?” one friend asks.
Hundreds of what look to me like minnows float belly-up on the surface of the water. Sunlight glints off their silver-white stomachs. The ducks ignore them, passing through the fish cloud on the way to other feeding grounds.
“Fish kill,” another friend replies. “Probably an algal bloom.”
Before, when I was younger, I probably would not have thought much of a fish kill. I learned, though, that fish kills are complicated. They’re not good signs. At the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico there is a region referred to as the “dead zone” where the nitrogen levels in the water are so high few things can live. Run-off from agriculture makes its way down the Mississippi River, pooling at the bottom before heading out into the ocean. The problem with nitrogen is that it makes it easier for plants like algae to grow. Then the bloom of algae uses up all the oxygen in the water, leaving too little for fish to survive. Hence, fish kills. What I still don’t know is precisely how to connect the dots between the fish kills in the Gulf of Mexico and this fish kill here in Lake Michigan. Is this the same phenomenon? Is Wisconsin agriculture causing the same problems?
A few days later, while riding in a fishing boat on an inland lake west of Milwaukee, I lean over the side of the boat to see carp floating belly-up on the water’s surface. These fish are not silvery. They are chalk-white and big and bloated. Their fins are beginning to decay. I look up and watch a speedboat pulling a water skier pass by, causing the dead carp and the boat I’m in to rock.
Until recently, I didn’t know that this lake—and probably many others in the region—used to be a marsh. A dam turned it into a lake. And to think I’d spent most of my life assuming all the lakes Wisconsin boasted were natural.
I look back at the carp. It’s nearly a foot-and-a-half long. Massive bunches of weeds lurk just beneath the surface of the water.
I’ve learned we know so little about what is natural. I’ve learned we understand so little. About what we really are, really were.
Kathryn Sukalich recently received her MFA in Creative Writing & Environment from Iowa State University, where she studied fiction and nonfiction writing. Her writing has appeared in Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment, as well as online at Precipitate.