Mike Lunsford: On beachcombing with e.e. cummings

Still life at Pilgrim Haven: An assortment of stones and a gull’s feather create a still life on the beach at Pilgrim Haven Natural Area.Photo by Mike Lunsford

I don’t know if it’s the same for other retired educators, but when we take vacations, even short ones, Joanie and I tend to take mental odds and ends from our English teaching lives with us just as often as we do our sandals and crossword puzzles.

On occasion, some fragment of memory, some lesson taught or learned, a poem or novel or short story we read, will apply itself to a place we have gone, just as we hope they do for our former students, a few now who have retired too.

Such was the case on our last trip to Lake Michigan, enjoyed weeks ago now. Virtually alone with our thoughts, and carefully walking over the wonderfully rocky beach of Pilgrim Haven Natural Area, we spent a good while in the picking up and throwing down and tucking away of favored stones, all worn remarkably smooth through eons of grinding and polishing by the big lake’s relentless waves.

Although we just discovered it this year, Pilgrim Haven has a long and happy history, and I don’t mean just geologically. At one time a commercial shipping pier not far from South Haven, its 27 acres were purchased by the Chicago Council of the Camp Fire Girls in 1913 to use as a campground. Several rows of cabins were built within ear-shot of the beach, and for years, girls and young women were rescued from the grit and smells of the big city for at least a little while to enjoy its beech and maple forest, a shallow little stream called Dyckman Creek, and that rocky beach, as lovely as most we’ve ever seen in our wanderings.

In 1948, the Michigan Congregational Conference of the United Church of Christ bought the property and expanded the original campground to include even more cabins and a large dining hall, its beautiful stone fireplace still standing in an open meadow where a second set of cabins and a meeting house once stood. Not far from it, Joanie and I found a small promontory above the beach where it’s said evening vespers were held, and we couldn’t imagine a better place for prayers of thanks as we looked out over a green-blue lake.

Luckily, just after the camp closed in the early 1980s, the property was purchased by Suzanne Upjohn DeLano Parish — who served as a WASP test pilot during World War II — a far-thinking conservationist who resisted selling her rocky treasure for commercial development. Instead, she recognized the area’s ecological and aesthetic value, and when she died in 2010, her estate donated Pilgrim Haven to the Southwestern Michigan Land Conservancy. Today, thousands of visitors each year enjoy its barrier-free access as they beachcomb and paddle, and traverse its short trail system in snowshoes, hiking boots, and with spring wildflowers in mind.

Although Pilgrim Haven offers stopovers for migrating birds and monarch butterflies, Joanie and I were there at a time when an intense afternoon heat offered us little more wildlife to see than scores of ebony jewelwing damselflies, mother robins squawking from their nests, and a few cottontails that hopped through ripening blackberry bushes. The trails were mostly silent — not even the rap of a woodpecker — and the other visitors that we saw that day clung mostly to the beach and the clear water that was roaring in under a cloudless warm afternoon sky.

Always conscious that we need to be active, we walked the full circuit of trails at the preserve no less than four or five times, all the while trying to maintain a bit of speed. But when we reached the beach, our hurry was over, and we ambled from one interesting pile of stones to another, discovering time and time again that we couldn’t possibly take more than a few favorites home with us.

At one point, with me holding an assortment of feldspar and quartz, gray chert and even darker gray basalt in my hands, Joanie reminded me of a poem by e.e. cummings, who may have eschewed punctuation and capitalization and adored parentheses, but is a favored poet by old literature teachers, nonetheless. In his “maggie and milly and molly and may,” cummings reflects on the variety of emotions experienced by four girls who “went down to the beach (to play one day).”

Each of the girls in the poem finds something different by the sea — one a shell, another a starfish, the third a crab, and the fourth, May (I’ll capitalize her name here), picked up a “smooth round stone/as small as a world as large as alone.”

That was the case for us both that day at Pilgrim Haven too. A bit of driftwood, a gull feather, a piece of polished glass, the crystal clear water, and those beautiful round stones all proved cummings (I’ll leave his name be) insightful; we always seem to find ourselves a degree or two happier when we go to the beach, often lost in our own thoughts and wind-blown hair.

Ironically, synonyms for the word beachcomber include “idler, deadbeat, and do-nothing.” The two of us have always been advocates of dictionaries, but we have to say, in our case anyway, that those are a poor choice of words.

You can contact the writer at hickory913@gmail.com; his website is at www.mikelunsford.com. Mike’s books are available at many Wabash Valley stores, and at Amazon.com.

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