• Dan Robinson

Will Any Old Place Do?

This is the second of two articles examining the “building blocks” of the Great Lakes Spirituality Project. The first article dealt with the concept of Spirituality.

Why the Great Lakes? Why this place and not some other place to explore spirituality? And why focus on a place at all?

Let’s take the last question first, as that really gets at the heart of this Project. Why focus on a certain place?

Sunrise over Lake Michigan at Point Beach State Forest in Wisconsin

I grew up among the cornfields of northwestern Indiana, and other than a car-window glimpse of Lake Michigan during an occasional trip to Chicago to see a Cubs baseball game, I never spent time around the Lakes. It wasn’t until later in life that I would travel around the Lakes and eventually live for six years in Manistee, MI, a shore town on Lake Michigan in the Lower Peninsula.

But growing up where I did, surrounded by family, taught me the importance of place, that we are all shaped by where we live and the landscape/cityscape we interact with. That impact can be the sublime, from an appreciation for rushing water to the beauty of food growing on the land to the feel of an urban center’s energy.

The impact of place can also be very practical. For example, studies are starting to show that the biggest indicator of life expectancy in the U.S. is the zip code where you live. An article in Time Magazine by Jamie Ducharme and Elijah Wolfson summed up many of these studies by saying:

A zip code’s influence on the health of those living there is multifold. Where you live directly affects your health in a number of ways, from exposure to air pollution and toxins to accessibility of healthy food, green space and medical care. But it’s also a more subtle indicator of socioeconomic factors that are inherent to health and longevity, including race and income.

Like any living being we are a product of the environment in which we live and grow, both physically in how we live and how well we live, but also spiritually in how we see ourselves as part of the larger picture of life and existence. The place we find ourselves, whether for a life time or a brief moment, matters – both to us and to the living beings we share it with.

Let’s move on to the second question – why this place and not some other place to explore spirituality? I’m reminded of what the writer, poet, and activist Wendell Berry said during an interview with Bill Moyers: “There are no sacred and unsacred places; there are only sacred and desecrated places.”

In a global view, that is certainly true. All places on this earth are sacred. But for us as individuals or communities, certain places, including where we live, impact us more than others.

I’ve done quite a bit of moving around, both as a young child and later as an adult. My wife and I and our children, for example, celebrated four Christmases in four states in four years – something I wouldn’t recommend! So, the concept of connection to a place is both fleeting and important to me. We don’t have an experience of generations of family or memories tied to a specific location, but lacking that experience and seeing it in others’ lives creates a longing for roots and connections to place.

Our experience of moving around is probably similar to a lot of people these days. For many of us, we are a mobile and rootless society, maybe to our benefit sometimes, but certainly to our detriment. That mobility keeps us from understanding the ways of a particular place – its needs, its history, its ecosystem, its particular quirks. It takes time and experience to become familiar with those ways. That familiarity allows us to truly understand and care for a place, rather than thinking we can just move on from any damage we or someone else might do to that particular spot on the planet.

If we don’t love any one place, then we can’t love the planet as a whole. It is this principle of commitment to place, even in the midst of a mobile society, that calls us and helps us heal the spot where we live and love, and in turn help heal the Earth.

That brings me to the third question – Why the Great Lakes? The answer to that, I guess, is really personal. For some folks, their connection to place might be the Appalachian Mountains, or the prairie of the Midwest, or the coasts of the Atlantic or Pacific oceans. I recently wrote on my experience of visiting Bear Butte in South Dakota, which for some Indigenous people is a sacred place. But our connection to place might be something more specific, like a stream in town or a field behind my house.

For me, the answer to the question of connection to and investment in a place is the Great Lakes and the waters and lands that feed them. Given that around 34 million people live in the Great Lakes Basin, there’s a good chance that many more people feel the same way!

Just one example for me... Many years ago, my wife treated me to a birthday weekend in South Haven, MI to enjoy being along Lake Michigan. It was that trip that sealed the connection for me with the Great Lakes. Late one night I walked down to the Lake in the middle of a rainstorm. With darkness all around me, the wind blowing, the rain coming down steadily, and the water dancing along the pier, the Lake seemed alive to me. That moment somehow imprinted upon me a connection to these waters I’ve never lost.

The Great Lakes Spirituality Project, then, is one attempt at connecting to a place and knowing it well. If we are to heal the damage we’ve done to the Lakes we must know them in many different ways – scientifically, economically, socially, and spiritually. That kind of knowing takes hearing from a variety of people and a variety of perspectives, and it takes time.

But that connection and commitment is our responsibility, and it can also be our joy, feeding us both physically and spiritually. The rest of that earlier quote from Wendell Berry says it best:

“There are no sacred and unsacred places; there are only sacred and desecrated places. My belief is that the world and our life in it are conditional gifts.

“We have the world to live in on the condition that we will take good care of it. And to take good care of it we have to know it. And to know it and to be willing to take care of it, we have to love it.”

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