Thursday, February 25, 2010

A person and a place

Some of my special, unique places have a person associated with them.

One such place is the Algoma Highlands and Stokely Creek properties. I was fortunate to have known Chuck Peterson who owned the properties and worked to preserve them. (For more information on Algoma Highlands Conservancy, visit, and for Stokely Creek Lodge, visit Better yet, why not visit in person. There is time to XC ski or snowshoe. Summer and fall are wonderful times to visit, too.)

It’s a special place for me, partly because it’s a large forest area on hilly terrain close to town*. The ecology of the area is fascinating, the scenery is spectacular (I’ll let others describe how the place is special to them). What makes it even more special for me is that I associate it with Chuck. I had the opportunity to get to know Chuck for a few years. I was able to hike the area with him (and ride around in his field car – a CrownVic!) and talk about his plans for conserving it. Now, when I hike the area, I’m reminded of Chuck and those conversations (some of which were randomly timed phone conversations or over a nice dinner and fine beverage).

The fact that the area is in conservation status is a tribute to Chuck’s memory. It took many people working hard and providing funds to make it happen (especially the Byker/Phair family, and many volunteers and donors to the conservancy). For many of these people, Chuck’s memory was part of their motivation and adds to their appreciation of the place. It does for me.

For another area that connection feels different and I hope stays feeling different for a long time because the person I connect to the place is still here. That place is Vermilion, two miles of lonely shore on Lake Superior

I’ll let others describe what makes it so special – the views, the ecology, the history, the isolation. The point here is that I can associate the place with a specific person, the former owner who continues to work hard to help preserve it (Thanks Evan, and thanks Little Traverse Conservancy for taking the property on and to the principal donor for this purchase). The association with Evan adds to my appreciation of the place.

Neither the Algoma Highlands property nor Vermilion are named for the people involved in conserving them. Other conservation areas have someone’s name attached. Is that name just a name on a plaque? Or is it someone who worked tirelessly to help preserve his/her special place? Would knowing that story make the place more special for you?

*The hills of the Algoma Highlands are worn-down, ancient mountains. When I first came to the area, I was reluctant to call them ‘mountains,’ but as I get older I’m more inclined to do so. I say they are getting taller from isostatic rebound. I don’t want to think that they just seem to be getting steeper to me.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

New look at a familiar place

Last Friday over lunch, I XC skied the Ashmun Creek Natural Area
(, one of my favorite local places for local adventure. It’s fun because in a few minutes you can get ‘back in the wood.’ The fact that the trail is ‘self groomed’ and not known to a lot of people adds to the adventure. While hiking, or cross country skiing or snowshoeing through the area, my mind can wander and I get, well, what seem like good ideas at the time (some of which do actually turn out to be useful ideas). I take my ecology classes back there as do some of my colleagues for their bio classes.

From campus, the convenient trail head is just to the west. From that trail head, one follows the snowmobile trail through the trail tunnel under the freeway, then climbs one large hill, descends into Ashmun Creek valley, then climbs another large hill out of the valley to begin the actual nature trail, which runs counterclockwise. But last Friday my errands about town made it more convenient to enter the trail from the south, follow the very straight and flat snowmobile trail and do the loop clockwise. I also took a shortcut through the woods from the snowmobile trail to the nature trail, so I entered the nature trail at a different point that I usually would. Just that little change gave the area an entirely different feel. What were uphills became downhills to learn to negotiate and vice versa. Scenes to the left were now on the right. It may sound trivial, but it really did look different.

So your assignment is to go to a favorite place, but do the trail loop in the opposite direction from what you customarily do or enter from a different trail head or somehow look at it from a slightly different perspective. Maybe it will add to your appreciation.

NB: Here’s one of the thoughts I had last Friday. You can see if it was just one of those that sounded good at the time. While thinking of new perspectives, it occurred to me that maybe we could help eliminate the partisan grid lock in Congress by encouraging our legislators to go to their special unique spots and think (or maybe it’s go to your Naughty Spot?). Not to sound all ‘Mr Smith Goes to Washington,’ but imagine that instead of legislators crossing their arms, pulling an angry face and waiting for two years until the fickle electorate swings their way, legislators cleared their mind by visiting their or their constituents’ special unique places. Could it lead to across-the-aisle collaborations? A bit idealistic perhaps, but have they tried it? Isn’t all politics local? Couldn’t contemplating the special and unique features of the place they are supposed to represent help legislatures think through the partisan bickering?

Thursday, February 18, 2010


How much more can you see when you know what you’re looking at or looking for? How much more do you appreciate a special, unique natural area by knowing its natural history? Or does it make a difference?

