Spring is here! But before we run out to pick posies, let's take a moment to appreciate the season we're leaving behind. It may not be as eagerly awaited as its warmer, more colorful sisters Spring, Summer and Autumn, but Winter has its own chilly charms. Here's a look back at some of my favorite scenes of the season.
One of my favorite January rituals is choosing a calendar to hang in our kitchen. More than a place to keep track of events and appointments, the right calendar can be a thing of beauty to admire every day.
For the past three years, I've been delighted to find photographer Gail Howarth's calendars for sale at Artsplace in Fremont. I've been a fan of Gail's photographs since I saw a collaborative exhibit of work by Gail and painter Renae Wallace at Artsplace a few years ago.
This year, Gail is donating profits from calendar sales to Mel Trotter Ministries, a Grand Rapids nonprofit organization that works with homeless people. Gail is also undertaking a photography and writing project with the organization. I've invited her here today to tell us about her work and this new project.
One thing that has always appealed to me about your photographs is the way you create extraordinary images from everyday objects and scenes—an old chair in a barn, a pile of driftwood, a rusty bicycle in a patch of weeds, a weathered fence post. What is your process for finding subjects for your photographs, and what do you look for in a potential subject?
I feel as though my subjects find me. It is true that I carry my camera most of the time and that I often have a goal in mind when I go out for the day. However, what is on my camera at journey's end is seldom what I planned. I photograph a broad range of things, as you mentioned. I am attracted to things old and broken, beautiful landscapes, and interesting people. Often, I travel the same roads or walk the same paths and see nothing of interest. Then with a shift of light, I see the location or an object as though for the first time. This fascinates me and keeps in a state of wonder and awe. A potential subject is anything that tells a story. My hope is that my photography not only be beautiful but also conjures memories or inspires the viewer to create a tale about the image.
What are some of the most unusual or surprising places you've found good subjects?
I love old abandoned places. This is not unusual these days, as there is an entire genre of photography related to "abandoned places". However, it is where I am most surprised and intrigued. First, my storyteller's mind is intrigued by the possibilities of why a thing or place was left behind. Second, I am surprised by what is left behind. A girl's saddle shoe, the curtains, an apron over a bed frame, a lifetime of someone's greeting cards scattered upon the floor, a woman's purse, and so on and so on. Some images are heartbreaking, yet oddly beautiful.
I was surprised to read, in the text on the back of your 2017 calendar, that you started out with little or no confidence in your skills as a photographer. What helped you grow and develop confidence in your abilities?
I have always had an eye for composition, but I thought my photography was ordinary. Honestly, it was my friend's comments on Facebook that made me believe I might have something more than snapshots.
Then Renae Wallace, a painter from Fremont, Michigan, began asking me if she could paint some of my images. Of course, I was shocked, honored, and so pleased. That eventually turned into our exhibit at NCCA - Artsplace: Of Time, Transition and Reflection. Words cannot even begin to describe how wonderful that experience was. Renae is a gem. A dream came true when Lindsay Isenhart said yes to the project. Everyone at Artsplace was incredibly supportive. Faune Benson Schuitema even helped me pick all the materials to frame and mat my work. The community came out in earnest to support both Renae and me. It was then that I knew I was on my way and felt like a real artist.
How have your techniques and approaches to photography changed over time?
My technique improved once I learned more about all the settings on my camera. Instead of just taking a shot and hoping for the best, I learned how to set the camera for the best capture. Additionally, I started shooting in RAW versus JPEG and picked up a couple of higher-quality glass lenses. I learned Lightroom and Google NIK for editing. I do have Photoshop, but have not yet learned it. Perhaps this year.
My approach is different, as I take more time with setup and take fewer images versus taking too many images and then sorting through for the best one. That was very time-consuming. I also ask for opportunities to photograph things that interest me. In the past, I would miss many opportunities because I was too shy to ask.
This year, you're donating profits from your calendar sales to Mel Trotter Ministries. How did you come to be involved with the organization?
I worked as a practice management software trainer for Patterson Dental. When Mel Trotter Ministries Dental Clinic purchased the software, I became their trainer. Over the years, I would occasionally be called upon for follow-up training. I felt at home with this group and felt strongly that their mission was important. I was moved by their conviction to help and I would think, if I ever left my job I would want to be part of this.
