A new lens on life

In March 2020, personal travel dead-ended at shores and rivers and neighborhood’s edge.

We re-learned how to wash our hands. Then we stayed home in our slippers. But feet crave more than the flat predictability of floors and carpet. It was time to take matters into our own two feet.

While we all waited to be out of the woods, photographer Susan Tusa found respite in the woods — and the meadows and the shore within the 71,251-acre Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore near her Northern Michigan home.

An inveterate hiker whose treks have included Spain’s Camino de Santiago, Tusa spent much of 2020 and the early months of this year wandering three to five miles daily among wildflowers, pale dune grass, telephone-pole forests of pine and along a Great Lake with an ocean’s horizon. There, she found reassurance that green sprouts still unfurled from spongy soil, frost rimed leaves like delicate lace trim and open fields vibrated with life.

Perhaps our closer-to-home explorations will make us all more skilled at observing what we’d too often overlooked at life’s former pace.

April’s morning chill allows fringy frost to linger, looking as if leaves were somehow embellished with tatting lace overnight. By engaging our senses and checking our cellphones, we can spot and quickly identify discoveries. “Being able to put a name to our finds makes us feel less alone,” Tusa says. “Isolation becomes community.

“And we can also send a photo to a friend who, if not for the pandemic, would be walking with us.”

In April, vertical clouds descended, wavy, like Rapunzel’s hair let down at sunset. Horizon views attract visitors and locals to the dunes and shore for a quieter version of the Key West evening vigil. In places where seasons are clearly delineated and the weather shifts hourly, whatever is discovered one day will have transformed in some way by the dawn of the next.

The Sleeping Bear Dunes Lake Michigan shoreline has a stark beauty that encourages the mind to wander and our feet to do the same. On windy mornings, the dunes are a weather vane, indicating wind currents in the form of rippled sand. When hoof or paw prints are blurred by blowing sand, there remains a hint of a passing creature. And the complicity of the lake breezes helping cover animals’ tracks, feels like a mystery in which nature aids and abets the wild things. Knowing a deer or bobcat or other denizen may have detected and fled your proximity is thrilling.

A morning walk is rewarded with the sight of a web glistening in a meadow among dead cedars and yellow lance-leaved coreopsis. At dawn in the summer, the fruit of hard-working spiders garlands fields like festive light strings. Sunrise spills over the scene, illuminating a spectacular installation created by eight-legged artists. It’s impossible to feel alone amid the evidence of so much activity. Tusa, who often recites poetry while hiking, says the words of Emily Dickinson come to mind: “A spider sewed at night/Without a light …” One should tread carefully, Tusa advises, to avoid disturbing the lacework and to prevent getting a face full of wet silk and spiders.

Come July, the goatsbeard has gone to seed. Its transformation from floral firework to a look more akin to a sea creature gives it an exotic presence in the Midwestern meadow. With organized garden-tour travel canceled by covid, the wild blooms of U.S. national parks offer a gardeners’ holiday. The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is awash in native blooms. They include orange dune lily, purple beach pea, wind anemone, yellow Saint-John’s-wort and milkweed. Some wildflowers, the National Park Service says, such as the Pitcher’s thistle, are endangered species and found only in the dunes surrounding the Great Lakes. “I’ve been anthropomorphizing plants, and even rocks, a lot lately,” Tusa says. “Missing people.”

In summer months, country roadsides near the national lakeshore sprout farm stands sporting festive banners and hand-painted signs designed to attract buyers to the local fruit. In winter, the utilitarian lines of agricultural architecture, solitary in fading light, seem to express pandemic isolation. Battened down. Weathering the storm. Enduring.

As Christmas Eve approached, with no family or friends near, and the pandemic still raging, the wind and lake were in a mood. “I was trying to capture the feeling of it,” Tusa says, “the riled-up water, the cold and the vulnerability of all of us. I focused on this lonely stand of trees, and employed a very slow shutter speed, some exaggerated camera movement and a bit of overexposure to come as close as I could.”

Seeing a Great Lake surprises the uninitiated, and their reactions can be entertaining. “Is that an ocean?” Tusa heard one young hiker gasp at the shoreline termination of a trail. “At first,” she says, “I wondered where on Earth she had traveled from. Then I figured, more charitably, that the vastness confronting her was probably so unexpected, that her utterance was simply awkwardly stated awe.”