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RIO (red, indigo, orange) did right by us. He’s a robust and feisty male piping plover and Vince, the Park Service, biologist heard him calling before we even cleared the last little dune behind the beach.

I hope nobody missed it, but the Big Lake (always capitalize) seems always to mess with you, eventually, the sedate confident drama of size and scale. The dune path cut we were approaching was a point of blue that then arced out to both horizons as you crested the last visual barrier and stood on the beach. And then there, in that vast expanse of blue sky and even bluer water your mind begins wrestling with scale and distance, in our case, dwarfing Sleeping Bear’s dunes to the north, and South Manitou Island in on the far horizon – visible firstly because of her own dunes shining in the July sun.

Vince set up his spotting scope and read off the colors on RIO’s leg band. We watched though our binoculars as the resplendent bird stood and then scurried across the sand, and then flew off parallel to the beach – white plumage highlighted in the sun against the deep blue. Vince had been banding RIO’s newly fledged chicks yesterday and several of them were still darting about, some at the beach’s high-water mark, some at the back where the beach grass starts.

Piping Plovers are among the rarest birds in the Great Lakes region, nesting only on Great Lakes beaches (cool website here). They’re monitored closely and Vince is a key member of the interagency conservation team. The Great Lakes population is “endangered”, a legal definition meaning at risk of extinction. Other populations in the Great Plains and along the Atlantic Coast have “threatened” status, a lesser risk of extinction under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. In the Great Lakes, roughly a third of the entire population (80 nests) nest on the beaches of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Vince was teaching us about plover life history, recovery efforts, and the nature of wildlife conservation in the National Park Service and other Federal agencies. Threats to plovers stem from their love of the same beaches that we do and a suite of small predators (raccoons, gulls, crows, others) that thrive in the face of ecological change associated with humans. A unique threat in the Great Lakes region is the Line 5 pipeline in the straits.

Vince offered that plovers likely should be considered “conservation reliant” a term biologists invented for species whose simple persistence depend entirely on active intervention by humans. In the case of piping plovers, that means protecting their nests and nestlings from human disturbance and shoreline development, dogs, and other wild/feral predators and preventing a pipeline catastrophe.

We took it all in and thanked Vince for his time and expertise and retrieved the cooler from the van. We collected by an ancient grey log, heaved up by ice and left at dune’s foot in sight of signs and “psychological barriers” that the Park Services uses to keep beachgoers from disturbing the nests (a perimeter of flimsy little posts and cheap string). People are generally good about avoiding plover nests and the population is increasing in ways that are encouraging.

We talked about extinction and endemism — the nature of species who depend on the discrete ecology of a specific place. I told them briefly about my lifelong love of Big Lake shorelines and the holiness I feel there and I suppose, on reflection, that I carry a bit of spiritual endemism myself. I’ve travelled around the world to other beautiful places but returning here feeds something different. I have my own rituals of place that I touch year after year.

Lingering in the sun, I packed away my lunch-trash, and emptied my pockets into the top of my pack. I then walked to the shoreline and wrapped some stones in my shirt so it wouldn’t blow away – and I waded in, over the sandbar and up to my neck. There in the gentle waves, there in the near neutral buoyancy, the cold water. Here I am again.

I turned after a bit, and in ones and twos, they were following me in (I told them that swimming might be a possibility). It was joyful. For some it was a unique experience, for others a re-connection. Mindful of the time and my responsibility as the instructor, I gave them some time and waded out again to stand and let the sun and wind dry my shorts a bit before getting back in the van.

They saw me there. Standing, my attentions oscillated between horizon and class and I mulled ecology and conservation of the endangered little bird and whether enough had been said about it, and about the timing for our next thing. It was a half-hearted signal, I suppose, to follow me out and dry off.

But they didn’t. They lingered.

They sat in the gentle surf where the small waves break, and the stones sort themselves before a small gentle terrace of pure glassy sand. They sat and sifted for crinoid fossils and even turned up a few Petosky stones. And why not?

