A true winter turns Lake Michigan into territory, with solid surfaces and expanses that are appealingly alien. More
Warren Dunes State Park
This is the season that we love to go out to Michigan. In the woods over the next six weeks, the tiniest forest plants put on their thrilling pageant, blooming alone or in great patches until the trees overshadow them with canopies of leaves.
Yesterday the temperature was forecast to hit seventy. My party decided to head for the Warren Dunes, where we would walk an ascending forest trail and then detour to the top of one of the tallest dunes. Would we see the earliest flowers of spring? As we set out, it appeared unlikely, but in the higher reaches of the sleeping forest, we found evidence of the season at hand.
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The massive sand drifts on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan form a terrain that is rare and spooky.
Its novelty entertains us in the summer, when the sun is warm and hiking in brings the childlike sensation of being in an enormous sandbox, monumental enough to fascinate even the blasè.
In the off-season, the dunes, though still magical-seeming, are more alien and forbidding. Scramble to the top of a steep-sided lookout and ponder the fragility and impermanence of all that you see. The mountains that crumble and shift with each step. The material that is a by-word for shiftlessness and time’s too-swift passage. Sand’s inhospitable properties, which repel all but the hardiest grasses and trees. Way below, you may spy a solitary hiker, the size of an ant, beginning a climb.
Even in winter, the dunes have an undeniable beauty, their undulating surfaces covered with tufted grasses that the wind has sculpted into a tawny stipple. Sand formations of a similar scale can be found in other parts of the world, but the rarity of this landscape comes from its proximity to a great lake and the symbiotic presence of deciduous and evergreen trees. Only a few plants can be satisfied with the meager nutrients and harsh conditions on offer here.
Yet the survivors’ reward is to be buried alive by the very ground around them one day.
All around, you can see this process of living burial occurring, as dunes shift imperceptibly, enveloping the trees. What once was thriving begins to die, as the sand that once nurtured moves to destroy.
A happy second marriage has been one of Fate’s more surprising gifts to me. After a first marriage that dead-ended in misery, the chance of a re-beginning presented itself in the form of Mr. C.
Each of us is a world within ourselves, which only a few others are given to explore. Mr. C’s universe extends out around a core of rootedness, with security balancing adventure and opportunity. Through him, my ken has broadened considerably. New vistas open out, and, when they do, we go.
Less than two hours from Chicago lies the alien world of the Warren Dunes. There one feels the immensity of our Lake and the unusual environments it creates and sustains. Prevailing winds and waves push the sand of Lake Michigan toward its eastern shore, heaping it up on beaches and gradually forming it into vast and ever-changing blowouts and peaks.
To the shifting matter of this landscape, rugged plants cling. Dune grasses and evergreens manage to root, and even some flowers and deciduous trees manage to get going, only to be suffocated with sand after a time.
In the winter, snow helps to flesh out the contours of an awesome scene.