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'Nearby Nature, Greenways, Ecotones, & Furthering Protections on Accessible Green Spaces in Marquette, Michigan' by Will Sharp

I am finding the intensity, importance, and urgency of what many in the field are calling ‘nearby-nature’. I myself have never been one for ‘wilderness’, rather preferring the nearby park, creek, or tree stand I have access to and can return to every single day. During my many years living in Columbus, Ohio in the Old North Neighborhood I was an apprentice to an unnamed, nontrail, nor nature preserve zone that connected several creeks, riparian zones, thickets, and trees. I weaved in and out of green spaces: I was protected by large sycamore trees, touching their bark and in awe of their incredible crown-like branches, then I was back on a busy road next to a Dairy Queen, then back down into a ravine calmed once again by a babbling creek and mirrored by a shale wall. This short nondescript pathway I could access from my home via foot, so it became a ritual that I could do just about everyday: at sunset, sunrise, in the dappled afternoon light. I noticed how things changed: the wild roses blooming, the neighbors' peonies bursting then back down to their quick death, the paw paws ripening along the river, the black elderberry bush, the tree limbs cut for power lines, the greens shifting from May’s magnificence to a more subtle sun faded August. This pathway nourished me in ways beyond telling, and sheltered me in changing times, uncertainty, and in my untangling years. I will forever be grateful for those greenways, and deeply appreciative for learning that process early on in my adult life of revealing myself to a place, and it revealing itself to me. 

Now I find myself in a new place: Marquette, Michigan, along Lake Superior's south shoreline, attending grad school for my masters of social work, learning to belong, falling in (perhaps standing in) love, and attempting to live a quiet and humble life close to the earth, challenging colonization, capitalism, the madness of modernity. The place I have been apprenticing here is a small winding creek that empties into lake superior: a bending (maybe bowing) black willow tree, and large rock that is covered in moss, and in this spring season, seems to be blooming. This week I noticed under some trees a new friend– a gorgeous patch of lily of the valley. Further research has taught me that this place could be called Whetstone Brook, Founders Landing, or South Beach. But the place to me is so much more profoundly magical, complex, and enchanted than its current name. Nearly everyday for months on end now, I have entered this place and tried to learn from it. I take my shoes off on top of the little hill, then I go down to meet the creek. Crossing the creek serves something as a passage into ritual time, where I do my best to exhale deeply and welcome in the moments ahead of me. I always move slowly about the space, trying to tread lightly and lovingly. I wander and saunter, gaze, embrace trees, notice the flowing waters, stretch on the sandy beach, or practice some (newly learned) shadow boxing movements. Sometimes the time concludes with a cold plunge in the lake, sometimes just a moment of pause in the sun, but always it ends in gratitude, a thanking, and a smile. What is so nourishing about this practice for me is that it is now integrated into my daily life: the working days, the ugly days, the tired days, the exuberant days, too. I am not going far away to a ‘wild’ place, rather I am welcoming in the divine mystery of the earth, right where I am! In this way, I am resisting the ideology of separate wildness as well, the othering that so often happens when we as Westernized humans begin to dialog about natural spaces and the earth in general. This practice could have a lot of names, perhaps ‘place tending’ is fitting for now– with the language I have availible to me.

Place tending encourages return. I believe it even encourages connection. It touches something beyond language or thought. It encourages frequent visits and intimate knowledge. The place can even be your own backyard or park you pass everyday. Visiting often, returning, bringing your sensory awareness, asking the place questions, noticing how colors change, cleaning up that place and holding reverence for it– these things can all build in a strong relationship of reciprocity. From my current positionality and perspective as a white-settler to this place of Scot-Irish and Belgium descent, employee of the Upper Peninsula Land Conservancy, Cedar Tree Institute Volunteer, Northern Michigan University Graduate Student, Future Hospice Worker, Future Mental Health Eco-Therapist, Artist and Publisher, and most importantly a lover of the more-than-human world, I am trying to find ways to connect to the community around this idea of nearby-nature. This region certainly has its abundance of natural beauty, wonder, and amazement, but as the city of Marquette grows and becomes more populated, keeping green places green close to our homes seems of utmost importance. How might we gather to discuss these ideas? How might we work together to protect these easily accessible pocket parks in longevity? How can our community provide more resources in the way of more green-ways, tree lined boulevards, green infrastructure, and accessible gardens?

In my first two weeks working for the Upper Peninsula Land Conservancy as their Land and Community Steward, I have been delighted to visit the several nearby-nature reserves here in Marquette County, close to where I live, work, and maintain the chaos and beauty of my days. The Chocolay-Bayou Nature Preserve, The Vielmetti-Peters Reserve, and land and waters that will be a part of the Dead River Community Forest are all within minutes of daily commutes, errand runs, grocery stores, and places of work. These nearby-nature places could be visited for just a short while, and returned to day in and day out. The Upper Peninsula Land Conservancy cares deeply about protecting not just far off wilderness, but the riparian zones, the water tables, and the parks that Marquette dwellers depend on for our quality of life.  Having access to these wonderful places so close to home is a gift, and a gift that we must not forget. 

In a paper published by The Nature Conservancy, Washington State Chapter titled ‘Outside our Doors: the benefits of cities where people and nature thrive’, authors weave together a patchwork of marvelous resources about the benefits of nearby-nature to communities. They use their home place framework of the Puget Sound as context, but I believe that the guidelines, research, and evidence supported in this article could be just as applicable to a growing upper Great Lakes City like Marquette, Michigan. Topics authors touch on include inspiring active lifestyles, nurturing mental and cognitive health, better learning, place for play, instilling environmental stewardship, improving neighborhood safety, increasing equity, boosting residential housing market, enhancing commercial activity, and building for climate resiliency. Nearby nature provides a positive emotional experience that has been shown to speed up recovery for hospital patients, motivate healthy behaviors, provide therapeutic benefit for mental health disorders, enhance human function, and release emotions of awe and wonder. There is a gorgeous, massive, liminal brevity to all of this. There is a tender edge to it. Nearby nature is also an ecotone, a place between places-- a barrier, a bridge. It's a place where species (yes, humans, too!) can cross, hide, be protected, and be fed (physically, spiritually, emotionally). Brief contact with natural spaces provides lasting opportunities for restoration, health, connection, and mending the splits that we as colonizers have ingrained in us, a split that has slowly been festering like a wound since the time we were first disconnected with a place ourselves. Learning the language of the land, the history of the land, and the Indigenous story of a place is pivotal to this connection, and decolonial thought (which includes recognizing and working to dismantle our own settler mentality) must be at the forefront as we think about place tending, land management, and protecting and cherishing our nearby nature.


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