November 8, 2005

The Dunes of Lake Michigan

1545 page31 capt felt good to be on the wilderness beach with a pack on my back, the wind in my hair, and the surf rolling in endlessly under a warm afternoon sun. The fine white sand squeaked with every step, like the floor of a gymnasium. The beach stretched in a white band as far as I could see to the north and south. On the west it was bordered by the blue waters of Lake Michigan sparkling in the golden light. On the east side rose an abrupt rampart of high wooded ridges. Dark green conifers grew along the crest, framing autumn hues of red, yellow, and flaming orange against the sky. The combined effect of these surroundings on my senses was quite indescribable; my whole world was an impressionistic wash of blue, white, red, green, and gold.

I looked back at the others. My four companions--three students and one ecologist--were spread out in a long line along the seam of sand and water. The ecologist was half a mile back, carefully watching the sand, stooping now and then to examine rocks and fossils. The students were ambling along contentedly, gazing out over the vast stretches of the lake. I was pleased by the sight of university students preferring to hike alone. At first they had tried to stay within talking distance. Soon, however, they fell under the spell of the north country, and each sought a measure of solitude.

1545 page31The high forested ridges along the west coast of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan are actually dunes, built from sand deposited by the prevailing winds, and stabilized by a progression of vegetation. The soil is dark but fragile: scrape off half an inch, and you will find white sand. If the soil is disturbed too much, the dune erodes into a blowout of open sand and may require hundreds of years to revegetate and stabilize.

We found a pleasing campsite away from the lake in a sheltered hollow of the forest, where the ground cover was more durable. Even so, we changed from boots to sandals to protect the delicate soil. I pitched my tent--a tiny tunnel of nylon just big enough for my sleeping bag--away from the others where I could be alone under the night sky. For a while I watched the stars through the door and listened to the wind in the treetops. But I was comfortable in my warm bag, and soon fell into a dreamless sleep.

Every nature lover knows the deep spiritual attraction of wilderness. In the beauty and silence of vast unspoiled places, thoughts of God spring unbidden to even the most unreligious mind. The spiritual value of wilderness does not lie primarily in scientific facts, for nature is an inextricable tapestry of happiness and suffering, a mirror of our own lives. Yet when we wander through silent forest halls or high alpine meadows, we are often transported to visions of a peaceable kingdom in which the lion and the lamb lie down together. Why does nature so persistently remind us of something we have never experienced, beyond the realm of scientific fact?

I believe that the spiritual quality of wilderness comes from the presence of God, the immanent Sustainer and transcendent Creator. Beyond the constant noise and insane consumerism of our culture, we find a silence and simplicity in which to hear the still small voice. Wilderness is a holy sanctuary, to be protected and cherished.

Few pleasures can compare to that of emerging from a tent in a wilderness camp on a mild autumn morning after a refreshing sleep. The air was delicious, and the day held the promise of adventure and joy. The storms and rains would come, but not today. It was enough just to be here watching the sunlight touch the tops of the dunes. I heard the others stirring in their tents as I started breakfast. I looked out over the silence of the land with deep satisfaction. It was good to be here on this Sabbath morning, in a holy sanctuary of time and space. The vaulted dunes of Lake Michigan would be our cathedral.

Shandelle M. Henson is a mathematician and ecologist at Andrews University.