I saw a statement somewhere from the US Forest Service that the most popular recreational use of our nation’s public forests is driving through them in automobiles on roads. I can understand that. Some of my special spots are actually auto tours. I enjoy my drives across the Mackinac Bridge, I enjoy driving the tunnel of trees north of Traverse City, I enjoy the Curley Lewis highway along the south shore of Lake Superior’s Whitefish Bay, I even enjoy the drive along the 28 straight flat miles of the Seney Stretch (yes, I am from Kansas). Generally, I enjoy these drives while I’m en-route to somewhere, but I’m not above taking a drive just for its own sake. Do any of you recall Sunday afternoon drives in the country with the family? It used to be a common practice. I don’t know how common it is now, with more expensive fuel, more congested roads, and family members’ disparate schedules. But apparently it’s still common enough according to the US Forest Service.
If I’m driving through an area, I try to stop, get out of the car and get a little more intimate with the place (My desire to get out does not extend to trips across the Mackinac Bridge. It’s not permitted and my respect for heights precludes me from walking it on the one day it is permitted). As a botanist, I can spot many plants at highway speeds, but not quite like I can if I get out and walk around a little. Getting out of the car also lets me actually take in the weather, the sounds, the scents (which is why other special places are bike rides, but more about that later). If I'm time-limited, it's only a brief stop but even that adds to the experience of the place, especially if the stop is at one of the many waterfalls we’re blessed with up here. If I have time and it’s summer, I’ll wade the stream or lake (Curley Lewis Highway offers several great places to get out and into Whitefish Bay). Getting right into the water is another one of those publicly acceptable intimate experiences, even when one is just wading while fully clothed*.
It’s not all just about nature, either. I enjoy checking out the local history and eating at a local food establishment. Eating is another one of those intimate things you can do in public. Last spring, we were on our way back from an appointment in NW Indiana. It was lunch time and we went to downtown Coldwater, Michigan, found a nice local restaurant, ate in their sidewalk café and really enjoyed feeling the place.
I extend this eating metaphor to my classes. When I have students out in the field, I have them sample the edibles of our field sites. In the fall up here in the Soo, that includes blackberries, chokecherries and of course the wintergreen berries and leaves (blueberries are gone by then). I suggest that the students take some Labrador tea and give it a try at home. In addition to helping students realize that there are nice things to eat from the field, part of my purpose is also to give them a more intimate sense of the place. I try to make sure they get beyond the science and taste the berries, feel the weather and smell the scents. For example, if we’re lucky to have a brisk wind for our field trip to a local beach, I emphasize the feeling of the wind coming off the lake as an enjoyable experience and not just as an ecological factor for the plant life. I’ll write later about the importance of instilling aesthetic sensibilities in ecology students.
Special places make for special, intimate feelings. I’d be interested to know how you get more intimate (in a public way) with your special places.
*The idea of getting to know a place better by getting into the water and eating things from the place makes me realize the importance of swimming and safe fish consumption as indicators of water quality. Unfortunately beach closures and fish eating advisories are still too common in the Great Lakes and elsewhere. We want our lakes and rivers clean enough to swim in and to eat the fish from, not just because that shows that they truly are clean, not just because of the economic benefits of fisheries and the property values tied to being able to enjoy one’s waterfronts, but also because it shows that we value the spots enough to want to be able to get that close to them. Again, there’s not much more intimate you can get in public than eating or immersing your body into the water of a lake or stream.