Where I've been, what I've read: vacation in Michigan's UP and Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling

I’ve lived most of my life in Michigan, but only last week did I really visit the Upper Peninsula.

I saw Lake Superior for the first time, which means that I have now finally seen all the Great Lakes.

My girls on the shore of Lake Superior

My family and I took a boat cruise on Lake Superior, that great, cold, inland sea. We saw cliffs streaked with ancient mineral stains, worn by wind and waves. We hiked to see waterfalls (so many waterfalls!) We ate pasties, the hand-held savory pies beloved in the UP, brought there by Cornish immigrants who worked the copper mines generations ago.

Lakeside cliffs in Painted Rocks National         Lakeshore 

Waterfalls in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

I’m reminded, again, of the treasures we have in America in our national and state parks, in the areas set aside for conservation. The UP is protected forest and lakeshore; blue waters and empty beaches; lighthouses and tiny, picturesque towns. 

Also, the UP has great food--always a consideration with my food-obsessed family. "Do they have rice up there?" I joked the day we left, shoveling a bowlful of rice down. It's true that there's not much in the way of "ethnic" dining in the little towns there. But there's fresh lake trout, whitefish, and perch. There are restaurants with great steaks and meatloaf and mashed potatoes. And the aforementioned pasties, with rich, buttery crusts enclosing beef and potatoes (The best we had were at The Bear Trap restaurant in Shingleton). And indeed, I had a dish of grilled whitefish with jasmine rice in a hip little restaurant in downtown Munising. 


While on vacation I finished a book that's been on my nightstand for a while: Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling. It is indeed a collection of strange tales: marvelous, elaborate fairy tales; odd vignettes and anecdotes, some only a page long; morality tales and descriptive fragments. They were written by a gentleman-scholar in 17th century China. In the Penguin Classic edition, translated by John Minford, the stories speak in an exquisitely mannered, delicate, elegant voice. Fox spirits and ghosts vie for the lives of hapless scholars; Taoist monks perform miracles; lovers return from the grave to meet in life after life. There's subtle (and not so subtle) humor and melancholy. Alongside the delicacy of the prose is a sexual forthrightness which utterly scandalized early English translators (and which is responsible for much of the most memorable humor). Yet for all the drama of these tales, they had a strangely calming effect on my heart. I'm evidently not the only person to feel this. The Penguin Classic edition contains detailed notes on the history of these tales, including thoughts from the early 19th century commentator Feng Zhenluan:

All my life I have enjoyed reading the Records of the Grand Historian and the History of the Han Dynasty. But only the Strange Tales dispel oppression.

Pu Songling came of age during troubled times, during the transition between the Ming and Manchu dynasties. It was a time of periodic rebellions and brutal imperial suppression. Yet his stories—for all their often dark turns—somehow dispel oppression; they offer a glimpse into a lost world (did it ever really exist?) of exquisite culture and beauty and refinement, a world where a scholar and his ghost-lover might spend their nights together reciting poetry and playing the mandolin.  

There are no wars in my privileged area of the world, no violent end to dynasty. Yet this time also feels unsettled; a free-floating anxiety beats it wings. The election-year madness seems to threaten ever more to tip into true insantiy, and it feels as though we live in the opening chapter of a dystopian, apocalyptic novel. I'm drawn irresistably to the newspaper headlines, for all that I know they only feed my anxiety. I take walks; I read; I spend time with my family. In the unspoiled Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I walked through lush forests and saw the blues of three Great Lakes. 

And amidst the miracles of the natural world, it’s another kind of miracle to think of how, across language and culture and the space of three centuries, Pu Songling’s strange tales bring their strange comfort to an age he surely never could have imagined.


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