Lake Gogebic Improvement Association. That’s a curious handle for an organization. Most of the name I can understand. ‘Lake Gogebic’. Well, that should be rather obvious to anyone who’s dipped a toe or thrown a line in the Lake, this big bulge of water that feeds the West Branch of the Ontonagon River. And ‘Association’. This, too, seems pretty clear. This oddly appealing assortment of people who over several generations have at least one thing in common, put simply: the well-being of the Lake. But ‘Improvement’? That’s the part of the name I stumble over. Maybe you do, too. Why is this word Improvement in the name??
My father and mother were members of the LGIA. In fact, I still have one of their membership cards–dated April 1964 and signed by John Weber. But my father is the reason I was never inclined to join the Association. OK, that’s not quite the truth. To be perfectly honest, I’m the reason I never signed up. Dad and I would have an occasional conversation about the LGIA; but my question to him was always: What do you mean by ‘improvement’? And because I never got an answer that, by my standards, measured up to the question, I wouldn’t become a member. (I know, it’s a rather lame excuse; but it’s the truth. I’m also quite certain that mine is not the only weak excuse for non-membership floating around the Lake. But that’s another matter for another time.)
As it happened, however, a couple of years ago the LGIA was looking for a warm body to be on its Board of Directors. And because I happened to have a warm body, they agreed to have me come on board. (But largely recruited, I suspect, because my dear and far less inflexible wife, Terri, had already ably served on the Board–and, of course, signed me up for membership.) Before going to my first meeting, however, I drafted a few questions–mostly for myself, to sort of guide my interest in the Association; but for the Board, too, if the occasion ever presented itself. And my first question, you might well guess, was: What do we mean by ‘improvement’?
What do we mean by ‘improvement’? What do I; what do you mean? My hunch is that most all of us reflexively connect ‘improvement’ and ‘Lake Gogebic’. And so, the question is: How might we improve Lake Gogebic? Hmmm. Improve Lake Gogebic. The words do have a congenial flow to them. But the more I mull it over, the more I’m inclined to think that this might not be the only connection. Maybe ‘Improvement’ should also be connected to ‘Association’. So then, the question becomes: How might we improve the Association? And arguably, this might be the even more crucial connection. In other words: How might we improve our ways of caring so that we can hear the Lake, in its own muted way, whisper a grateful “thank you” in our collective ear?
A little less reflexively, part of me wonders if it’s not just a little presumptuous to even ask the question: How might we improve Lake Gogebic? However possible that may be. As if there’s some unarguable answer out there somewhere just waiting to be revealed. And what would the Lake look like if we did ‘improve’ it?
If a person were to let the imagination get the better of oneself, we might wonder, for example: Would the Lake be ‘improved’ if it were somehow magically restored to pristine condition? Like we might picture it carved out in the wake of the last retreating glacier, before the first human footstep ever left its first trace on these shores. (Indeed, I can almost hear the Lake whispering in my ear: “Hey, I was doing just fine until you people showed up!”) The Lake-as-untouched thought is enchanting. Until I realize that this would also mean that my cottage–and yours, too–would no longer be here! Nor would I; and nor would you. Or would the Lake be improved if only it could be returned to that nostalgic golden time of our younger years? Before the place got all wired up. Back to the more wistful good ol’ days–perhaps even wood stoves and kerosene lamps and outhouses and cane poles. Unfortunately, the arrow of time moves in one direction; and it’s not toward the past. Besides, speaking only for myself, I’m not very sure-footed walking down memory lane. Or would the Lake be improved if, say, the population density doubled, tripled, quadrupled; or if it became the mirror image of urban comfort and bug-less convenience? Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not. What do you think?
‘Improvement’. It’s a tricky word, isn’t it? The more I wrestle with it, the more I understand Dad not being able to give me the straight, clear answer I wanted. Because I also know that I could do no better if my children asked me what ‘improvement’ means. And yet, there it is, in the middle of the name: Lake Gogebic Improvement Association.
Some years ago, the LGIA Board fleetingly entertained the idea of eliminating ‘Improvement’ from its name; but the mess of legalities took the wind out of that sail. So, it seems, we’re all stuck with the name; and ‘improvement’ is indelibly part of it. But that’s good, I think; because otherwise too much would be lost. And oddly, after all these years, I find myself rather falling in love with the word. Nor is the irony lost on me. For years I refused to join the Association because no one could tell me what the word means. But now I think the word is strategically–and wisely–lodged in the middle of our name to give us pause. And I like the challenge of trying to figure out anew what it means, or, better, what I mean by using it. Go figure, huh!
I’m beginning to see ‘improvement’ as a metaphorical bridge of sorts, spanning, connecting ‘where we are’ and ‘who we are’: a way for this ‘place’ and its ‘people’ to reach each other. ‘Improvement’ turns into a critical word that helps us traverse, but won’t let us separate, this body of water and what we’re doing here. So, there you have it: Lake Gogebic Improvement Association. The name has an agreeable flow to it, don’t you think? (And at one or our meetings I might just ask the question: What do we mean by ‘improvement’? Clearly, I’ve not yet finished that conversation with my father!)
By Ken Carlson