In early 2016 I began to feel more and more unsettled in the career I had loved. As the year progressed, I found myself thinking more about photography and writing and less and less about my job. One day when I was training the dental staff at Mel Trotter, I mentioned to Janice Keesman, Director of Clinics, how I was feeling. I told her I was considering leaving my job to pursue my passion. I mentioned that if they ever needed help, I would still like to be considered. That resulted in many discussions, and finally a job offer. I work in the clinic three days a week and spend the rest of my time cultivating my life as an artist.
In addition to donating calendar profits, you're working on a photography and writing project for Mel Trotter Ministries. Tell us a little about that project—what you're doing and what you hope to accomplish with this work.
This is truly a labor of love. The project is so important to me that I do it on my own time. Mel Trotter Ministries is an organization that serves the homeless. It provides overnight shelter, meals, residential programs, job training, counseling, the dental clinic, chiropractic care, vision, legal services, and so much more.
The project was born soon after I began working in the dental clinic. Patients often said the same phrases to describe what was happening in their lives. They went like this: No one hears me. No one sees me. I am invisible. I thought perhaps I could help. With my camera and writing skills, I could give them a voice, a face, and increase public awareness of homelessness.
Mel Trotter Ministries publishes my pieces on their website. I will be including the blog posts on my own site soon.
Additionally, I would like to create an exhibit for ArtPrize and/or other venues to increase awareness.
How has your work with Mel Trotter ministries affected you personally? As an artist?
One cannot work at Mel Trotter and not be changed. First, it has deepened my personal relationship with God. It may sound quite absurd, but I did not expect this. I think the usual things you might think: I am more grateful, considerate and have deeper compassion.
But, I would also say, I feel a bit more of a burden of responsibility in caring for those less fortunate. I find it difficult to leave the building between 4:30 and 5:15 pm. That sounds terrible, but I have a tender heart and my mind has a hard time wrapping my head around the extent of the issue of homelessness. That is the time when the homeless women check in for the evening. They wait in line and security goes through their sparse belongings before allowing them entry where they will receive a meal and bed for the night. I often see the same women day after day. There is no age limit. Some are very young and some very old. Some appear to be frightened, angry, resigned, and yet others quite joyful. And I wonder, where are their families, why does no one care enough to open their doors to these people, and what does the future hold for them?
As an artist, I would say it has been a call to action. I am one person. What can I do? I can and will use my words and camera to do whatever I can to help.
The photos of yours that I've seen in galleries and on your calendars have focused mainly on places, objects and wildlife/nature, and not as much on people. Your new work with Mel Trotter Ministries is all about people. Is this a new direction for your work overall, or just for this particular project?
I like photographing people, but not in a studio setting. Lighting with flashes, reflectors, and the use of backdrops is a mystery to me. The project at Mel Trotter is an extension of something I started in November of 2016. I began asking people to think about for what they were most grateful while I photographed them. I used the light that was available and processed the images in black and white. The result is a very raw image. Some people cried while others beamed radiantly. The first person I photographed for the gratitude project taught me that what I was asking was not a minor request. I was asking people to become vulnerable and to bare a part of their soul. I am grateful to those who participated. To be allowed a look into someone's soul is an honor and needs to be treated respectfully. This is what I hope to bring to the Mel Trotter Project.
What directions do you want to go with your photography in the coming year?
I would like to pair writing with my photography more often. I will definitely be reviving my neglected blog. The folks at Mel Trotter have asked me to also photograph and write about the volunteer of the month and have begun asking me to photograph events. I am hoping that Renae Wallace and I can begin another collaborative project soon and am open to collaborative projects with other artists, but there is nothing in the works. Perhaps this is the year that I will finally learn Photoshop.
Anything else you'd like to add?
My work is available at NCCA - Artsplace in Fremont and at MB Woodworks & Company and Market 41 in Newaygo. Online I can be found at:
I am also starting a small gallery by appointment at my home in Holton.
Get your feet off the coffee table, and put on your best manners—we have company today. It's local author Janet Glaser, who writes as J.Q. Rose. She's swinging by on a blog tour to spread the word about her newly-released mystery, Terror on Sunshine Boulevard.
I met Janet/J.Q. through the writers' group at Fremont Area District Library, and I've enjoyed reading her imaginative stories (and indulging our mutual weakness for ice cream). Terror on Sunshine Boulevard is one of my favorites.
Here's a quick word from J.Q., followed by a Q&A. More details about her and her books can be found at the end of the post.