The sky was clear blue in the morning wind, building out of the southwest. The gentle swells became small waves crossing the sandbar and rocked them subtly, a rhythmic unison sitting mostly in a row with the stones, their wet bodies canting ever so slightly into the dunes and out to the lake again. And why not? They’re mostly water themselves. Maybe they felt it. Maybe not. Maybe it was familiar, somewhere coded in the deep history of their watery DNA, the rocking and swaying their mothers and their mothers’ mother did. Maybe they didn’t even know.

If anything at all remains of humanity’s instinctual and common core, maybe it’s this. The slow back and forth cycles of bodily movement in the easy boundaries of balance. Movement of a piece with the warmth, and wash, and wind and water, distance and depth. The slow swing of ease and belonging and grounding.

They were at play again, these worldly college students of mine. Nothing organized, like the volleyball and soccer games they do back on campus, but spontaneous. Like children, single minded such that time warps around their conversation and laughter, and the immediacy of the fossils, stained into maximum contrast by the clear water was everything.

This is the redemption picture of humanity to dream for. The community at play amid the beauty and life-giving, among the attention for kin who need it.

You find the same sentiment again and again in environmental writing and I don’t know that anyone has traced it back to its origin, but it’s this: you won’t protect something unless you love it, and you won’t love it unless you experience it. Maybe that’s the day’s lesson and it’s likely more impactful than the very stimulating PowerPoint I had planned for the afternoon. Likely, this is wisdom we need.

And as it so often happens, artists speak truths better than scientists. I find I am converging on the lyrics from a favorite song of Carol and mine:

Now there’s smoke across the harbor, and there’s factories on the shore
And the world is ill with greed and will and enterprise of war
But I will lay my burden in the cradle of your grace
And the shining beaches of your love and the sea of your embrace
This is my home, this is my only home
This is the only sacred ground that I have ever known
And should I stray in the dark night alone
Rock me goddess in the gentle arms of eden.

Copyright: Dave Carter. From Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer. 2021. Drum, Hat, Budda (album). Signature Sounds Recording

Photo: Jim Hudgins, US Fish and Wildlife Service. Public Domain.

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 


  • John Breuker, Jr. says:

    Evocative and lovely writing! Thank you for starting my day with this inspiration.

  • Ron Calsbeek says:

    I wish I had known that you were in our Glen Arbor backyard, Tim. I love your writing and I would have loved to meet you and provide hospitality for you and your students. Thanks for making the plight of the Piping Plover known. If it were not for The Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, they and many other precious aspects of this ecological marvel would have been wiped out.

    I will share your essay widely. It has special value for those of us who are blessed to live here.

  • Gloria J McCanna says:

    Thanks for taking us down to the water….. So refreshing, so calming.

  • Dale Wyngarden says:

    Tim, you brighten a morning, and leave us a bit wiser in the doing of it.

  • James Vanden Bosch says:

    Wordsworth had something like the same lesson plan:

    “What we have loved, others will love, and we will teach them how.”

    The mysterious pedagogy of love.

    Thanks, Tim.

  • Mary Huissen says:

    That spot in Michigan is my heart, which hurts a little since I can’t get there often. “This is the redemption picture of humanity to dream for. The community at play amid the beauty and life-giving, among the attention to kin who need it.” Amen and amen. Thank you for a glimpse. And yes, always capitalize. I know there are others, but for me, this one is IT.

  • Tom Boogaart says:

    The slow back and forth cycles of bodily movement in the easy boundaries of balance. Movement of a piece with the warmth, and wash, and wind and water, distance and depth. The slow swing of ease and belonging and grounding.
    So instinctive; so beautiful. The movement of life is not linear; we rock and sway. When we assume
    that we are constantly moving forward in life, we are never truly in one place and time, and we cannot ever take the time to love a place.

  • Henry Baron says:

    You’re a poet-scientist, Tim – a great combination!

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