The Mechanical Engineer, Larry Brown, and the Lake

By John Richard Saylor

A dozen or so years ago, in early January, when the land in South Carolina is brown, mostly mud and dead leaves, and right around the time when I was promoted to professor of mechanical engineering, the highest rank in an academic
department, I lost the fire in my belly. Up until that point, I rose early, worked late, and was happy to do so. But on this January day, I just wasn’t interested in pushing any more. I am motivated by challenges, difficult things, things I haven’t done before. To be sure, the path from assistant professor to associate professor to professor was nothing if not challenging. It had plenty of firsts along the way: first time teaching a class, first masters student graduated, first doctoral student graduated, first awarded grant… There were many firsts, but now I’d done them all. From this point forward it was just a numbers game. How many papers published at the end of my career? How many doctoral graduates before the gold watch? How much grant money brought in? I couldn’t find a number that excited me, and my mind drifted.

Though I have four degrees in mechanical engineering, literature has always been an important part of my intellectual life. I was perhaps the only graduate student of mechanical engineering at Yale University who read Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, and Solzhenitsyn. I was perhaps the only assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Clemson University that read Larry Brown, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Amy Hempel. I am fairly sure I am the only professor of mechanical engineering who reads Plato, Homer, and Herodotus. Had I been prevented from pursuing a career in mechanical engineering, literature would have been my second choice. It was, I decided that day in January, time to explore this other part of my brain.

And so I divided my professional life into two neat parts. One focused on continuing my career as a professor: teaching, research, writing articles in scientific journals, a simple continuation of all I’d been doing. But now, I decided, I would spend my mornings on this new thing: creative writing. And so it began. Before the sun rose each morning, I would roll out of bed, make coffee, and explore this new world. As the sun slowly reddened the sky and the chickadees and cardinals awakened, chittering and flitting about the leafless branches outside my window, I would read. In The Intellectual Life, Sertillanges quotes Lacordaire who alone in his little room was able to create “…a horizon wider than the world.” And on those mornings I felt like I was creating such a horizon. While reading, I went everywhere, travelling the back roads of Mississippi in Larry Brown’s pickup truck, a cold beer in hand; jostling on horseback past windswept fields in Russia with Anton Chekhov; listening to stories of great battles between Greek and Barbarian at the feet of mighty Herodotus. I would write, working on short stories that were at first (of course) awful, and then a little better, and then submittable. I worked on novel ideas and on novels. A few years passed. I wrote and I revised. My novel drafts got better; my stories appeared in literary journals. I assumed the first book-length publication would be a work of fiction.

The thing was, this division of my time and labor was not as clean as I thought it would be. My old life as a professor of mechanical engineering and all its associated tasks was one thing. The bright new world of novels and short stories was another. But there was a lot that fell in between.

I am a person who becomes fascinated by odd tidbits of knowledge about the natural world. After a hike in a place near where I live called the Eastatoe Creek Heritage Preserve, I learned that in this magical wet green gorge, a fern can be found, one that exists nowhere else in North America, the Tunbridge filmy fern, its nearest brethren found in England. It seems that the flow of the Eastatoe Creek, channeled through a very narrow gorge, creates a high-humidity microclimate that is so unique that nowhere else in North America can this particular fern survive. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

I am fascinated by things in the natural world that have long ago been discovered. The simple existence of the Venus flytrap overwhelms me. Photosynthesis fascinates me. Every carbon atom in our body ultimately came from a carbon dioxide molecule that a plant turned into plant matter via photosynthesis. I can stare out the window and think of such things for hours.

There are a lot of magical things out there in the natural world. But, as it turns out, nowhere is this truer than in lakes, at least for me. I discovered this when some colleagues and I completed a project on evaporative loss from lakes. We had developed a method for estimating lake evaporation using satellite measurements (a thing of some use to people who manage reservoirs and other water resources), and we wanted to publish it in a limnology journal, a journal focused on the study of lakes. None of us knew the vocabulary and overall style that such journals use and so someone had to do a bit of background reading. That someone was me, and I am glad for it. I spent a little time reading articles in limnology journals, but I kept getting diverted to popular science articles on lakes, articles on topics that were mind-blowing. I read an article on a group of lakes called the Carolina bays. Located along the Atlantic Coastal Plain from southern New Jersey to northern Florida, these lakes are perfectly elliptical in shape. Moreover, the long axis of these elliptical lakes all point in the same direction, as if they are pointing to something, trying to tell us where they are from. Once I’d learned of these lakes, I would spend hours on Google maps, gazing at them, both at these elliptical lakes themselves, and their greener counterparts, drained Carolina bays. They are everywhere, once you start looking (a good place to start if you would like to do so is just west of Elizabethtown, NC). In some places they are so dense that they overlap—sometimes you will find one inside of another. Many of these lakes have been drained to enable farming, and so from a satellite view you will often see them as green elliptical fields, with the crosshatching of furrows plowed into them. What made these lakes even more intriguing was that their formation mechanism is not understood, and is in fact somewhat controversial.