Thank you, Nan, for hosting me during the Terror on Sunshine Boulevard Winter Warm-Up 2018 Blog Tour. I look forward to visiting with you and your readers and to answering any questions asked of me in the comments. I hope you have a cup of cocoa ready to warm me up today.
Readers: Please leave a comment below because a lucky commenter will win a PDF copy of Terror on Sunshine Boulevard. Winner will be drawn on Friday, January 19 at 9 p.m. EST.
The usual image of a Florida retirement community is one of golf courses, swimming pools and craft classes, not the scene of heinous crimes. What made you decide to set your new mystery, Terror on Sunshine Boulevard, in such a place?
I chose this setting because the scene one pictures of a retirement community is exactly what you describe--a place where people who have worked all their lives have a chance to enjoy the good things in life. I love the juxtaposition of the bright fun-in- the-sun feeling with the darkness of murder and mystery. Even the title includes the contrasting views—terror and sunshine.
What goes into creating a believable character in a work of fiction?
I base my characters on real people in my life. We meet many interesting folks in our travels. And I might add, there are some real characters in Michigan too! I take bits and pieces from personalities, gestures, accents, speech and put them together in one character. I also create the background story of the character to understand his relationships with other characters and his motivation for doing something like stealing, cheating, even murder. All of that information, such as his favorite color, is not spilled out on the page for the reader. The more I know about the character, the more believable he’ll be.
How big a part does setting play in your stories? Does the setting ever become a character?
In all of my stories the setting is very important. I have mysteries set in the retirement community, a church, and a funeral home. Each location is a message to the reader to understand the reason for the drama within the pages of the book and to set the mood for the scenes. Often the twist comes when a character doesn’t fit into the setting. I think the setting is an element in the story, but I’ve never thought of it as a character. I guess we need to discuss the definition of the character.
Without giving away too much of the story, I think it's safe to say that Terror on Sunshine Boulevard deals with the intersection of nature and civilization, and the conflicts that arise as a result. Is this an issue that concerns you in the real world?
Yes. I’m concerned watching “civilization” encroaching on the natural habitat by paving over acres of ground that is home to many animals and native plants. Developers tear out huge areas of property to build malls and subdivisions. Roads and highways cut through ancient areas, disturbing the trails and habits of generations of animals. No wonder wildlife raid garbage cans in subdivisions. Their food supply is no longer available because the homes are built in their habitat. The natural environmental balance is disturbed and the animals’ survival is at risk. We must be better stewards of our resources.
Another theme in Terror on Sunshine Boulevard is the contributions seniors can make to society. Do you think seniors' gifts are underappreciated?
I think many folks believe retirees are no longer useful to society. Don’t believe that! They have not been put out to pasture. A vibrant new chapter opens for them. Seniors have skills and talents polished by their life experiences. They are assets to their communities in many ways and guides to warn the young’uns about their mistakes and to show them how they have triumphed. They are storytellers when they share family stories around the dinner table as the kids sit enthralled learning about the funny, crazy uncle or the accomplished pianist in the family. Seniors are eyewitnesses to the world and our country’s history and will not allow anyone to slant the truth for their own purposes.
You've been a teacher and a business owner. What led you into writing, and into writing mysteries in particular?
To tell the truth, I was a writer way before being a teacher or entrepreneur. I actually started writing stories in second grade and I never stopped. I’ve had mentors and supporters along the way encouraging me to keep writing. First was my Grandmother Maw and teachers. Judy Corey and Mary Zuwerink started the North Country Writers many years ago. Esther Jiran (who writes as Joselyn Vaughn) was the force behind starting a writers group at the Fremont Library. I met many folks excited about writing there including you, Nan. Also a critique group of talented authors not only helped me brainstorm story ideas, but also encouraged me to submit my first story to publishers which resulted in signing a contract with a small publisher. Esther, Wendy Sinicki (pen name W.S. Gager), Theresa Grant (Tess Grant), and Nan continue to be important advocates in my writing life.
After we sold our flower business in 1995, I had time to sit down and write. So I did. I asked Rich Wheater, editor of our regional newspaper, if he could use a few stories for the paper. He said, “Go ahead.” I learned a LOT from him and branched out into writing freelance articles for magazines, newspapers, and online magazines. After reading Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries and Janet Evanovich’s funny mysteries, I decided to tackle fiction. And I’m glad I did!
