Sorting by

Skip to main content

We chose the perfect day to hike the Dune Climb Trail at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore: seventy degrees, light breeze, a little gauzy cloud cover softening the sun. On a hotter day, this would have been a baking, miserable trek, as close as we get in Michigan to crossing the Sahara.

People of all ages and degrees of footwear labored up the famous dune face just yonder from the parking lot. Others, especially the kids, pounded down headlong, arms flailing, heels dig-sliding down the surface with every leaping step. Ron and I were prepared not only to climb this first dune, but to do the whole trail stretching to Lake Michigan—a “moderately strenuous” 1.25-mile challenge each way, according to the trail guide available at the visitor center. We were feeling pretty smug, properly equipped with hiking shoes, sunscreen, and CamelBak pack with freshly filled water reservoir. We even thought to pack a lunch and wear our swimsuits under our clothes, thinking ahead to that moment when we would emerge rejoicing at the vast Lake Michigan horizon, longing to dip our sweaty bodies in the lake.

That first dune face was no problem, but once we started on the trail, the real work began. The trail is soft sand all the way, crossing ridge after ridge—up slopes, down slopes, up more slopes. As we chuffed through the sand, a trickle of people passed us coming back the other way. Lots of families with young kids. Reckless teenagers walking barefoot. One intrepid couple, each with a baby in a backpack equipped with an awning over the babies’ heads, so that they looked like royal infants carried in litters. We exchanged friendly words with folks. “Not much farther,” a teenager assured us (did we look haggard?). A couple from Pennsylvania told us they had driven eleven hours to visit the dunes. This was their first time in Michigan.

In brochures and visitor center displays and trail signs, you often read about “fragile” dune ecosystems. In one sense, this is true. The word “fragile” is a warning that humans can destroy dune habitat with our trampling feet—and ATVs and vacation homes and golf courses. A ranger later told me, rather ruefully, that the dune climb and trails were a compromise reached when the park was formed in 1970. In order to keep much of the park as a preserve, some places in it had to be set up to receive human visitors. I respect the “fragility” of this unique ecosystem, but as Ron and I tramped along (staying on the trail, of course), what struck me instead is the toughness and tenacity of life on a dune.

Dune grass, for instance, needs to be buried by sand every year. That’s how it thrives. It is about the only plant that can take root in a bare, active sand dune. Its root systems thicken and build layers every year, so that dune grass helps evolve an active dune into a more stable dune where more plants can thrive. Along our trail, dune grass edged the slopes and bowls of sand, fringing the broad stretches where other plants were starting to find their way.

Cottonwood trees may be the most crotchety and determined citizens of the dunes. Like dune grass, they’re used to being buried. They’ll send out root-shoots if they have to and pop up a stem a little further on or higher up, so they grow in clumps connected under the sand. We saw one bent old cottonwood with one trunk dry, sand-scoured, and barkless, one trunk that looked recently dead, and one trunk in the middle topped with a pom of healthy green leaves pattering in the breeze.

Lots of scrubby groundcover plants thrive on dunes, too, all of them tough enough to tolerate dryness, extreme heat, and winds that carry scouring suspensions of moving sand. There’s a type of juniper and a plant whose name I haven’t learned yet that looks like a creeping cousin of an olive tree. I even saw Pitcher’s thistle, a federally endangered species that only grows on Great Lakes dunes.

It’s hard to get excited about the Pitcher’s thistle. I understand why people are worried about other endangered creatures, like the cuddly panda bear or the magnificent rhino, but who would miss a rare thistle if it disappeared from the earth? Even as thistles go, the Pitcher’s is not exactly a beauty. It’s grayish, papery, and frankly rather stubby. It would never grow in your garden, but if it did, you would probably pull it out without remorse, maybe even with satisfaction. It’s finicky, too. It takes five to eight years to bloom, flowers and produces seed once, then dies. Admittedly, one of its tricks might solicit some respect: it plunges a six-foot-long tap root into the sand to anchor it and siphon up water.

Why worry about this thing? It’s a tough world out there on the dune. If some old weed can’t keep up, hey, survival of the fittest, you know? It’s true that humans have made it tough on this plant with our sand mining, development, and dune-tromping, but other stuff is surviving. Nothing stays the same, life is always adapting and evolving, especially on a dune. Whatever.

And yet. The Pitcher’s thistle has its place. It might seem homely and dismissible to us, but goldfinches and bees visit it for their groceries. The artichoke plume moth, when artichokes are in short supply, seems to consider it an ideal bed for incubating its larvae, although we’re not entirely sure about whether that benefits or drains the plant. In any case, Pitcher’s thistle is one factor of biodiversity in one interconnected system that makes up one unique landscape on the earth.

