Listen: Superior Essay (Sutter) -2422

On this special Morning Edition held in Duluth, MPR’s Cathy Wurzer talks with poet Barton Sutter about his fascination with Lake Superior. Sutter also reads a poem about lake.

There are all kinds of neat facts about the Lake Superior. It's the largest of the Great Lakes. It holds ten percent of the Earth's fresh water. Scientific data aside, there's something magical about Superior that can't be measured. It can only be felt. Duluth writer and poet Barton Sutter knows all about the magic of Superior.


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SPEAKER 1: I like to say that two minutes of looking at the lake is worth about 10 minutes of Buddhist meditation. I think it opens the mind and pulls you out from your own small preoccupations. And you realize, when you see 6 to 12-foot waves or just the size of the thing, that you are not in charge of things here.

SPEAKER 2: What role does the lake play in your work?

SPEAKER 1: Well, it keeps me calm. And it's a constant reference point. As I said earlier, it opens the mind. And for a writer, I think that's really important, in that most of contemporary life makes you develop a hide, be tough, be concentrated and narrow in focus, just to get through the day and reach your goals. But to be an artist, you have to open up. And the lake does that for you. It opens your mind and opens your ears, opens your attitudes.

SPEAKER 2: I've always been enamored with that lake because of its ever-changing nature.

SPEAKER 1: Yeah, and that goes down to even how the lake looks. The light is different every day. So you see it's white one day, and pale blue the next, and angry black the next.

SPEAKER 2: Now, you have a reading for us about the lake.

SPEAKER 1: I do. I'm going to read a bit of an essay that has proved pretty popular with Duluthians.

SPEAKER 2: Please go ahead.

SPEAKER 1: All right. Having lived for several years beside the shining big sea water, I've decided that Lake Superior is God. Does that seem blasphemous? Any human view of God is bound to be imperfect. But the way I see it, the image of Lake Superior is a lot less insulting to the supreme being than the more conventional picture of a gray beard in bathrobe and sandals.

But I didn't know that I considered Lake Superior God, until a couple of years ago. One of the many pleasures of living in Duluth is that you have to look at the lake a lot. You might only mean to get some groceries or a hammer from the hardware store, but on your way, you see something so grand, so terrible and beautiful that you absorb your daily requirement of humility just by driving down the street. I've also found that the sight of Lake Superior works very well to shock me out of self-pity, a state of mindlessness to which I seem to be especially prone.

I was deep in such a funk the night I finally realized that the lake was God. I was driving home from the local shopping mall, where, once again, life had failed to fulfill my fantasies. Malls are all I need to know of hell. But I had eagerly agreed to go to hell because I had recently published a book, a book that represented my best efforts on this Earth. So for two gruesome hours, I had sat in a generic bookstore, like a kid at a Kool-Aid stand, smiling nicely at hundreds of people who looked right through me. I had sold and signed one book.

Sick with shame, muttering murderous ideas, I topped the hill above the city and saw straight ahead, the biggest, most gorgeous moon I'd ever witnessed in my life. And there below it, royal purple, glinting gold from here to the edge of the world, Lake Superior. Only I didn't say Lake Superior. I didn't say, what a view. I didn't say, how beautiful. No, no, no. Immediately, instinctively, I gave the lake its proper name. What I said was, God.


Digitization made possible by the National Historical Publications & Records Commission.

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