Winter was slow to come to West Michigan, but when it finally arrived in late January, it came with a vengeance. With a few days break between storms, I hung up the snow shovel, traded in my cross-country skis for snowshoes, and headed to Sarett Nature Center.
I’ve visited Sarett many times in the past, during all seasons; chaperoning school field trips when my daughters were younger, or attending workshops on my own, cross-country skiing by torch light at night with a friend, or wandering through the woods by myself. Always I’ve stayed on the trails; they are clearly marked and it is prohibited to wander off of them, ensuring delicate eco-systems will not be disturbed.
Leading our small group of snow-shoers was naturalist, Matt Hayes. Walking like penguins or ducks (I can't decide which), Matt led us off trail for a “Walk on the Wild Side” to explore the unseen areas of Sarett.
There were times that the brush got too thick and the hills too steep, and we had to backtrack, with Matt showing us identifying features of plants and animal tracks, and sharing interesting tidbits of information the entire way. The easily distinguishable beech with its smooth, silvery bark, has buds like tiny tightly wrapped cigars; the bare, hairy vines of poison ivy can cause a rash even in winter; wild cherry trees have bark that look like burnt potato chips. Along a stream in a marshy area grows ninebark; the shrub is named for its exfoliating bark that has nine layers. Unlike the nearby cattails which have seeds carried by the wind on tiny cottony tuffs, ninebark seeds float. Dispersed in the running water, the seeds are transported downstream, which is why you usually see ninebark growing along riverbanks. We came across a tangled thicket of autumn olive, and Matt explained the nature center’s ongoing battle to eradicate this non-native invasive species of shrub, especially from the prairie restoration area. Also non-native (but not invasive) is Scotch pine, and Sarett’s has a “forest” of it; part of the nature center was once a Christmas tree farm. The pines provide cover for many species of birds and animals, and we were treated to seeing a white-tailed deer bounding ahead of us, through the snow.
Matt pointed out the crooked trunks in a stand of sassafras, and I was reminded of an illustration of twisted sassafras branches accompanying an essay about the tree many people view as a weed. “…At least honor the life force it represents,” writes author Tom Springer, “It’s a tree that holds and heals the soil of neglected places, the first act in a drama of natural succession that can culminate in a forest of oak and maple. If we just let it be, the sassafras will do what it’s always done: demonstrate nature’s power to keep the world sweet, green, and beautiful.”
The essay is one in a collection I read this winter. "Looking For Hickories: The Forgotten Wildness of the Rural Midwest" (University of Michigan Press; 2008), is a book about the love of nature, of rural life and its roots, of local history, and of hobby farming. One reviewer comments it’s “a wonderful collection of short essays on some of my favorite topics: trees, rural life, rivers, suburban sprawl, consumerism, growing up in "wild" places, and becoming middle-aged.”
Springer’s writing is rich, personable, and is laced with humor, insight, and wisdom. The haunting nature etchings by illustrator Ladislav Hanka are simply magical. The entire book is a gem.
Sarett Nature Center is a gem too – what a friend of mine calls “one of this area’s most underutilized treasures”. If you have such an underutilized treasure in your area, I encourage you to get out and experience what it has to offer. If winter just isn’t your bag, while you’re waiting until those fairer skies and warmer temperatures arrive, curl up with a good book in the meantime. May I suggest “Looking For Hickories: The Forgotten Wildness of the Rural Midwest”?