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North Shore story: Duo unearth region's natural history

Chel Anderson (left) and Adelheid Fischer have written a book on the natural history of the North Shore. The 632-page book took 17 years to complete. The authors are pictured this week along the Lake Superior shore in Grand Marais. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)1 / 3
The University of Minnesota Press recently released "North Shore: A Natural History of Minnesota's Superior Coast." (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)2 / 3
Co-authors Adelheid Fischer (left) and Chel Anderson share a laugh while talking about the years-long process of researching and writing “North Shore.” (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)3 / 3

GRAND MARAIS — In 1998, when Chel Anderson and Adelheid Fischer started writing a natural history of what they call "Minnesota's Superior Coast," they figured on a modest-sized project with maybe 16 illustrations that would take a few years to reach fruition.

Seventeen years later, their book "North Shore" — published by University of Minnesota Press — is out. It's filled with dozens of illustrations, is more than 600 pages long and weighs, according to to Fischer's bathroom scale, 5 pounds.

And it only scratches the surfaces, the two women say.

Their book is divided into five sections: Headwaters, Highlands, Nearshore, Lake Superior and Islands. Each contains a series of essays within that category.

When Anderson, 61, and Fischer, 59, are together, the rapport is apparent. They laugh frequently. They can finish each other's sentences.

What did it take for a scientist living in Cook County and a writer living in Phoenix to put together a massive tome on everything from "The Secret Life of Salamanders" to "The Chorus Frogs of Isle Royale"?

The authors spoke about the project earlier this week in the sunlit conference room at Cook County Whole Foods Co-op in Grand Marais. What follows is a condensed transcript of that interview:

DNT: Tell me a little bit about your background.

ANDERSON: My professional work is as a plant ecologist and a botanist. But I've done a lot of other jobs within the natural resources field. I've worked in the forestry end of things, I've worked in fire, I've worked in wilderness. Probably as important as anything is that I'm really interested in everything in the outdoors. That was a big benefit to this project. Cook County has been my home since 1974.

FISCHER: I lived in Minnesota for 16 years, 1980 to 1996, and came to the North Shore with my late husband for our first wedding anniversary in October of 1981 and then kept coming back.

DNT: How did the two of you come together for this project?

FISCHER: After I first visited, I got really interested, really captivated by this part of the world. What I found were a lot of good guides to various groups of organisms like wildflower guides or bird guides or dragonfly guides. But no one was putting the whole picture together. So I did a volunteer project for the Tofte Forest Service District, and they were celebrating their centennial (1991 was the 100th anniversary of the act that created what's now the National Forest System). And everybody I talked to said: "Have you talked to Chel Anderson?" So we met up. I did an interview with her in the basement of the Tofte Forest Service offices. And it was the first of many conversations where we would sit down to have a conversation and it was daylight, and we would walk out in the dark.

ANDERSON: The other thing that was really missing was the intersection of the human being and the landscape. All the books you read was one or the other. It told the human story or it told the natural story, which, from my point of view, our point of view, was not the way to tell the story. It's not the reality. The reality is that this place has influenced every human being who has come here, and vice versa. That sort of intersection really was missing, in a big way. So we would lament that. My recollection is that we made our commitment sitting on the deck of a little cabin at the old Surfside Resort in Tofte. It was a September night; mild, just a little bit of wind off the lake so that we could hear that music of the lake all around us; velvet black sky. It was probably the wine ...

FISCHER: (laughing) I was gonna say, add the popping of a cork to those (descriptions).

ANDERSON: And we said, we should do it, darn it.

DNT: You didn't envision when you started that it would be 2015 before this book was in print?

FISCHER: Oh, no. We thought it would be a few years. And to be fair to us, we had a lot of life changes in the course of this. Chel transitioned into her full-time job at the DNR.

ANDERSON: Right about the time we started, my husband and I were building our house.

DNT (to Fischer): Did you do the actual writing?

FISCHER: I would take a first stab at writing the draft, and then thank God, right around this time email started happening. And Chel happens to be an incredibly seasoned scientist, but she's also someone who reads a lot, so she's very, very literate. And she would contribute both of those expertises to the draft. We would do this back and forth until we felt it was ready to send to an expert or experts. And then that back and forth of drafting started all over again.

ANDERSON: It is our book, but it's not our science. We rested our publication on the shoulders of hundreds of people. We wanted it to be accessible, but we were absolutely committed to not dumbing it down.

DNT: How hard is it to take scientific information, without dumbing it down, and make it reader-friendly?