What have been the biggest challenges in becoming a published author?
I’ve discovered writing the book is the easy part. After publishing comes the difficult job of promoting the book. I spend many hours a week, every week, on Facebook, my blog, and guesting on blogs to get the word out about the books and urging folks to review my books. Reviews get the attention of Amazon so they promote it; the review helps readers decide if it’s a story they would enjoy.
You divide your time between Florida and Michigan. Do your writing habits and routines change with a change of location?
Yes. Daily routines change, but I learned I had to schedule an appointment with J.Q. Rose to sit down every day and write for half an hour or more. No marketing, no emailing. After lunch, I put on my author cap and write no matter if I’m up north or down south.
In what ways besides writing do you exercise your creative muscles and find contentment?
I take photos—of everything! I love capturing people, places, things, a tricky bee landing on a flower. I also enjoy “creating” quote graphics at canva.com using my photos.
.Anything else you'd like to add?
Yes. My mission is to encourage everyone to take time to write or record their life stories. So what if you didn’t discover a medicine to cure disease or help build a ship to fly to the moon? Your life is worthy because it can inspire others by sharing your experiences of overcoming obstacles, making mistakes or celebrating success. Your stories will allow generations of your family to get to know you and be empowered by your life story. I’m writing a memoir now about the first year we moved to Fremont and started our business. What an adventure.
Do you have a story inside you to share? Go ahead and do it.
Thank you for visiting today.
Terror on Sunshine Boulevard
Back of the Book: Rescuing a naked woman lying in a geranium bed or investigating mysterious murders are not the usual calls for first responder Jim Hart. He expects slip and fall accidents or low blood pressure emergencies in his retirement community of Citrus Ridge Senior Community and Golf Resort. The ghastly crime scenes turn the winter time fun into a terrifying season of death and mystery when the authorities cannot track down the predator responsible.
Jim and his wife Gloria could escape the horror and grief by returning to their northern home, but concern for their friends and residents keep them in Florida. With the entire community in a dither over the deaths, the Harts participate in the normal winter activities of golfing, dancing, and pool parties with their friends to distract them from the sadness and loss.
Can Jim and Gloria work with the authorities to discover who or what is killing the seniors on Sunshine Boulevard and stop the increasing body count?
Terror on Sunshine Boulevard is available for purchase at these digital booksellers.
After writing feature articles in magazines, newspapers, and online magazines for over fifteen years, J.Q. Rose entered the world of fiction. Her published mysteries are Deadly Undertaking, Dangerous Sanctuary, and Terror on Sunshine Boulevard, released by Books We Love Publishing. Blogging, photography, Pegs and Jokers board games, and travel are the things that keep her out of trouble. She spends winters in Florida and summers up north camping and hunting toads, frogs, and salamanders with her four grandsons and granddaughter.
Connect with J.Q. Rose online at
J.Q. Rose blog
Books We Love Author Page
From time to time over the past couple of years, I have written about the remarkable group of women with whom I spend nearly every Monday morning. We start with yoga—either a class with Behnje Masson, who drives up from Grand Rapids every other week—or a group practice session. Then it's on to breakfast at Hit the Road Joe Coffee Café, where we appropriate the biggest table (and pull up extra chairs and tables when our group is at full capacity).
I've mentioned how our breakfast conversations ramble, touching on books, movies, politics and passions. But have I mentioned that these stalwart women can also get mighty silly when the mood strikes?
As it did on the morning of the corset. Kathy had discovered the article of clothing—a stretchy, satiny creation from an era when women wore "foundation garments"—among the belongings of her mother-in-law, who had recently passed away at the age of 98. She brought it to breakfast for show-and-tell, but this group couldn't be content to just pass the thing around.
After waiting until the table of men from the nearby church camp had left the premises, Valerie hopped up, undid the corset's side zipper, and began tugging it up over her yoga clothes. The more she wriggled, the more we giggled.
Camera phones came out. Then, like Cinderella's stepsisters, we all wanted to try squeezing ourselves into the magical undergarment.
I don't know about the other yoginis, but I fully expected that slipping it on, I'd be transformed into a svelte, glamorous, Hollywood-worthy creature. Seeing the cellphone picture Sue took of me quickly shattered that illusion.
No matter. The real transformation was that moment of lightness, of letting go of whatever concerns were constricting me and sharing a laugh with friends I've grown to love in the five years since we moved to this community.
