So We All Can Pass Love Along
Updated: Sep 8, 2020
I write this as I gaze out on Lake Michigan from Point Beach State Forest in northeastern Wisconsin, where I’ve been camping for the last couple of days. A few hours ago, at this same spot (in the picture below) I was sitting in my lawn chair, deeply engaged in one of my favorite activities for the lakeshore... napping. I woke up just as a family was making its way down the path on the dune where I was sitting.
A view of Lake Michigan from Point Beach State Forest in Wisconsin
Lake Michigan is so high that little remains of the beach here, just a five-foot wide strip of tan and black sand and water-smoothed stones along the Lake’s edge. Where the water has worn away the dune, it rises up about vertically about four feet and then levels off into wave after wave of sand, dune grass, wildflowers and plants that I can’t identify, but see them so often they feel like old friends.
When the family reached my chair, we exchanged hellos but that was it. The parents were focused on getting their three young girls to the water. In front of me was a small path that cut through and down the dune’s side to the water, so they went in single file down the path, the mom hurriedly getting the clothes off the girls to reveal their swimsuits, while the dad was setting up the beach umbrella and getting out the beach toys.
It’s a ritual I’m very familiar with. Almost 25 years ago, my wife and I and our three young children moved from Kentucky to Manistee, MI, along the shore of Lake Michigan. I was excited not only to start a new job, but to live in a town on one of the Great Lakes! At that point, I’d spent time around them, but had never lived near one, and my kids had never been to the Lakes.
During our summers there, three or four times each week, we would get the kids in their swimsuits, pack up the toys, blankets, sunscreen, and snacks, and head to the beach to soak up the too-short warm weather. After a few hours, tired by happy (well, most of the time happy), tanned and sweaty from the sun, with sand in more places in their body and swimsuits than I could count, we’d pack everything up, put the kids in the car and head home. (Seriously, where did they hide all that sand?!)
Those summer trips to the beach are engraved into my soul, and that of my wife and kids. We only lived in Manistee for six years, but those years were foundational to the kind of family we would become, and the emotional connection we all have kept to the Great Lakes. Whenever we get together now, with the kids in their twenties and early thirties, and we start to reminisce, Manistee always comes up. We all are instantly transported through time to our life together along Lake Michigan.
Spirituality can be like that – something passed on, a connection to a larger reality than ourselves, an emotional tether to moments and memories that give our lives meaning, a way of understanding people and the environment we share it, and a motivation for caring for the world around us.
Now, as I watch this family of five, the same size as my own, I can see my own family making our way to the beach many years ago, toys and blankets in tow. As the three girls played in the water, jumping up and squealing with each wave as it rolled into them, I could see my own kids playing in Lake Michigan, ducking under the water and then jumping up to see if we were watching them.
The family I watched today was a multi-racial family, or at least that’s the way it seemed to me. As I said, we didn’t have a conversation, so I don’t know how they self-identified.
As it happened, earlier today, I was reading a Q&A article on the Nature Conservancy’s website with Mila K. Marshall, an urban ecologist and doctoral candidate studying Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I was struck when I read this passage of what she said:
“We have to ask: ‘Where do we get to see each other? How have we created a system in which we are so separate, that we have to reach out to learn that Black people bird? We all live in the same system, so how does it occur that we don’t know each other?’ Segregation perpetuates stereotypes. Separateness creates the illusion of separateness. It leads us to a situation where people don’t realize that Black people go birding and enjoy nature. And that means we are also missing opportunities to build alliances because of the segregation that exists.”
That segregation is built on a system of racism that keeps us separate, but also restricts people of color to fewer opportunities for housing, employment, transportation, and also recreation.
InsideClimate News has a great story and interview with author James Edward Mills about people of color and outdoor recreation. The article cites a couple of telling statistics:
57 percent of African-Americans and 70 percent of Hispanic/Latinx said they were “alarmed” or “concerned” about global warming, while only 49 percent of whites; expressed those worries. (from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication);
a 2011 National Park Service report stated that of people who don’t visit the National Parks, 16 percent of blacks and 24 percent of Hispanic/Latinx said the parks weren’t safe, while only 5 percent of white people stated that.
It is estimated that by 2045, the U.S. will be a majority-minority nation, meaning that people of color together will make up a majority of the U.S. population. For Mills, that poses the questions, "What happens if a majority of our nation has no affinity for nature?... How long will Yosemite last?"
Which brings me back to the family I saw enjoying the beach earlier today. They reminded me that we all share in common things like family, love, spirituality, the making of memories and connections, and enjoying the Great Lakes, and that these are a legacy we can all pass on to the next generation.
They also reminded me that healthy, public spaces – be they a waterfront in downtown Chicago, Toronto or Cleveland, or at a State Forest in northeastern Wisconsin – are vital for all people to gather, to enjoy nature and the outdoors, and to see and be with each other.
Equity in access to recreation is a justice issue that calls for us to dismantle systemic racism and white supremacy, but it is also an issue of survival. We need the everyone in the next generation to have an emotional and spiritual connection to the health of our planet as we face the myriad of crises before us, including climate change.