author foraging heartache Inspiration

After the Storm: Leelanau, Wild Plants & New Beginnings

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Leelanau County is a beloved place for me. When my family and I watched the devastating storm slam into the beach on Sunday, August 2 – with its winds reaching speeds of nearly 100 mph- and then witnessed the extensive devastation that has left Glen Arbor and many surrounding areas still without power, my heart seemed to break open.

Many folks suffered extensive damage to their homes and businesses. The landscape has forever changed. It will be some time before the beloved trees grow in and the property damage repaired.

In the days that followed the storm, stories that came out of the Glen Arbor devastation were tales of resiliency. Shopkeepers powered through, despite the lack of power. People fed each other and had each other’s backs – a communal responsibility to pull through and take care of one another: a quintessential trait of a small, Northern Michigan community.

As I entered Glen Arbor for the first time since the storm for a book signing at The Cottage Book Shop on Saturday, my mouth was agape at all the felled trees. My memory flashed back to 1998, where my hometown of Spring Lake fared similar destruction from straight line winds. Nearly twenty years later, the town’s landscape still shows open spots where the winds ripped the tree canopy to shreds.

While I was having flashbacks, my daughter noted something different: “Mom, all the trees have fallen down around it, but the sign for Glen Arbor is still standing.” Yes, I thought. The plants will regrow and come back. The land and the community will heal itself.

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The wild lakeshore of Sleeping Bear has weathered aeons of storms … the shifting sands change daily, as do the plants. I love the snakegrass and beach peas (Laythrus japonicus – and yes they are edible) that grow along the Leelanau shoreline.

Working with the wild plants have taught me so much – they’ve helped me grapple with the cycles of life and death, find peace in the struggle and offer hope in moments of the unknown and despair. I’ve learned that the wild plants hold the keys to our past and can unlock the doors to our future – if we choose to sit and watch and listen and pay attention.

Listening to the Land

6am. Sunday, August 2.

I woke up with coffee on my mind, contemplating a long run. As a runner, those Sunday long runs are sacred to me. As a mom, those quiet moments before the house wakes are equally sacred. With the latter more infrequent, I chose to linger a few more moments and savor my hot steaming cup of Joe while looking out over the water.

As I listened to the rustle of the trees, I could feel that the air was unsettled, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it. There weren’t any bird noises – which is unusual as normally the morning noises include the chirps of the finches, cardinals and an occasional screech of a passing heron or an obnoxious blue jay. This humid morning, however, there was only sound of the rustle of leavings coming from the on shore breeze as it swirled through the trees and out across the bay. I didn’t know what it was, but I sensed things were off. Little did I anticipate it being the wild storms our shores were about to weather.

Fast forward seven days.

6am. Sunday, August 9.

The morning light is still gray, with the sun yet to rise up over the ridge to cast light onto the western shore. The birds are already awake and the morning on shore breeze is gentle, casting dancing puffs across the water. Like last weekend, I wanted that same indulgence of a quiet morning with my coffee, but my dog really wanted to go for a run. So, I decided to take the dog for a lap up to the top of Overby Hill.

Across time, humans have made their way to the highest points on the landscape to seek inspiration and solace. Pyramid Point, Alligator Hill, Empire Bluffs – these are just a few of the sacred Leelanau spots that have offered sweeping vistas and inspiration to people for thousands of years.

For me, I’ve been seeking solace and wisdom from a less notable high point: Overby Hill off M22 in Lake Leelanau. For the past several months, I’ve been drawn to include this hill in my regular runs. For obvious reasons, it’s a killer hill, and for a runner, a ball-breaker if you want to improve your abilities to run hills. What draws me more, however, is the landscape of Overby. 

From M22 to Overby, I pass the cedar swamps and through the fields of goldenrod, milkweed, Queen Anne’s Lace and poison ivy. The roads winds up the ridge with its hardwood forest and tender woodland gullies.  Up the steep climb, the gravel road opens up at the top of the ridge to a plowed field and orchard.

Colleague and Glen Arbor Sun editor, Jacob Wheeler recently asked me about my running in an interview – ironically on the morning of August 2 – inquiring as to what I think about on my runs. Today, I simply wanted to be out with the plants, open to any secrets the land wanter to share with me.

I lumbered up the hill with my dog and I listened to the winds again. They were playful winds, rustling the leaves of the birches, beeches, oaks and maples. The quaking aspen leaves waved to me as I went by.

Then it came to me. They knew. Last Sunday, the trees, the birds …  the land knew the storms were brewing. The behavior of the wind and animals were signals that something was amiss.

Having grown up downstate just minutes from the Big Lake and the daughter of a sailor, my father always taught me that if you listen to the land and the water, they will talk to you. Nature will tell you what you need to know.

When I reached the top of the hill, I took notice of all the wind-fallen green acorns that littered the road. Signs that the ripe acorn masts are soon to fall.

At that moment, I knew that it was in the acorns that we are reminded the land will heal itself, and despite the brutal force of its storms, it will also offer us the resources we need to move forward.

During my plant talk at The Cottage Book Shop, I asked my listeners to consider how the land might heal itself going forward after such a devastating storm. We talked about the acorns that were shaken from the trees. The acorns are not only the rebirth of a new growth of oaks, but also a complete and complex carbohydrate, filled with plant proteins and healthy fats. We will have a good year for acorns this fall – a wild food from the land that can nourish and sustain us.

The land – with all her natural systems of regeneration – will fill in the cracks. We talked about the native and “invasive” plants that will fill in now where the disturbed soil is exposed, revealing the seeds in the soil’s seed bank to the sun and water. 

While we are still in the midst of cleanup, it will be interesting to watch and observe nature’s approach to the restoration work. And perhaps of all the tools that are helping the community get back on its feet, our ability to watch and listen will carry us through this long haul of renewal.

Many thanks to shopkeepers like Sue Boucher of Cottage Book Shop for carrying on and the endless UpNorth Michigan hospitality.

Author’s note: I submitted this essay of musings to the Glen Arbor Sun after my “Midwest Foraging” book signing on August 8 at The Cottage Book Shop. This is a short narrative not only on the storm; but as a naturalist and plant person, reflecting on my never-ending quest to better understand nature’s ways as means to help me live a deeper, more connected life to both the land around me and with my community. 

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