Another opportunity to let loose together came up a few weeks ago at Camp Newaygo's annual Christmas & Cocktails event. For the past several years, our group has reserved a couple of tables at this annual women-only shindig. If C&C sounds like a wild and boozy girls' night out, it really isn't—not for the yoginis, at least. We might sip a cocktail or a glass of wine, but it's dancing, not drinking, that's the draw.
In past years, we've rocked out to the tunes of piano woman Alesha Nicole. This year, Camp Newaygo changed up the entertainment with BellyDance Grand Rapids. No corsets here! In fact, in reading up on belly dancing, I learned that when this style of expressive dance first became popular in the U.S., in the 1890s, Victorian sensibilities were affronted by the dancers' uncorseted gyrations. Imagine!
We, however, delighted in the dance performance, especially the part where the male waiters—who had served us so capably and even recited poems composed specifically for each table--took to the floor to swivel and sway with the belly dancers. A few brave women from our group gave it a shot, too!
The rest of us held back until the rock 'n' roll came on. Then we were on our feet for the rest of the night, bopping and twirling against a backdrop of glittery lights.
When the music ended, and we headed out into the cold night, we all glowed a little brighter.
What's the most fun you've had with friends lately?
Whether you celebrate Christmas, Solstice, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Pancha Ganapati, Seinfeld's Festivus for the Rest of Us, or some other winter observance, this is a festive time of year. The lights, the sparkle, the special treats, the gatherings with people you love (or try to) all combine to brighten the season.
Now that I think about it, this whole year has been pretty festive. Sure, it's also been stressful in a lot of ways, but there's been a lot to celebrate and plenty of events centered around celebration. Though we didn't set out with this goal in mind, Ray and I ended up attending a record number of festivals this year, from the Baby Food Festival in Fremont to the Blueberry Festival in South Haven.
I've taken HeartWood readers along to some of these events, but looking back over the year, I realized there were several I hadn't shared with you.
So take a break from the holiday bustle and join me as we hit the highlights.
National Blueberry Festival, South Haven
Newaygo Logging Festival
Muskegon Polish Festival
Newaygo Christmas Walk
The bearded man with the gray ponytail sits at a table, alone and looking like he wants to keep it that way. When he speaks, it's to talk about a time in his youth when he decided "I should not befriend new people, because they're likely to die." Even now, he goes on to say, "I still don't get too close to many people."
Flash forward to another scene. Same man, same beard and ponytail, tattoos visible on his forearms, but now he's prancing around in a red tutu over striped pants, sporting a red nose, a pink ball cap and an oversized, polka-dot tie and yukking it up with a gaggle of kids and a bunch of other burly guys who are just as outlandishly attired.
What accounts for the shift between scenes? The man in the red tutu is 71-year-old Vietnam veteran Mike O'Connor, who summoned a different kind of bravery to take part in an experiment in humanitarian clowning, traveling to Guatemala with a group of other veterans to spread smiles in hospitals and orphanages. In the process, he and the other Vets stepped out of the "suffer zone" into a more playful, loving space.
Clownvets, a program of physician Patch Adams's Gesundheit! Institute, is the subject of a documentary film-in-progress, and in a bit I'll tell you how you can help the filmmakers finish, distribute and promote the film.
But first, a bit of background. I first heard about the Clownvets project from my neighbor Mark Kane, a licensed psychologist who has seen from his work with veterans how trauma affects the mind, body and spirit. In fact, it was Mark's exposure to Vietnam veterans as a conscientious objector working with the American Friends Service Committee years ago that prompted him to become a psychologist.
"Post-traumatic stress, in a variety of names, has been with us since the beginning of time," says Mark. "It's not really a disease like polio is . . . It's normal people reacting normally to very un-normal circumstances."
Statistics on the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are sobering. In the U.S., more than twenty Veterans commit suicide daily. Many more experience physical and psychological symptoms that ripple out to affect their families and communities. As a step toward relieving some of that suffering, Adams and the Gesundheit! Institute came up with the idea of introducing Vets to humanitarian clowning.
Known for his work with warriors experiencing PTSD, Mark was asked to help recruit Vets for the Gesundheit! project. All he knew about Patch Adams at the time was that Robin Williams had depicted him in the eponymous 1998 movie, but Mark quickly learned more about the clowning physician and got onboard with the project.
