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  • Writer's pictureDan Robinson

Stewardship Journey: a Conversation with Dr. John Hartig

Dr. John Hartig’s life journey started with an experience, that led to questioning, which fueled a desire for answers, and spurred him to action. Now, he’s trying to help others make that same journey, and to do it in service of protecting the Great Lakes.

John grew up near the Detroit River, but he spent many days in northern Michigan, vacationing with his family or attending a church camp. “I would come home and my family loved the outdoors. And so we would picnic on Belle Isle, which is a 982-acre island park in the Detroit River,” where they would end their day fishing, John recounted.

This was the 1960s, and the rivers in the Detroit area were in bad shape. “All the rocks were covered in oil; there were oil slicks. The river was so polluted back then,” John said. “So, I had these polar opposite experiences. I had these amazing, pristine wilderness experiences several times a year, and then seeing this. And I couldn't understand, why don't we take care of this better? Why don't we care for this?”

Those experiences and questioning fueled a desire to “take care of this better,” guiding his studies and leading to a life and career of caring for and protecting the Great Lakes Basin. Along the way, he’s worked to help others develop what he calls a “stewardship ethic” that for him started with his childhood. “I grew up in a strong faith tradition. My family gave us a faith and taught us a sense of stewardship.”

Humbug Island on the Detroit River (USFWS Midwest Region; Proper Rights Reserved)

John currently serves as a visiting scholar at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research at the University of Windsor, as the Great Lakes Science Policy Advisor for the International Association of Great Lakes Research, and on the board of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. He previously helped create the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge and served as the Refuge Manager for 14 years.

John has also written five books, including his latest, Waterfront Porch: reclaiming Detroit's Industrial Waterfront as a Gathering Place for All, which won the Next Generation Indie Award in the Nature/Environment category this year.

As in his own story, John believes the work to heal the Great Lakes Basin begins with people first experiencing the water and ecosystems in a personal way. He told the story of many cities and communities originally making the waterfront their “backdoor,” where industries lined the shore and there was little public access or interest in those waterfronts. “We lost our connection to water, we lost our connection to natural resources. And so now, what we're trying to do,” John said, “is to reconnect people to these amazing natural resources, and give them a compelling experience, develop a sense of wonder about them, and that hopefully can lead them to care.”

One such experience was the reclamation of a 50-acre former auto manufacturing site that eventually became the gateway to the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. The reclamation involved cleaning out invasive plants like garlic mustard and buckthorn, along with planting trees and shrubs.

“One of the things we did early on is, we said we want to engage as many people in the project intentionally from the beginning to give them ownership over it,” according to John. “So they can come back in two years, five years, ten years and say, ‘I planted that tree. I did those Willow stakes. I helped with that wetland. I built that stream crossing.’”

For students in particular, John believes these types of experiences need to be a part of the school curriculum. “I think for a lot of these kids (who helped out with the reclamation), they came in and said, ‘I'm coming here because my parents are making me do this. I don't really want to do this.’ And in two days, they go, ‘You gotta be kidding me. This is really fun.’ That happens so frequently,” John said.

“But it's just amazing and gives them a sense of purpose. How do you see yourself in a larger context, that you're part of this ecosystem and you live in it... If you could go around the world, and you look at these school systems that have a connection to the outdoors, that have a 'back 40,’ where kids study, or kids are connected,” John said, “it makes a huge difference in their love of the outdoors, their spirituality for the outdoors, for nature, and creation.”

What is true for children is also true for adults. People who are engaged with their ecosystems, whether walking along a greenway path, canoeing down the river, or measuring water quality in a wetland as a citizen-scientist, John said, “just fall in love with it, because you get to learn. You get to be with like-minded people, but you actually get to make a difference. And this idea of making a difference, you know, is really key.”

Whether they have these experiences as students or later in life, according to John, “we develop adults that are more well informed. That care for these amazing natural resources, and understand that we have all a civic responsibility.”

All these experiences, questions, learning and action contribute to a stewardship ethic that helps people see themselves as part of their ecosystem, rather than separate from it. As I’ve written about before, even our use of the phrase “our environment” reflects this sense that we’re somehow separate from the world around us.

“The difference between environment and ecosystem is like the difference between house and home. The house is over there, it's across the street, it's external and detached from you and me. But home is something you see yourself in even when you're not there. We are part of an ecosystem and what we do to it, if we are going to pollute it, if we are going to degrade it, we're doing it to ourselves. And so that has to change,” John said. “We have to learn to be good stewards of this home that we have. It's a gift to us, and we need to pass it on to future generations in hopefully better shape than what we got it.”

John uses words and phrases like “home,” “wonder,” “stewardship ethic,” and “connection to water,” because this journey of experience-questioning-learning-action is essentially a spiritual one. The journey certainly began that way for John, and it remains so.

“My love for the outdoors goes frequently back to those many experiences at a church camp,” John said. “You'd have all these trails and we could go different places, we'd camp overnight, we'd go pick blueberries in a blueberry bog and make blueberry pancakes in the morning. We would take canoe trips, and we would hike an entire day. It's just amazing to experience creation in its fullest and that has stuck with me my whole life. And I've tried to live out my faith in whatever I do to teach stewardship of creation.”

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1 Comment

Dec 04, 2020

John is one of the foremost Great Lakes heroes. He’s inspired countless people to embrace the lakes through a combination of impeccable science and astute storytelling. It’s good to learn a little bit about where his stewardship came from.

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