There’s nothing like stumbling into natural spectacles that you’ve never even heard of—those have been some of the coolest experiences of this adventure we’re on. And our pictures, like any photograph, are a poor reflection of what it feels like to be there in the brisk air, the changing light of the lowering sun and blowing clouds, and the sound of waves, birds and chattering tourists. In short, the Pictured Rocks in Michigan on Lake Superior—the first national lakeshore, designated by Lyndon Johnson in 1966—must be seen to be appreciated.
They’re called “pictured rocks” because the groundwater seeping from cracks in the sandstone cliffs contains trace minerals that create fantastic patterns of color: red and orange are iron, green and blue are copper, black is manganese, and white is lime. Then, the continual forces of freezing and thawing, wind, rain, lightning, and hail sculpt the cliffs. And you can see the ages in the rock: closest to lake level the stone is the Jacobsville Formation, a late-Precambrian mottled red sandstone that is the oldest exposed rock in the park. Above that is 500-million-year-old Cambrian sandstone of the Munising Formation. On top, the 400-million-year-old Ordovician Au Train Formation is a harder, limy sandstone that forms a capstone and protects the underlying layers from rapid erosion.
But you’re not thinking of any of that as you sail along. You’re just gaping at the unfolding panorama of colors and shapes. Or perhaps you’re thinking about the exposure and composition of your photograph. Or you’re still trying to master the speed of the zoom and holding your video camera steady. Or, if you’re not busy trying to do all of that, you might just be hearing echoes across the waves of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha.
Herewith, our reflections on The Pictured Rocks.
The Song of Hiawatha, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
On the shores of Gitche Gumee,
Of the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood Nokomis, the old woman,
Pointing with her finger westward,
O’er the water pointing westward,
To the purple clouds of sunset.
Fiercely the red sun descending
Burned his way along the heavens,
Set the sky on fire behind him,
As war-parties, when retreating,
Burn the prairies on their war-trail;
And the moon, the Night-sun, eastward,
Suddenly starting from his ambush,
Followed fast those bloody footprints,
Followed in that fiery war-trail,
With its glare upon his features.
And Nokomis, the old woman,
Pointing with her finger westward,
Spake these words to Hiawatha:
“Yonder dwells the great Pearl-Feather,
Megissogwon, the Magician,
Manito of Wealth and Wampum,
Guarded by his fiery serpents,
Guarded by the black pitch-water.
You can see his fiery serpents,
The Kenabeek, the great serpents,
Coiling, playing in the water;
You can see the black pitch-water
Stretching far away beyond them,
To the purple clouds of sunset!
… Straightway from the Shining Wigwam
Came the mighty Megissogwon,
Tall of stature, broad of shoulder,
Dark and terrible in aspect,
Clad from head to foot in wampum,
Armed with all his warlike weapons,
Painted like the sky of morning,
Streaked with crimson, blue, and yellow,
Crested with great eagle-feathers,
Streaming upward, streaming outward.
“Well I know you, Hiawatha!”
Cried he in a voice of thunder,
In a tone of loud derision.
“Hasten back, O Shaugodaya!
Hasten back among the women,
Back to old Nokomis, Faint-heart!
I will slay you as you stand there,
As of old I slew her father!”
But my Hiawatha answered,
Nothing daunted, fearing nothing:
“Big words do not smite like war-clubs,
Boastful breath is not a bow-string,
Taunts are not so sharp as arrows,
Deeds are better things than words are,
Actions mightier than boastings!”
Then began the greatest battle
That the sun had ever looked on,
That the war-birds ever witnessed.
All a Summer’s day it lasted,
From the sunrise to the sunset;
For the shafts of Hiawatha
Harmless hit the shirt of wampum,
Harmless fell the blows he dealt it
With his mittens, Minjekahwun,
Harmless fell the heavy war-club;
It could dash the rocks asunder,
But it could not break the meshes
Of that magic shirt of wampum.
… Can it be the sun descending
O’er the level plain of water?
Or the Red Swan floating, flying,
Wounded by the magic arrow,
Staining all the waves with crimson,
With the crimson of its life-blood,
Filling all the air with splendor
With the splendor of its plumage?
Yes; it is the sun descending,
Sinking down into the water;
All the sky is stained with purple,
All the water flushed with crimson!
No; it is the Red Swan floating,
Diving down beneath the water;
To the sky its wings are lifted,
With its blood the waves are reddened!
Over it the Star of Evening
Melts and trembles through the purple,
Hangs suspended in the twilight.
No; it is a bead of wampum
On the robes of the great Spirit
As he passes through the twilight,
Walks in silence through the heavens.
… And the evening sun descending,
Set the clouds on fire with redness,
Burned the broad sky, like a prairie,
Left upon the level water
One long track and trail of splendor,
Down whose stream, as down a river,
Westward, westward Hiawatha
Sailed into the fiery sunset,
Sailed into the purple vapors,
Sailed into the dusk of evening.
And the people from the margin
Watched him floating, rising, sinking,
Till the birch canoe seemed lifted
High into that sea of splendor,
Till it sank into the vapors
Like the new moon slowly, slowly
Sinking in the purple distance.
And they said, “Farewell forever!”
Said, “Farewell, O Hiawatha!”
And the forests, dark and lonely,
Moved through all their depths of darkness,
Sighed, “Farewell, O Hiawatha!”
And the waves upon the margin
Rising, rippling on the pebbles,
Sobbed, “Farewell, O Hiawatha!”
And the heron, the Shuh-shuh-gan,
From her haunts among the fen-lands,
Screamed. “Farewell, O Hiawatha!”
To read Longfellow’s epic 1855 poem, which he imagined was set at Pictured Rocks, go to hwlongfellow.org.
(View a short video below)