When I go to an annual meeting and first step into the meeting room, I see a sea of faces. But then once I start picking out people I know, I feel more connected. Sometimes I even look for people I know to get caught up with them from last year. If there’s new people, maybe I’ll introduce myself. Similarly, when you know at least some of the plants of a place, you feel more connected to that place. Visiting a place over the whole season, you look for plants you maybe haven’t seen since that time last year. It’s nice to see them again (I generally don’t try to start a conversation with the plants, at least if I think anyone might be looking). Newcomers stand out when you know what you’ve seen before.

I teach a class in plant ID. The first 5 weeks of lab, the students learn 100 of our local plant species out in the field by sight. The rest of the term is about learning the traits of 80 or so plant families. After they know some of the plants, they see them in their travels out into the woods and fields. Of course those plants were there all along, but the students had not noticed them because they didn’t know them. They just saw a bunch of plants. They can see them now that they know to look. Knowing how to identify plants also helps them see plants they don’t know. (My ambition is that they then would get to know them. Occasionally I hear back from previous students that actually do so.)

You can tell from some of the posts on this discussion that knowing the natural history of a spot helps enhances enjoyment of it for some people. My guess is that if you’re reading this discussion, you probably know some of the natural history of your places. If so, I’d be interested in knowing how you got to know that and how knowing that helps you enjoy your place more. But I’d also like to hear from any of you who don’t necessarily know the natural history details about your place but still enjoy it just fine. In other words, to what degree is knowledge of natural history a prerequisite for enjoying a place?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

neighborhood nature?

I grew up in Shawnee Mission Kansas, the KS-side suburbs of Kansas City, MO. There were and still are some great parks, including the 1250-acre Shawnee Mission Park, much of which is in natural grasslands and woodlands. But aside from the parks, the dominant feature of the landscape was individual yards with rooftops and pavement as the next most common cover type. It was right in the sprawl and I saw it sprawl. Back then 103rd was pretty much the end of town, now it’s way past 150th. There are some things they are doing right in Shawnee Mission and Olathe, more about that later.

Thinking back to when I lived there…tucked in the back corners of the sprawl were little pockets of woods and I sought them out. These were typically along some kind of small intermittent stream where the topography would make it a little more expensive to build on. (I recently read that 1/3rd of such streams in cities across the country have been paved over, didn’t see a figure on how many had been channelized.)

These small pockets of trees weren’t big enough for one to ‘wander thru the woods,’ but did offer a nice spot to go that wasn’t quite as human-dominated as the rest of the neighborhood. In today’s jargon what I did there as a kid was to engage in ‘unstructured play.’ At the time I just thought I was playing over in the woods. Usually with friends, sometimes just myself. Thinking back, maybe I was trespassing on private property but it never seemed to be an issue. No fences, no Keep Out signs. Maybe it was a reserved public right-of-way? (A quick check on Google Earth shows that, as I suspected, the economics have made it worth developing those areas. They are paved over for the most part but a few small patches remain. Maybe they are too oddly shaped to develop or too close to other properties. I’d like to think they are kept intentionally but I don’t know.)

They are not formal parks. Most every town has those (again, more about that later). Scattered trees with mowed grass between is great. But is there still a place for pockets of denser trees that don’t get mowed between? Or is that too big of a security/liability issue? Are small neighborhood nature spots important enough to keep out of development? If so, how?

Or am I just sentimental? For the suburbanites, can nature be something close by or will it be something that you have to make a special trip to see?

(I have to add that now I do wander thru the woods, especially if no one remembered the compass or GPS receiver. I asked students a while back if they could tell that I was a kid who liked to scramble thru the woods. They knew that the right answer was ‘whaddaya mean was…’ The ‘kid’ description hasn’t been accurate for a long time and that’s fine by me, but I’d like the scramble-thru-the-woods part to stay accurate)

Monday, February 15, 2010

someone's special local place

a colleague asked me to post this, which i am most happy to do...

Mission Loop
There’s a trail back of the Big Bear Arena in the Soo that I call the Mission Loop; it seems to have no official name. The trail follows both sides of a small stream that flows into Mission Creek, crossing it at two footbridges. You can easily walk it in a half hour, but it’s better to stroll around it slowly, taking time to notice what’s there. I like it because it's nearby and provides a quiet refuge in the city where one can experience the natural world throughout the year. Although it is lightly used at present (I've never met a soul during my many walks here) it has the potential to become a valuable community resource. I have already led outings of the Sault Naturalists here for skiing in the winter and plant study in the spring. The Sault Tribe, which owns the property, could develop it as a nature trail by providing marked waypoints and information about each of them, but it has not responded to my offer to have volunteers from the Naturalists help develop such a trail. It might also be used to teach children (or adults) in the Tribe about the Native uses of various plants.

