When someone says the word “environment” in some policy or scientific context, do you think about a place? I often recall some special spot: a campsite once shared with friends, the river of my youth, a National Park, that trail I often return to for re-creation, a beach, or the patch of wildflowers in the woods out back. I believe that who we are is in large part defined by these places. The personal passions for place have certainly fueled the work of land conservancies and other environmental groups. Places matter, but, paradoxically, if we are to save the particular parts of nature, we need to understand and protect the larger natural system in which these places exist.
I am on a quest in the next few years to visit as many of the special places The Nature Conservancy has preserved in Michigan. There would be endless lists if I sought out all the definitions of most special places in our State, but those that The Nature Conservancy has chosen to protect are arguably among the most important. I hope to understand not only the ecological importance of each of their sites, but I also want to feel what makes each preserve a place, a place that someone–usually many someones–cared so much for that they put in the hard work to save it. They tromped through wetlands and brambles to find this place, they got down on their hands and knees to study the plants and animals that live there, they negotiated with private land owners and public agencies, they raised money, they advocated for the place with colleagues and elected officials and funders, and they did even more because they cared about the place. I want to experience that.
The importance of place accounts for much of the good work The Nature Conservancy has accomplished in 60 years of protecting the most ecologically important spots globally, including many in Michigan. For much of its history, The Nature Conservancy (or “TNC” as those of us who know it well say) concentrated on “Saving the Last Great Places,” to quote its tag line of many years. Recently, however, the organization has changed its mission statement to “Preserving Nature, Protecting Life.” This change reflects several profound realities learned through its work:
- Places are parts of regions, and depend on a larger ecosystem for their health. For example, we may care about that hidden lake up north, but the quality of the water–and the life that lives in the water–depends on what takes place on the land around the lake, and along the streams that flow into the lake. If we want to protect the places that matter, and the beautiful plant or animal that lives there, we need to ensure that the ecosystem around it also preserved.
- We are stewards in preserving these special places. It is not enough to buy or otherwise save a place, we also need to take care of it. There may be a few opportunities left in the world to set aside a piece of wild nature and let it be, but the impact of humanity can be felt most everywhere. In Michigan, much of the environment has been disturbed through logging, introduction of invasive species, encroachment of development, or pollution from near or far. We need to actively care for nature as a whole and in particular manage those most special places so as to protect, or restore, what makes that preserve unique.
- We benefit from nature, both in the spiritual and the economic. While visiting what a minister friend of mine calls the “thin places” may refresh our bodies and recharge our souls, the benefit of larger natural systems go beyond the personal. What experts now sometimes call “ecosystem services” provide us with sustainable natural resources (e.g. lumber or food), provide the basis for whole economies (e.g. recreation or tourism), and generate the life sustaining clean air and water we all depend on. Here in Michigan, we are particularly conscious of freshwater, of which 20 percent of the world’s supply can be found in the Great Lakes.
In sum, a commitment to the special places of nature leads us to care about preserving all of nature. And when we preserve nature we protect life, not only the life found in the places that matter, but our own lives as well. We, as humans, are not apart from nature, we are a part of nature. Well, maybe we are too apart from nature, in that we do not get out often enough to appreciate and rejoice in what it is around us. That is my goal, to see and know the places that make Michigan special. Along the way, I hope to learn and share more about how the Great Lakes as a natural system can be restored and preserved so that all the places and the life that depend on it can also be protected.
I hope you will join me on this adventure.