The Wonder of Place

“Although it’s hard to maintain the perspective, the whole world is a watershed” – Gary Snyder

Wonder. It is May in northern Michigan and I awake in the lake house Anna and I purchased at the end of last year. During the winter we prepared it for a summer’s use and now we are here. A promise of warblers has pulled me away from the disheveled boxes, misplaced furniture, and yet to be hung pictures. Finding binoculars I step out into the sharp air. I amble down the driveway waiting for my spouse, who has just “one more little thing” to do.

I scan the spruces, trying to find what that flash of yellow was, but it disappears.  Perhaps across the road, along the shore there will be more.  Where is my partner?  We are in this together and I don’t want to go alone. I turn around, look back at the house; nothing. Then I look down. What is that along the driveway? Trash? No, the color of blue is not quite right, the pieces too small to be the discarded winter covering of a boat. 

It’s organic, a flower. But here, right on the driveway and not back in the woods? I get closer and recognize the plant from the garden at home.  But this is wrong, the flowers are too small, too close to the ground, and amidst ground pine.  Then it occurs to me.  I have heard of this flower, oft-mentioned by conservationists who love the shoreline of the Great Lakes. I am a convert. I am in the right place. This is the dwarf lake iris.

Place defines us.  We are who we are because of where we are. We find ourselves in a job, in a relationship, in a dwelling place and that determines who we talk to, where we shop, where we eat, and what we do.  Yes, there are trees and plants, and sometimes interesting birds at the feeder, but our life is mostly indoors.  It has been more so this spring of 2020 as a virus has us hunkered down, trapped in our homes, and connected more than ever to other people and other places by electronic images.  Thank god for photographers and film-makers, or how else could we have survived these last few months cut off from the larger world?

This year was going to be our move towards retirement. My wife had already left her job, and I was working to re-arrange mine so as to spend less time in the office.  Then nature, as it always does, made its claim on humanity and a pandemic swept across the planet. Suddenly there were anxious phone calls, concerns for relatives both younger and older, and new and numerous demands at work.  Zoom calls occupied the day and uncertainty killed the future.

Still, the new lake house lay before us, like a path not yet taken. If we cannot know where we are headed, can we at least know where we are? If we cannot effectively make plans, then at least we can relocate to a new place. And if we must keep our distance from neighbors and co-workers, then let’s find a home that requires interaction with neither. Nature heals.

The Great Lakes define Michigan. Any schoolchild can identify Michigan on a globe; astronauts know it from space. The state mottos is. “if you seek a pleasant peninsula, look around you,” and there are two to choose from.  For the last several decades I have called myself a Great Lakes resident, eschewing the parochial designation of Michigander even though I live in the palm of the mitten, close to the capital.

Water locates us. Environmental educators start with the watershed, wanting us to know where the runoff from our driveway will go. For me, the Shiawassee River, has defined my home since my youth and links me to Saginaw Bay and the largest freshwater system on the planet.  And while I revel in the floodplain woodlands near my house, the southern half of Michigan really has more in common with Indiana and Ohio than it does with the Upper Peninsula.  Agriculture dominates the landscape, the cities are large, and rivers claim the hydrography more than lakes.

Somewhere north of Clare, on a line that runs from Muskegon to Oscoda, the soil changes from clay and loam to sand and peat; the deciduous oaks and hickories give way to pine, spruce, and birch. As a kid in the back of the station wagon, I knew we were “up north” when we crossed that line. Later, I came to learn this was what my friends at The Nature Conservancy referred to as an eco-region.  Most of Michigan is classified as part of the “Great Lakes,” but the lower third of the lower peninsula is part of “Central Till Plain” a flat platform of dirt deposited when the glaciers melted 10,000 years ago.

The geography of water complicates any definition of the Great Lakes. If we follow where water flows, then the watershed of the five lakes can be mapped across two countries and seven states.  But the lines are a bit strange: while all of Michigan lies within the Great Lakes watershed, most of the water in Wisconsin flows to the Mississippi, Chicago’s Lakeshore Drive basically marks the only part of Illinois in the Great Lakes, and the two rivers that drain much of Indiana’s northern watershed, the Maumee and the St. Joseph, don’t even enter a Great Lake in that state.  The Great Lakes, ironically, are about more than water.