Here are excerpts from some of my field notes to provide an idea of what's there.
In January I strap on my backcountry skis and enjoy the beauty of a U.P. winter in the woods. At a bend in the stream I see the fertile fronds of sensitive ferns, and a little farther on are vase-like clumps of the feather-like fertile fronds of ostrich ferns.
In early April I hear the sustained undulating trills and whistles of a winter wren, surely the Pavarotti of birdsong. A recently fallen tree is adorned with orange jelly fungus, which is exactly what it sounds like—an irregular mass of bright orange jelly. By the end of April mottled leaves of trout lilies have appeared, spring beauties are beginning to flower, and the fuzzy fiddleheads of sensitive ferns and asparagus-like fertile stalks of common horsetails have popped up. A flicker is calling persistently from the top of a dead tree across the stream, and a grouse is drumming in the distance.
On the first day of May I’m leading six members of the Sault Naturalists on an outing, assuming that 7 pairs of eyes will see more than one. A muskrat is swimming in a pond at the trailhead and red-winged blackbirds are loudly protesting our arrival. In the woods someone spots a chestnut-sided warbler; there is a squirrel buffet of shredded spruce cones under a big white spruce, and some large mushrooms identified as thick-stalked false morels. We take a short walk on a side trail to a swampy “garden” of marsh-marigolds, which have shiny yellow flowers that look like large buttercups.
In mid May the edible fiddleheads of the ostrich ferns are about 6–12” tall, bright green, with rusty scales on each side of the half-dollar size head.
By late June the ostrich ferns are about 5 feet tall and their lush foliage reminds one of a tropical landscape. This is truly a magical place, with something new to discover on every visit.
John Lehman

Saturday, February 13, 2010

everyplace adventure

for a few years, i lived in west-central Kansas, on the corner of the high plains. it's not for everybody. some people just gotta have their trees, but there's nothing like being able to see for miles and miles. in fact, relatives who come up to visit us where we are now, when asked, how was the trip, reply 'wasn't able to see anything, too many trees in the way!' so it's all a matter of perspective. i really like being on a little bit of a high point and being able to see 20 miles or so in every direction, especially in places where it's not a human-dominated landscape.

one of my everyday adventures there, and one i did in other places, was creek skating. back then we had more reliable winters and it was generally possible to get several weeks of creek skating in. a creek ran through campus and through a city park. it was possible to skate about a mile of the creek. it was shallow and narrow enough that there was never any danger of more than getting my feet wet if the ice was a bit thin in spots (BE CAREFUL CREEK SKATING!!)

in the warmer seasons, the park made a great place to bike through the few trees and over the creek bank (do so carefully so you don't cause erosion). the point is that even in places not generally known for such activities, you can still find your everyday/everyplace adventure. you don't have to limit your off road biking to Moab or your skating to the canals of the netherlands.

OK everyone out there in the blog-o-sphere, join in the discussion.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

what keeps you sane?

another feature of places in which we live might be those things that keep you sane. in the everyday hub-bub it's easy to lose your center. you need a place to go or thing to do that returns you to that center. maybe a walk in the woods, a quiet paddle in a pond. or maybe an artistic impression. a painting, a musical performance, a piece of architecture (landscape or otherwise).

i have a number of such places that, well it'd be overdoing maybe to call it sacred, but on second thought, no i wouldn't be. there's the overlook over the st marys river on the short ski loop (see previous post), a particularly compelling scene in the woods i often hike through, the feeling of a morning paddle in a small lake. picture warm lake + cool morning air making a mist, picture sun slanting through the surrounding forest and that forest reflecting in the still pond. that kind of thing.

what's your centering place/activity?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

low-adventure? everyday adventure?

it would surely be very cool to be able to climb mt. kilimanjaro. that is certainly a high adventure. but, unless you so happen to live there, it is not something that you would do regularly. by low-adventure or everyday adventure, i mean what you can do right outside your door that you can take advantage of and that helps make your place a special place to live.

where i live now, we have reliable snowpack and places to XC ski. there is a groomed trail in town with loops of 1 to 8 miles. but right here on campus, there is a loop, too. it is only about 1000+ meters but it is literally right outside my door. no driving to the trail involved. i can squeeze in a quick ski between classes easily enough. just a few blocks away there is a backwoods trail for a bit more adventure.

i will describe several other low-adventures i take advantage of. i would like to hear about yours, too.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Getting Started

This blog is all about knowing your place. All of us live somewhere andthat somewhere has some special features for us. i'd like to hear about what your place -- your neighborhood, your town or your region -- holds for you and i'd especially like to hear how those features enrich your lives. what does living in that unique place do for you? no bragging. it's not that you live in, oh, say, the foothills of the rocky mountains, or essentially on lake superior, or in the high plains. afterall, there are people who live in what is generally considered a very cool place, but never avail themselves of what their place has to offer. and there are people who live in what others would consider the most anywhere-USA kind of suburb but have found features that make it a specia. so let's hear what makes your place special to you.