As the only newspaper reporter in the country covering the Great Lakes full time, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Dan Egan, 49, has developed an intimate relationship with our freshwater source. This month W.W. Norton publishes his book, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes – already winner of the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in Progress Award – a fact-based narrative that serves as a call to protect the Lakes from environmental threats. “I’m writing for people who normally don’t care, but hopefully will,” Egan says.
When did you know you were sitting on a book idea?
[During] a fellowship/master’s program [at Columbia University’s journalism school], some of the instructors suggested I take a book-writing seminar. Part of this class required a book proposal. I’m sitting with these students from around the world, and they were just flabbergasted [by my story of the Great Lakes]. [Through the class] I met the New York Times‘ environmental editor, and she wanted to see the proposal. She called two days later and said, ‘I want to give this to my husband’s book agent.” [That agent] said, “This is a national book and you’ve got to write it with a national perspective and then we can sell it.” I gave him a proposal. Three days later, I sold it to W.W. Norton.
What will Lake Michigan be like in 50 years?
If we shut the door to more invasions, they’re on their way to finding some equilibrium. It’s already happening in Lake Huron. There’s another fish – the round goby – that’s the new alewife (an invasive species whose Great Lakes population peaked between the 1950s and 1980s). It’s also an invasive fish. Native species, like lake trout and whitefish and walleye, are eating goby [Not a good thing since the goby carry a strain of botulism; the gobies’ redeeming quality is that they eat invasive zebra and quagga mussels]. It’s really all about balance.
What should the average person do?
Start paying attention. Not enough people do. It’s not like you can flip a switch and [the Lakes will be as they were] before the Europeans paddled their way in. The Great Lakes have been ravaged in a lot of ways, but they’re still incredibly valuable – and can be further messed up again.
When you look out at Lake Michigan now…
It puts a pit in my stomach. It’s like somebody who takes a film class and can never look at film the same way again. The story’s not written yet, and I’m not sure I’m the guy to finish it. ◆