What is the value of a thistle? We don’t entirely know. I suppose God does. I suppose the little prickler gives praise to God in its own thistly way, just by being itself in cooperation with other nearby creatures being themselves. Is that enough for us to give it some respect, help it along?

Fortunately, looking after the Pitcher’s thistle does not have to be that difficult for us humans. We stay on the trail. Naturalists keep an eye on thistle populations, try to reestablish them in likely spots. Conservation groups educate landowners and tourists to let them be. This particular conservation project is not setting us up for dicey cost-benefit analyses. We can “preserve biodiversity” and have our fun, too.

What if it weren’t that easy? A lot of people were having a jolly good time on the trail that day, enjoying the Michigan summer, marveling over this splendid landscape, maybe even gaining respect for the stark beauty of dunes. All good things. What if we had to give it all up and stay off the dunes forever—for a thistle?

Thankfully, in Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, humans and thistles can find a pleasant way to coexist. Ron and I eventually made it to the lake. The water was warm and sea-glass turquoise out to the depth-drop, where it shifted to midnight blue. We had a delightful swim and ate our sandwiches, then headed back, counting the hills this time. We counted eleven. Note to hikers: number seven is a doozy.

When we reached the dune face back at the parking lot, we ran down, arms flailing.

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. My most recent book is Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth (Fortress, 2022). Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for the RJ blog as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Dr. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.


  • Andrew Rienstra says:

    Nice piece Debbie!

  • Tom Eggebeen says:

    Thank you … in a time when powerful human beings seem to have no regard for God’s creation, seeing it as an impediment to whatever dreams they might have, your piece is both a gentle and a firm reminder that everything has its place, and the more we destroy, the more that disappears, sooner or later, under our aggressive hands, a tipping may be reached, and the gracious goodness of creation, to be appreciated, loved and preserved, loses its balance, for a time and perhaps times, and the whole realm experiences death. This world, this earth, will outlive us, that’s for sure. But in the meantime, to be of God, and share in God’s delight, in all the forms of life conjured up in God’s imagination. And to find, then, the balance between hiking boots and a thistle.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks Debra. I’m reminded of Romans 1:19, 20, “…what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature-have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made…” Indeed, the creation does speak of God. Every time a species vanishes from the earth, several new ones are discovered. God’s voice gets louder.

    • Tom Ackerman says:

      I am mystified by your statement that “every time a species vanishes from the earth, several new ones are discovered”. Could you please expand on what you mean and the evidence on which it is based? The research with which I am familiar is very clear that species number and diversity are clearly in decline in our current age. (See, as one example, the discussion at

      • RLG says:

        Thanks, Tom, for the response to my comment in regard to the discovery of new species of living creatures or plant life that is continually being discovered. You may have thought I was making a comment about the evolution of new life forms. That wasn’t my point, at all. I simply was saying that as to the living creatures that inhabit the earth or the oceans, new creatures are being discovered all the time. Perhaps your response (and hi-lighted article) implies that as to life forms there is nothing new to discover. We are at the end of the road of discovery when it comes to the discovery of new species here on earth.

        In these comments (for the Twelve), most of the responders don’t spend time researching their comments before making a statement. These are more of the casual nature and rely on specific sources long forgotten. I’ve noticed that many of the comments to articles posted here are often a matter of opinion, or information gleaned from past reading.

        The point that was being made by my comment was that the creation attests plainly to an awesome creator God. And whether or not the Pitcher’s thistle is endangered, God’s voice is not being silenced.

  • Tim Van Deelen says:

    Thoughtful piece Debra. More and more humans are having to think in terms of limiting ourselves and our actions to preserve sensative species. I keep returning to that question of how do we value things that are not immediately obvious. The idea of an intrinsic value for biological collectives (like a species) seems like it’s pretty widely accepted in the abstract – but working that out in a world of human impacts and unitended consequences is tough.

  • David Stravers says:

    Thanks for this Debra. Your excellent piece actually gave us a reason to value the Pitchers Thistle, as well as Sleeping Bear Dunes, a magical place. Some of us plant hedonists look at a Pitchers Thistle (and other wild plants like it), and receive the same class of pleasure that others receive from a beautiful sunset, a majestic mountain peak, or Lake Michigan itself. They are all God’s creation and all worth preserving. We recently moved from Western Michigan to Eastern Arizona. We enjoy the Ponderosa’s in our back yard, but we miss Lake Michigan and plan to come back for a visit soon.

Leave a Reply