Storm damage summons ‘watchers’ to lakeshore

John Pepin

“Like a ghost on a canvas, people don’t see them.” — Paul Westerberg

In the late 1990s, abstract artist Peter von Tiesenhausen embarked on a 5-year traveling sculpture project that brought mysterious human figures carved out of spruce 21,000 miles across Canada, often transporting them in the back of his beat-up 1984 Ford pick-up truck.

The five charred figures stood tall, at slightly varying heights, gazing upward and outward. They were known as “The Watchers.”

They would appear for a while, in all types of weather, standing on Newfoundland cliffs, riding on the deck of a ship through the Northwest Passage, adorning the center of a pond at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Ontario or were left in the back of von Tiesenhausen’s pick-up truck, parked along a street in a small town.

The exhibit prompted observers, some angry, to ask, “What does it mean?”

“It’s up to you,” von Tiesenhausen told the Associated Press in 2002. “What do you think it means? I’m just driving around.”

It was then off to the next location.

A Micmac Indian elder gave the figures their collective name on the Eskasoni Reserve in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Seeing the figures, the elder said, “The watchers are here.”

“To von Tiesenhausen, their searching gaze, from eyeless heads tilted slightly upward gives them a ‘not-defeated’ look that provokes natural curiosity,” the AP said.

The artist told reporters, “Everyone recognizes it as human. It’s not about the quality of the carving or anything like that. It’s more about the odyssey and the journey.”

On his family farm in Alberta, “The Watchers” were kept outside where elk would knock them over. In the woods or in town, to animals and people, these watchers seemed to know something they weren’t telling.

I was reminded of “The Watchers” this past weekend when I took a walk down to the Lake Superior shoreline at Picnic Rocks in Marquette, which remains devastated from the tremendous late October storm that packed hurricane-force winds and pushed up waves to heights of nearly 30 feet.

Beyond the sandbagged barricades blocking vehicle entry to the park, people walked slowly, looking at the ground. Some seemed stunned or dazed, seeing the tremendous rocks and boulders that had been lifted from the lakeshore or lake bottom and tossed onto the broken black-topped surface of the parking lot.

Others shook their heads while they moved, as others just stood silently. Those who spoke, did so in soft, whispering voices. These souls appeared to have been shaken on a core level by the always seemingly surprising rage and fury of the mighty lake.

I had the feeling some came to witness for themselves the tremendous damage they had heard about.

One woman knelt to pick through the rocks and other rubble. Some retrieved small items from the water’s edge they kept as souvenirs.

I was no exception. I found two pieces glazed crockery of some type. The lake had smoothed the edges of the cracked pieces.

Though one jagged piece was thicker than the other, the color and pattern seemed to fit, like maybe they had come from the same vessel. One piece resembled a bear’s hooked incisor and the other, the outline of Arkansas.

At one point during the raging storm, the waves pushed past the park to flood onto East Fair Avenue, slowing passing vehicles and making this east side street appear more like a young river, full of energy, dying to run somewhere.

The waves and winds would topple black poplars along Lakeshore Boulevard and at the sandy beach, cedar trees and pines. Many buckled and fell once the waves washed the dirt away from around their roots.

With all this devastation to see, there was also a kinder, productive sense of nature at work here. The shoreline was sparkling, with all the rocks washed clean. The garbage was gone too. I later found it, blown hard against the wire fence at the edge of the old industrial property we knew as kids by its chemical smell.

Once people had inspected the rocks, the rolled and broken blacktop and the piles of mud and sand — which the waves of the lake had sifted and sorted more finely the farther they were pushed toward the street — several moved toward the shore.

Here, they stood like von Tiesenhausen’s charred spruce watchers, shoulder-to-shoulder, looking slightly up and outward into the breadth of the lake.

What were they looking for? What did it mean? It’s up to you.

Some appeared to be emotionally upset by what they had seen. A pair of old lovers held each other. The man rubbed the lady’s back, as if to comfort her. Others stood with their hands at their sides, looking up then down, seemingly self-conscious.

Though most arriving took pictures with cellphones at the onset, most stopped this within a few moments. Then, like the others, they began their hushed inspections.

On this gloomy Saturday, with a strong east wind showing its teeth, the park had the sense of a solemn place, a site for mourners or those again humbled by nature’s crippling whiplash hand.

Like von Tiesenhausen’s artworks, these human watchers stood gazing, looking longingly, saying nothing except to each other or themselves. After a few more minutes it was time for them to leave.

Meanwhile, throughout the span of the couple of hours I’d spent at the park and along the shore, another solemn figure stood watching on the rocks offshore. But instead of looking out into the lake, this ghostly creature looked toward the people, those watching the lake, contemplative and introspective.

This figure, a young mottled snowy owl that might have arrived from the Great White North on the battered wings of that tremendous October storm, was silent and motionless. Its bright gold eyes invisible from the shoreline.

At once, this beautiful bird was as mysterious and evasive as von Tiesenhausen’s watchers — a vision of art in the eye of the beholder.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the DNR on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.