Wednesday, April 20, 2011


 “It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know of wonder and humility.”   Rachel Carson      

I’d just wanted to get outside, walk, and feel the promise of spring.  For those urban apartment dwellers, spring comes in other people’s yards and in little corners of wilderness like the miracle of Montrose Beach.  And that’s where I headed that April day last year.  Pulling into the park, I could see teams of adults in green t-shirts in the wooded bird sanctuary, and further out on the beach, kids were dragging trash bags through the sand.  And then it dawned as on me, I’d stumbled into Earth Day. 

It was an awkward moment. If anyplace in Chicago deserved a hand, it was the marvel of Montrose Beach’s bird sanctuary and its reemerging dunes and rare wetlands habitat. Where else in the city could you spot piping plovers and red fox while listening to the rustle of the dune grasses, then in this monument to the will of nature and the passion of people to preserve it?  I considered sifting through the junk in my car for a plastic bag and joining in, but I let it go.

I walked around, trying to spot some of the spring migrating birds, but invariably I’d see these school kids, gleaning what they could after the fastidious Sierra Club folks. They reminded me of my friends and I picking up bottles and trash on that first Earth Day forty years ago in 1970.  Within an hour or so, our sacks were filled. We had no idea how much trash there was embedded in the grass and soil along the highway outside of our central Indiana factory town. They were too heavy to drag home, the bags, so we just left them there.  And that’s where they stayed, for months. 

I got back in my car, a bit guilty but inspired by those kids and the idea of Earth Day as embodied there at Montrose. And instead of going about my usual Saturday routines, I decided I’d make a pilgrimage of sorts a bit further down the shore of Lake Michigan, to another miracle of urban wilderness, another emblem of the spirit of Earth Day, the Indiana Dunes.

For a long time, if I had a desire to get away or enjoy the natural world, I’d get on a plane or drive far from the smokestacks and concrete of Chicago’s Lakefront. But economic times have been tough, so I have been exploring by foot places I’d driven by for years in and around Chicago.

I drove through South Chicago and the industrial cities of Indiana where I could stop and walk along beaches or abandoned railroad beds to see birds and the budding of spring, but it seemed fitting to revisit Cowles Bog in the National Lakeshore on the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day.  This section of the park is named after the pioneering work of botanist Henry Chandler Cowles of the University of Chicago, who spent years studying the dynamics of the dunes and how the climatic forces affected the plants and animals which inhabited them.  From Cowles’ work and others we can’t ignore the fact that all life forms—including us—are dependent on the health of the web of life around us.  A field of science emerged from the sand dunes of Indiana: it’s called ecology.
Cowles Bog with Steel Mill and NIPSCO in backgound

But the places where Dr. Cowles and his students made their discoveries are now gone, bulldozed, and turned to industrial use.  A loss, for sure, but in the battle for the dunes and in other places around the globe a voice emerged, a voice from local people who understood in their own way how their health and that of their children’s depended upon the health of their environment. And it’s for them, on Earth Day, that you want to thank for laws that give us cleaner air and water and parks like the Indiana Dunes.  

The trail to the beach at Cowles Bog took me along railroad tracks with a long line of coal cars ready to be burned into digital joy or used to form ore and stone into steel. Underneath crackling electrical lines, I marched on, noticing the mallards in the marshes oblivious to me and the steam billowing from the stacks. I climbed up the old dunes now covered in an oak forest and then made it down into the foredunes, where I walked to the shore through the same grasses now emerging on the beach at Montrose.   

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