Bioregions, or eco-regions, put our lives into a natural context. A bioregion is the boundary to the place we call home. They can be defined by topography (the Appalachians), or by water (the Gulf Coast), or by the lack of water (the Mojave), but not by political boundaries.  We had to learn the map of the 50 states in school, we know our bioregion by feel and practice. Janisse Ray, in “Ecology of a Cracker Childhood” explain the geography of  her home in the South by the presence of the longleaf pine, a species that creates a bioregion of the past.

There is a cultural component of a bioregion, but only because we, at the beginning and in the end, are creatures of nature.  Historically, the bioregion was from where we drew natural resources: timber, food, game and then livestock; rock for building, clay for bricks, and other minerals. The natural features of an eco-region provide navigation aids (the Mississippi River) or totems (Mt. Rainier) and are the basis for the stories of our youth (Paul Bunyan); they gave a spiritual geography to those who lived here before we did (Turtle Island). Perhaps amidst a pandemic, when we are newly concerned about the source of our sustenance, we can again define our bioregion from where our food is cultivated.

Life during quarantine leaves us separate from the landscape. We are desperate for nature: people have taken to backyard bird-watching, and are working in their gardens because they need to connect to the natural world.  But it’s not enough: the parks and trails close to home bustle with human activity. People have swarmed to Great Lakes beaches, despite the arctic cold fronts and snowstorms that swept across them all spring.  Some have had to be closed because of the summertime crowds appearing months early. 

Where am I? And the answer to that question is not a street address. Our dwelling is a human construct; but it’s built in a place located on the planet.  Our home is a home because it is in a place, a place connected to the natural world. We depend on nature. But we cannot consume nature like a commodity delivered to our door.  We need to get out.  And when we step out of doors, we then confront the question of place. 

We are part of something much bigger than our home; this truth has become painfully obvious since the coronavirus hit. To find that which we need outside ourselves, to connect to the larger world, we need to start with the place we are in. When we want to leave the house, where do we need to go? If we are not leaving to visit someone, where would we go?

We are called to nature. How far do we need to travel to hear the voice of nature? The answer might be one definition of place. Perhaps our private backyard is enough, but it likely includes a tree-lined street or a neighborhood of landscapes decorated with plants.  As many of us have discovered this quarantined spring, we need some whole piece of nature:  a park, a woodlot, a trail, or an open shore.  

For me, for a few weeks, the floodplain forest of the Shiawassee River was sufficient. The cohesive collection of trees slowing leafing out, emerging wildflowers, and singing birds rescued me from the forced isolation of stay-at-home orders and the inadequate connections of the internet. But there was some deeper longing, some stronger need to connect to nature that was not an owned property or designated park. Without that lifeline, I stumbled, more than once.

The flow of the River, one of the few predictable constants during this time of uncertainty, pulled me toward something more. Our place is in nature, but what is the boundary of that place? In Michigan, water defines your place, whether it be a small inland lake, a creek or even an agricultural drain, gushing with springtime run-off.

According to the poet Gary Snyder, “To know the spirit of a place is to realize that you are a part of a part and that the whole is made of parts, each of which is whole. You start with the part you are whole in.”

Iris Lacustris, the scientific name of the Dwarf Lake Iris, blooms only in particular places. It requires the soil formed from the limestone that underlies the northern rim of Lakes Huron and Michigan. It needs open space and light, so thrives on the gaps and edges of the forest created by the rising and falling of the Great Lakes.  Constrained by shallow soils and a short growing season, the plant is diminutive; along my driveway, the light green patch only dissolves into tiny dagger-shaped leaves upon close examination.

Extending only a few inches from the ground, the blooms are only as wide they are tall. Compact color from a distance, an up close view reveals an intricacy of design and shading.  There are six purple petals, arranged in alternating variations of two types. Three of the petals are a vibrant violet; the other three, technically “petaloid sepals,” are marked by a yellow and white streaked pathway, the pollen gold and orange on tiny stamens.  All six petals converge so tightly that after a rain I observed one large water drop held by surface tension balancing in the intersection. It’s a flattened, compressed version of the more common iris, scattered amongst ground pine, leaf litter, and cedar cones.

The discovery of the dwarf lake iris next to the tire track of the winter snowplow was a revelation. The wonder of nature persists, despite our personal failings and collective dis-ease. This new home is part of a place, a place made whole by a purple flower, colorful warblers, a rocky shore, and a powerful Great Lake.

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