On Needing Green Spaces

Growing up in West Michigan, I was never far from the shore of Lake Michigan. I went on countless trips to the beach and to the state parks along the lakeshore as a kid, but I didn’t truly begin to understand and properly appreciate how unique these natural wonders are until recently. I was working at a local high school last year, and when it was time for spring break and the first warmer days of the year were setting in, I decided to spend a few of my days off hiking around some of the nearby state and county parks on Lake Michigan. I visited P.J. Hoffmaster State Park in Norton Shores, as well as Rosy Mound Natural Area and Kirk Park near Grand Haven. At Hoffmaster, I stopped by the Visitor Center and wandered through some of the exhibits on the dune ecosystem that are housed there – it is essentially a miniature natural history museum, with information on the history of the state park, the range of wildlife in the dune habitat, and explanations of dune formation.

It was also there that I was reminded of the fate of Pigeon Hill, which was at one time a massive sand dune and notable landmark, reduced to nothing when all of its sand was mined for industrial purposes in the 1920s and ’30s. It is now the site of a condominium development. (Check out this Mlive article from 2010 for more on the history of Pigeon Hill.)

People need places to live, and our lives depend on our ability to use our natural resources, but what will we leave to those who will inherit the land that is shaped by our industry and planning and decision-making? The early 20th century is littered with the environmental casualties of short-term thinking and unchecked industrial growth; the extinction of the passenger pigeon and the ivory-billed woodpecker are two notable examples of the result of excessive hunting and mass deforestation. And back at our coastal dunes, native plants such as the pitcher’s thistle, which grow nowhere else in the world except for the dunes along our shorelines, are currently threatened by habitat loss. When we lose these plants and animals, they are gone forever.

These are the words of Genevieve Gillette, an early conservationist and pioneer of Michigan’s state park system:

We’d stop by the waters of the brook and father would say, ‘It’s singing to us. Let’s listen to what it’s sayin.’ The trees arched over the stream and king fishers flew up and down, and once in a while we were lucky enough to see a heron walking around hunting for breakfast. You looked down into a jewel-like formation, a cattail marsh, but no it was full of golden marigolds (marsh marigolds), all in bloom in this lovely, lovely spot. It was something like a sermon.”  (See http://www.gillettenature.org/about/genevieve-gillette.html.)

That experience of nature is still available to us, and it seems to me that the ever-increasing urbanization of our world only highlights the importance of our state and national parks. We need connection with the natural world. It sustains us, not only physically, but spiritually as well, as Gillette notes. There are certainly ways to cultivate the natural world in urban environments, and we should be exploring and pursuing activities such as community gardening and micro-farming in our cities. But there is nothing like heading down a quiet, deserted path in some foggy woods in the morning with fresh deer tracks on the trail and woodpeckers making a racket in the trees, and the sound of the waves on the sand in the distance. As a second-floor apartment dweller with no yard, the only places where that is possible for me are parks.

Of course, there are more layers to this particular environmental issue; I know some families who experience the pressures of urban poverty and who never have the leisure to (even if they can afford to own a car) drive to the lakeshore and spend the day there. Therefore, I’m interested in natural preservation for everyone – those who live now and those who will live later, rich and poor and young and old – because the experience of ‘listening to what the water is saying’ is not for a privileged few; it is for everyone, and it is therefore up to each of us to be conservationists in whatever ways we can.

For more information on Michigan wildlife, conservation initiatives, and the state parks system, a good place to start is the state DNR website. Even better, though, is to just go the park and look around. Read the informational blurbs along the paths, watch birds, look for animal tracks, and get curious.

Written by Sara Vruggink
Contributor to New Way of Life

My name is Sara Vruggink. Having first graduated from Grand Valley State University in 2007 with an English degree, I returned to GVSU in 2010 to earn my Michigan teacher certification. I now work for Kentwood Public Schools and serve as a volunteer for United In Christ Ministries in the Black Hills neighborhood in Grand Rapids. UICM is a grassroots organization that began with a handful of dedicated individuals seeking ways to serve inner-city children and their families, and it has since blossomed into a beautiful community with a unique collective of ministries and programs that serve the entire neighborhood.


This post was originally published @ http://novaviavitae.org/686/ and has been syndicated with permission of the author. 

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