From Carolina bays I was led to another lake, one I’d read about years earlier but was reminded of as I searched more literature in support of the journal article. I read about Lake Nyos, one of a group of so-called “killer lakes” that can be found in Cameroon. These are a type of volcanic lake, lakes that have formed in the craters or calderas of long-dormant volcanoes. Typically, such lakes do little to threaten the lives of those who choose to live nearby. But in 1986, Lake Nyos erupted in the middle of the night, spewing not hot lava, but a tremendous amount of cool carbon dioxide, a gas that had accumulated in its depths. As much as a quarter of a cubic mile was emitted, and it raced down the slopes, killing over a thousand people who slept in the small towns beneath the volcanic peak.

The world is full of fascinating lakes. There are subglacial lakes, enormous lakes, some as large as Lake Ontario, that exist beneath a mile of ice in Antarctica. These are lakes that exist in complete darkness, their water having not seen the atmosphere in perhaps a million years. And yet there is life down there, life that is only now being explored. There are lakes that exist for only days, landslide dam lakes that often cause massive loss of life when the dam fails and enormous quantities of water go rushing downstream. The list goes on and on.

Flash forward to 2018. I had been awarded a residency at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico, and I was sitting in a small casita, deciding what to do with the weeks of free time on my hands. The residency provides writers with a block of time away from all distractions, time to be used to do nothing but write. Nothing but write! It sounds great until you sit down, alone in that little casita and stare at that very blank page. I had several ideas for writing projects, but the thing I found myself thinking about the most was lakes. “Someone really needs to write a book on the magic of lakes,” I kept thinking. I began putting together a book proposal, a task that took up probably more of my time in Taos than anything else. The idea drew me in. It is odd the things that catch your imagination. The thing I really wanted to do was publish a novel, but the thing that made my pen move across the page was the idea of a book on strange and magical lakes. Perhaps not surprisingly the book proposal got done quickly and caught the attention of an agent who in turn caught the attention of a publisher, bringing me to where I am now, four years later, touting my recently published book, Lakes: Their Birth, Life, and Death, a copy of which I hope you will buy and enjoy.

People sometimes say that children don’t come from us, they come through us. I’m not sure if that is true of children, but I am positive it is true for books. Birthing a novel results in something that is recognizable by its author, but whose ultimate form can never be thought of as completely intentional. What is in there and what is absent is the result of so many twists and turns; it is due to innumerable influences from other people, from things that we stumble upon along the way, from the tone and color of something we read the night before. One might foolishly think that in the world of non-fiction, it is just a matter of organizing facts in your own unique way. Nothing could be further from the truth. Like characters, facts (in my case lakes) can be presented in an infinity of ways, giving the material an enormous range of possible hues. This book could have been written in so many different ways.

I live in a place filled with lakes. I often walk along their shores on the weekends. I drive past one of them every day. These lakes were, of course, the template I often thought of when I worked on the different chapters of this book. I often wonder how the book would have been different if it had been some other lake or lakes that I’d interacted with while writing. What would the book have been like if I lived and wrote on the shores of Lake Tahoe? Lake Superior? Lake Okeechobee? It is hard to know. The lakes I live near make almost no appearance in this book on lakes; they served as an exemplar in my mind, but never seemed to fit into the story I was trying to tell. Perhaps living near Lake Superior would have only served to ensure its absence from the book. Who knows?

What I do know is that I am glad that I wrote the book. It is, of course, imperfect, and I avoid reading it since I tend to obsess over how various paragraphs and passages could have been written better. But I am glad I wrote it, this thing, this idea that would have just taken my attention away from whatever else I was working on. I no longer think, “Someone needs to write a book on the magic of lakes.” Now I can work on a character or a scene and I can focus on that character or that scene. My book is out there, in the world, no longer dancing around in my thoughts as a potentiality, a thing that could be created. It is there for you, this thing that came from me. This thing that came through me.

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