Getting Vets into tutus and rainbow wigs isn't as crazy an idea as it may seem. The nonprofit Gesundheit! Institute bases its holistic brand of medical care on the notion that the health of the individual is closely tied to the health of the family, community, society and world. A leader in the development of therapeutic clowning, Gesundheit! has been sending trained volunteers around the world since 1985 to clown in healthcare settings and distressed communities. They soon learned that it wasn't only the people on the receiving end who benefited from silliness and "spontaneous, interactive play." The clowns themselves—even those who'd started out depressed—came home happy.
In 2015, the first cohort of Clownvets traveled to Guatemala, and the experience was transformative.
"They saw that they could be part of the solution, instead of causing devastation," says Mark. In the film, several of the Vets, including Mike O'Connor, reflect on the experience.
"I never thought that I would interact with people the way that I did," Mike says. "It's probably a good thing for me, because I do like to isolate, and I couldn't there. It brought me a little bit out of my shell and helped me to interact with people once I got back home."
When the first group of Clownvets returned, they helped recruit volunteers for a second trip in 2016.
That's when Chilean filmmaker Esteban Rojas, a longtime friend and collaborator of the Gesundheit! Institute, got involved. What Esteban saw "blew his mind," to quote from an online write-up about the project. "Listening to their life stories, hearing the horrors that they went through, but also seeing how their faces changed while trying the clowning, convinced him that this story needed to be told."
A month later, Esteban traveled to West Michigan to film Mark and some of the Vets in their daily lives and interview them about their experiences. Mark took on the role of producer and has been working closely with Esteban, co-editor Luis Bahamondes, and executive producers Charlotte Huggins and John Glick on the film, which includes material filmed by a different camera crew on the 2015 Veterans clown trip. Veteran Mike O'Connor has signed on to the film project as a consultant.
Another friend of ours, Eldon Howe, is also involved with the film. In his day job, Eldon is owner of Howe Construction, a company that builds ecology-based, disaster-resistant homes all over the world. But he's also a talented singer-songwriter who expresses himself musically through guitar compositions. Some of his music is included in the film's soundtrack—the perfect accompaniment to footage of our West Michigan environs.
I had a chance to view an early version of the film, and to say I was impressed and moved is a huge understatement. Though I had talked with Mark on many occasions about the Clownvets project, I never quite grasped the enormity of its impact until I saw on screen how the Vets and the people with whom they interacted were lifted up through clowning.
Wearing silly hats, splashy costumes and of course, red noses, the Clownvets and Gesundheit! staffers gently coax smiles out of children and adults who are living with serious physical and emotional conditions. They hold hands, play with puppets and blow bubbles and kisses.
As Mark puts it, "the red nose works as an excuse to connect these men and women with love, compassion, laughter and friendship, things that for these heroes seemed forgotten."
"Clownvets" is well on its way to becoming a high-quality, 90-minute feature film, but it has hit a roadblock. Funding has run out, yet there's still more work to be done: filming additional scenes and interviews, finishing the editing, tending to other technical details.
That's where you can help. First, view the movie trailer here. Then, please consider making a donation in support of the project. Visit the Gesundheit! Institute's "Donate" page, and under the heading "How would you like to support our work?" select "Support the Veterans Clown Trip Film Project."
You're also invited see a preview of the film and meet some Clownvets in person at a "Fun-Raiser" this Friday, November 17, 6-10 p.m., at Ferris State University's University Center, 805 Campus Drive, Big Rapids.
Short of cash? Too far from Big Rapids to make the preview? You can still help by spreading the word about this project on social media. The Clownvets will reward you with a slew of heartfelt smiles, and maybe they'll even blow you a kiss.
* Photos: Gesundheit! Institute
With its towering forests, refreshing rivers and glittering lakes, the part of Michigan where we live might be the last place you'd expect to find patches of prairie. But find them you will, if you know where to look.
One fine swath, only a 15-minute drive from our house, is the Michigan Nature Association's Newaygo Prairie Nature Sanctuary. I visited the site last Saturday with a group from the River City Wild Ones native plant organization. Led by Michigan Nature Association regional stewardship organizer John Bagley, we poked around the prairie for a couple of hours, admiring such late-summer bloomers as rough blazing star (Liatris aspera), gray goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis), fern-leaf false foxglove (Aureolaria pedicularia), prairie sunflower (Helianthus petiolaris) and cylindrical blazing star (Liatris cylindracea).
