Book reviews: 'Waving at Strangers' and 'Superior Perspectives'

by Richard Thomas

Waving at Strangers: Essays by David Sorensen
Available at Zenith Books

This collection of short essays, four pages average, by a local author, has no unifying theme, not that it needs one. “One Foot After Another” is about the joys of walking; “Not Bluegrass” is about a form of music he says “sucks” even though he’s a banjo player; “Hop In” is about the lost art of hitchhiking; “Notes From the Wayback Machine” is about fleeting childhood memories; “El Camino del Tiempo” is about … well, still trying to figure out that one. 

The author assured us that this slim volume, totaling only 61 pages, would take a mere half hour to read. But to quote Calvin and Hobbes, “Reading goes faster if you don’t sweat comprehension.” 

A typical sentence reads, “Shanks’ mare travel became an obsession, and what Zen Buddhists call ‘Beginner’s Mind’ was unavoidable while moving forward through space.” We now have Google to quickly look up things like “shanks’ mare” and “Beginner’s Mind,” but having to do so doesn’t make for a swift read.

The pace is also slowed by meandering ruminations with fancy wordplay: “We can’t echolocate like bats or see at the sub-atomic level like bees or communicate across thousands of miles (without electricity) like blue whales, but the powers of language and reasoning emanating from that most complex structure in the universe - our human brain - has enthroned us at the top of the heap.” 

He reminisces about his 60 years in the Twin Ports, which is intriguing especially if you grew up in the same era, but it’s more random memories than stories that go somewhere. 

These were originally posted on Perfect Duluth Day as part of the Saturday Essay series. The essay from which the book title is lifted is not in here, since the author didn’t have space to include them all. Having read it online, I would have chosen it over several others, especially the first, “Oh America,” a clever lefty political rant that preaches to the converted, but won’t convince your MAGA hat-wearing cousin.

He’s at his best when he’s relating, in a straightforward manner, something you probably don’t know. In “I Wonder” he writes, “Until 1922, it was thought that the Milky Way was all there was. Then Edwin Hubble climbed Mount Wilson and had a look-see through the Hooker Telescope and realized those cloudy objects in the sky called ‘nebulae’ were actually galaxies unto themselves. Later, a telescope named for Edwin himself beamed back the Deep Field images of a polka dot infinity. Ten thousand galaxies in a patch of sky one tenth the size of a full moon.” 

The universe suddenly become vastly larger, but most people shrugged off this mind-blowing revelation. He then cites Aldous Huxley’s “measley trickle of consciousness” by which humans cope with ordinary existence, filtering out the big picture. Sorensen writes, “What’s amazing is our ability to stifle our amazement, making molehills from mountains of mystery.”

At first I kept this my bed as an insomnia cure, but then I started getting into it. The trick is to read it in a nonlinear fashion, skipping to another essay when it gets dull or confusing and coming back it later. Soon it becomes the sort of book you thumb through frequently, reading and rereading, picking out memorable lines and discovering something new each time.

Superior Perspectives: Views of Lake Superior from Park Point
By Paul Treuer 
Nodin Press (Available on Amazon)

The author is a Park Point resident who, like every other Park Point resident and visitor, has taken a billion shots of waves, ice, clouds, rainbows, sunrises and moonrises. Instead of just posting them on Facebook, he’s collected them in this paperback coffee table book. The photos were taken from the same point over 12 years, 2006 to 2018. 

“The Lake Superior landscape is like a paint-filled artist’s canvas,” he writes. “At times, while looking at the lake, I feel as though I am in one of the world’s greatest art museums looking at masterpieces. The only difference is that in contrast to the museum, each work of art on the lake is transient. It is here for an instant and then gone. The paint never dries.”

Unlike a lot of nature porn, these images aren’t taken in large format and artificially pumped up in Photoshop. Treuer has a keen eye for finding the center of interest and framing the subject, but he uses medium-grade digital cameras. Some of the shots are grainy, noisy or murky. But this is honest, no-frills photographic citizen journalism. The photos are presented as is, without enhancement. He lets the sweet view in his backyard speak for itself.

The short essays are poetic and informative, but also scary. He documents all this beauty in part because he worries what will become of it due to climate change: “Minnesota Sea Grant reports, ‘from 1973 to 2010 there has been a 79 percent decrease in ice cover on Lake Superior.’ Majestic ice formations are not necessarily seasonal; they are unique to our times.”

He’s also concerned that Park Point is a canary in a coal mine. “The year to year changes on Lake Superior are alarming,” he writes. “In contrast to the joy I feel when watching seasonal variation, I am deeply troubled by the annual changes … I expect that long before humans use their capacity to significantly reduce toxic dumping into the atmosphere, Lake Superior will roar up in a fury unlike anything we have experienced.”