Terrible Beauty

In the early 1800's much of Michigan was forested. Whilst there are still huge swathes of trees up and down the upper and lower penninsulas, much of the primaeval forest has gone. It fuelled the industrialisation of Michigan, was transformed into furniture for an expanding nation in the factories of Grand Rapids, and was used to build Chicago (and rebuild it after the great fire).

It also allowed the expansion of an already established natural phenonenon, producing a landscape feature of amzing beauty, but which also points towards both the power of nature and the limits of human ingenuity.

I am referring to the sand dunes on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. These have been developing as the great glaciers receded after the last ice-age and the Great Lakes emerged, but they have significantly encroached on the land in the wake of the 19th century deforestation. The State Govenment is now trying to protect the dunes from owners of Off Road Vehicles, with only the Dunes at Silver Lake being open to ORVs and organised dune-rides... But so far, nothing has been done to protect the communities adjacent to the dunes from their encroachment.

Silver Lake itself is only two thirds the size it was 100years ago, but the surrounding community is trying to make a virtue out of a slow-burn crisis, seeing the dunes as a tourist attraction... But in many ways the whole area is in a delicate balance... Like the fingers of fulgurite, petrified lightning which are found in the dunes... delicate tubes of glass formed when lightning strikes the sand... shattering with the slightest movement on the dunes above.

We made the most of the local tourist industry on Friday, taking a Mac Woods Dune Ride. The original Mac Woods started taking tours across the dunes in the 1930s, but the company, the dune hoppers and the dunes themselves are a lot bigger since then.

It was a wonderful trip with a very informative guide, Jim... taking us from the Sahara-like wilderness of the dunes themselves, to the shores of Lake Michigan, which, because of a wind blowing in from the north west, felt like the glacier that formed it hadn't retreated too far...

But it was eerie driving past the stumps and sand-blasted trunks of white pine trees, knowing that what was now desert-like was once forest... And seeing the tops of poplar trees poking through the sand, looking like shrubs, when in fact they were actually 40-50 ft. tall.

It was beautiful, but also frightening, to see on a small scale, what is happening across the world as forests... the lungs of the earth, are given over to desertification.

For a strange reason I was reminded of Spike Milligan's poem "The Chair:"

They cut down a 100ft tree to make a chair,

And I bought one.

When I stand up I am 5' 11".

When I sit down in this chair I'm 5' 4".

Why did they cut down a 100ft tree

to make me look shorter!


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