FISCHER: I think it takes a lot of effort, and a declaration that this is your purpose. There are a lot of scientists who take it as a badge of honor that the generalist can't understand what they're saying. I think it's creating or allowing a sense of wonder to bubble up by doing the hard, sometimes very tedious work of trying to understand the science and then find those nuggets or those gems in there that just make it blossom.

ANDERSON: If you've experienced the joy as just a human being, not as a scientist, as just someone who is overwhelmed by the beauty or the music of the sounds or whatever it is — if you have a facility with language, I think it's not hard to develop that.

FISCHER: I think we are both singing in the key of life. And I think both Chel and I, that's the most fundamental thing about that connection, that we both will look at a star-nosed mole and go: Oh, my gosh. How? Why?

ANDERSON: We're not afraid to gush. With or without wine.

DNT: How do you expect people to read your book?

ANDERSON: We could have a thousand volumes of this and only have begun to tell the stories that are part of this one place. So, yeah, it's a big book. And we didn't write it from front to back. People can certainly read it from front to back. But it was part of the plan that people will have a wide variety of interests that they will come to the book already having. They will have more time or less time in which they can read something about the natural history of the area. So we tried to deliberately structure the book in a way that would give people many ports of entry into the bigger narrative of this place. You can really start anywhere.

DNT: Who do you see as your target audience?

ANDERSON: I think anybody who has an interest in this area or in the Lake Superior Basin as a whole. The information that we offer is about this watershed, but there's lots of overlap throughout the Lake Superior Basin. And as I've said, we've tried to not dumb it down, so I think there are things in this book — since so many scientists specialize — that even people who are very science-oriented will find new and inclusive information, expansive information, about subjects that they're not familiar with in a way that won't seem like a popular culture presentation.

FISCHER: The poet David Whyte puts a spin on it that makes so much sense to me. He says: Pay attention to the things that claim you. That's what I've found about being up here. The North Shore put its claims on me.

ANDERSON: Even for people for whom this is their home and has been their home from the beginning, it has the potential to just open other aspects and horizons of this place that you call home and that you may already be totally in love with. There's a lot that you don't just get by living here even if you're a careful observer and you love this place.

FISCHER: I think the book really celebrates the ability of science to do that in particular. Because a lot of times we just think of science is something that's other, that's outside of our realm.

The book

"North Shore: A Natural History of Minnesota's Superior Coast"

Authors: Chel Anderson and Adelheid Fischer

Details: University of Minnesota Press, 632 pages, May 2015; ISBN 978-0-8166-3232-9, hardcover, $39.95

Where to get it: Local booksellers or at upress.umn.edu

Signings: Anderson and Fischer will read from and sign copies of their book at the following times and locations:

  • 7 p.m. today, North House Folk School, 500 W. Highway 61, Grand Marais
  • 2 p.m. Saturday, Split Rock Lighthouse, 3713 Split Rock Lighthouse Road off state Highway 61 between Two Harbors and Silver Bay
  • 1 p.m. Sunday, Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center, 29270 County Highway G, Ashland.
  • 7 p.m. Monday, Hartley Nature Center, 3001 Woodland Ave., Duluth

Excerpts from "North Shore: A Natural History of Minnesota's Superior Coast"

"The shore-edge rocks that are so beloved by picnickers and sunset watchers are among the oldest exposed bedrock on the planet, shaped by ancient forces that date to Earth's infancy. About 2.5 billion years old, these rocks are part of North America's great geologic basement known as the Canadian Shield."

"Much of the credit for this great medley of natural features goes to the glaciers, the most recent of which, the Wisconsin ice sheet, retreated from the area about ten thousand years ago. Serving as rock crusher, backhoe and dump truck, the restless mountains of advancing and retreating ice rearranged everything in their path."

"The amount of timber extracted from the North Shore forests seems almost incomprehensible to today's visitor. In June 1899 the tugboat Gettysburg towed a raft of logs cut from the Pigeon River watershed to the Alger-Smith Company's sawmill in Duluth. Measuring sixty acres, the raft was so enormous that two days after its launch near Hovland the people there could still see it on the lake."

"The more midges, the merrier the mosquitoes."

"Unlike many of their longer, leaner, more elegant relatives, mole salamanders are characterized by stout bodies, meaty limbs and squat, rounded heads. In form, ambystomatids are the Jesse Venturas of the salamander world."

On the nose of the star-nosed mole:

"Long known to science, this spectacular schnoz has driven many observers to abandon objectivity and raid the realms of poetry in their struggle for adequate descriptive language. 'A medusa-like rosette,' exclaimed mole experts Martyn Gorman and David Stone in one of their research papers. 'Fresh bits of sirloin being extruded through a meat grinder,' countered science writer Natalie Angier in a 2010 article on ugly animals in the New York Times."

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