Mucking Along in the Great Marsh – Air Thick with Hope
David R. Weiss – July 13, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #33 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com
“I swear, if we meet a triceratops around the next bend I won’t be at all surprised!” Of course, I was mostly joking; I would’ve been very much surprised. But the ambience of the marsh was so ancient, it was hard not to feel a little anxious at Margaret’s reply: “Well, if we do, you’re on your own, because I’ll be busy filming it chasing you with my phone, so I can text it to the grandkids and say, ‘Look what Grandpa found on our hike!’”
We were meandering (and melting in the humidity) along the Great Marsh Trail, part of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. “Hiking” would be an overstatement because the mile-and-a-half trail is entirely flat and comprised mostly of a mown grassy path. But “walking” or “strolling” would be an understatement. We seemed far from civilization, as the muck that occasionally sucked at our shoes intimated.
And “intimated” itself is an interesting word. It means “suggested,” of course, but perhaps in a more intimate sort of way. And once we’d ventured the first hundred yards into the marsh, it swallowed us … intimately. We were wrapped in a sultry sensory concoction of croaking frogs, flower scents, buzzing insects, swampy smells, bird songs, and a host of verdant hues. The marsh embraced us with the enthusiasm of a dear friend who hasn’t seen us in ages. We felt known.
Setting my imaginary triceratops aside, and making allowance for the infrequent car we could see driving along the road at the far edge of the marsh, the trail did feel like we’d passed through time, back to a terrain unmarked by human activity. But not quite.
There are three levels to the tale, each holding its own measure of wonder.
The Great Marsh once stretched for about fifty miles in a crescent just beyond the first ripple of sand dunes along Lake Michigan’s southern shore. For hundreds of years the marsh was a crucial wetlands habitat and an important layover for migratory birds. Then, many portions of the marsh were “developed,” which, if we’re blunt, is a nice way of saying they were destroyed. Because: humans. Dried out and turned into farmland, industrial sites, or (in our case) residential neighborhoods. Habitat loss was extensive as even the “undeveloped” sections were changed by non-native and invasive species.
About twenty years the Dunes National Lakeshore began a concerted effort to restore a 500-acre strand of the Great Marsh—with great success. Drainage ditches were plugged so that the soil could again saturate itself (and then some!). Plants that didn’t belong were removed, and others, long lost in the marsh, were replanted and thrived. Today this section of the Great Marsh teems with waterfowl again and is an oasis for migrating birds. Parts of its prehistoric feel comes from the dead trees—some still standing, many toppled over—that came in when the land was drier and are now being repurposed by the marsh itself. Hardly lost, they’re being embraced (albeit a bit more aggressively than Margaret and me—thank goodness!) by the ecosystem, becoming infrastructure and food.
As we walked the trail, it was apparent that had we strayed three feet off the trail in either direction we’d have been in ankle-deep muck or knee-deep water at any point. I remarked to Margaret, “I wonder how they even made the path we’re walking on. They must’ve had to fill it in.” When we got back to my parents’ home, I pulled the area up on Google Maps to show them where we had walked. My first surprise came when I clicked it over “satellite” view. Perhaps the image was several years old—and likely taken during early spring or late fall because very little foliage is present—but what is clearly present is the “echo” of old residential roads still visible peaking up through the marsh. You’d never know they were there from ground level; they’ve been reclaimed more thoroughly than the dead trees.
Then I looked closer and the first wave of wonder hit me: the trail we’d walked matched exactly the lines of several of the abandoned roads. We had, in a sense—a very humid, sweaty, sultry sense!—strolled the streets of that planned but never fully built neighborhood from 90-plus years ago. And never knew. Because: marsh.
The second wave of wonder came courtesy my dad. As he looked at the map showing the now marshed-over streets, he shook his head with a smile of recognition. He said, “You know, when my dad [thus, my paternal grandfather] was just eighteen years old, in 1930, he had a job driving a town car for a real estate company. He would pick up the sales agent and together they would drive to the south Shore train station [it still operates, just 600 feet south of where the Great Marsh Trail begins] and pick up well-to-do clients coming in from Chicago. They’d ride the train to Michigan City to consider where they might build a summer home. My dad drove those streets 90 years ago.”
No wonder the marsh knew us. “We’d” been here two generations earlier. Under very different circumstances. I can’t—and don’t—blame my grandpa for his tiny (and teenage!) role in trying to develop the marsh. But I can’t help but wonder whether that oh-so-warm embrace we felt from the Great Marsh held an offer of forgiveness. Not for my grandpa’s actions, but for humanity’s general hubris in thinking that every corner of creation is just waiting for our imprint. We came to the marsh with our eyes, ears, noses(!)—and hearts—wide open. And she welcomed us back.
Which leads to my third wave of wonder.
If you’ve been following my blog for much of these past 33 weeks you know that my hope for a future in which humans have a healthy relationship with the planet runs thin most days. I often think the planet is just waiting us out. That a century or two from now most of our cities will look like the Great Marsh: reclaimed by Earth for Earth.
But there is a seed of hope here. Because the Great Marsh Trail bears witness to Earth’s eagerness to heal itself if given half a chance. Make no mistake. She will seek to heal herself—with or without our aid. And if necessary, she will rid herself of us in order to make healing possible. BUT that trail is also hint of Earth’s readiness to welcome us as partners in renewal. I suspect though, as I’ve suggested across my past columns hearkening to permaculture, that this time she’d like us to take our places as junior partners—apprenticed to her—in that work.
I’m game for that. Are you?
PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith
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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing our climate crisis, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly essays consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week! Contact me at: drw59mn(at)gmail.com.
 For a pair of personal blogs (by someone I don’t know at all) that offer appreciative and accessible (non-scientific background on the Great Marsh written six year apart, see: https://terriofthetrails.blogspot.com/2013/07/the-great-marsh-of-indiana-dunes.html and http://terriofthetrails.blogspot.com/2019/06/the-great-marsh-trail-redux.html
 Find our photos from the day here: www.facebook.com/davidrweiss/media_set?set=a.10156702212626596&type=3