High overhead, nighthawks circled. Lovely to watch, but we also had to keep an eye on the ground to look out for prickly pear cactus (yes, cactus in Michigan!) and northern dewberry, also known as untie-your-shoe berry, for its habit of tangling around walkers' feet.
John told us that the Michigan Nature Association purchased the 110-acre sanctuary in 1969. Prairies are considered endangered habitats in Michigan because so much open acreage was converted to farmland in the 19th and 20th centuries. But Newaygo County's hilly topography and sandy soils thwarted agriculture in some areas. Prescribed burns and removal of invasive plants, such as the noxious spotted knapweed, have helped keep the sanctuary in something close to its original state.
"There's no place else in Michigan where you can find this quality of prairie," John said. "What makes it different is the diversity of plants—not only grasses but also forbs." (Forbs are herbaceous flowering plants that are not grasses.)
Like all MNA sanctuaries, Newaygo Prairie depends heavily on volunteer help. John is "exceptionally good at involving local people in local sanctuaries," said Patricia Pennell, a founding member of River City Wild Ones and steward of another MNA sanctuary. Conservation and community: a winning combination, if you ask me.
A few more words about MNA before we venture any farther on our prairie ramble. Founded sixty-five years ago, the nonprofit organization was originally a bird-study group. But as environmental issues became a pressing concern throughout the state, MNA segued into education, converting a house trailer into a nature museum and towing it around to schools.
Before long, members realized they needed to do more, and the group began purchasing sensitive property to set aside as sanctuaries. Today, the organization maintains more than 170 sanctuaries throughout the state.
Newaygo Prairie—one of MNA's oldest sanctuaries—harbors more than a hundred plant species, as well as birds, insects and other animals that depend on those plants for food and shelter. On our walk, I saw several kinds of plants I'd not seen elsewhere, and I picked up some fascinating info-bits to stash in my natural history memory bank.
One highlight of the morning's walk was meeting "Ranger Steve" Mueller. Steve's business card describes him as "Naturalist – Photographer – Butterfly Chaser," and while that probably doesn't cover it all, it's a fair sum-up for a guy who spearheads annual butterfly counts, writes a nature column for local newspapers, operates his own nature sanctuary, and seems to know a heck of a lot about all manner of flora and fauna. I hope to visit Steve's sanctuary near Cedar Springs sometime soon. Stay tuned for that excursion.
Is there a little-known nature preserve or wildlife sanctuary near you? What makes it special?
This week, I'm taking time out to look back at some of this season's sweetest moments. It's been a beautiful summer so far, and outings and festivals have added to the enjoyment. But even when I've stayed on my own back porch or sat for a spell in the front yard, I've found plenty to appreciate.
I hope you'll enjoy these sights as much as I have.
I've been to reunions. I've been to festivals. I've even, in my day, been to a fair number of hippie love-ins, be-ins and other gatherings of the tribes. But nothing quite compares to Creekfest, an annual event hosted by our friends Paul and Valerie.
Now in its 25th year, Creekfest is a reunion of "kin," who may or may not be related in a strict genetic sense, but who all share genes for enjoyment of good music, good food and good times.
Held on Paul and Valerie's wooded property on Coolbough Creek, the event goes on for a full weekend, with many of the 150-200 or so attendees camping on the premises.
Things get rolling Friday evening, when local chef Tracy Murrell offers Thai specialties. Music and merriment typically follow.
Saturday is activity-packed, with a kids' craft and painting party, tie-dye for anyone who wants to get colorful, and a rubber ducky race on the creek. This year, Ray and I arrived just in time for the tail-end of the pre-dinner talent show, an impressive display of musicality by youngsters and not-so-youngsters.
Part of the fun is just taking in the setting. The "cabin," its additions and outbuildings have been constructed over the years with the help of friends. And everywhere you look are Paul and Valerie's creative touches, from Paul's metal sculptures to Valerie's moss gardens, to various intriguing objets d'art placed here and there. You could wander around for days and still not see everything.
After Saturday's talent show came a potluck to top all potlucks. I swear the spread was half a block long. Well, maybe not quite, but it just kept on going. All the dishes got rave reviews, especially one beet salad with goat cheese and walnuts. (Did you make that, Erin? We all want the recipe!)
Still more music followed, and went on until the early morning hours, long after we'd gone home to bed. We would've stayed longer, but Ray had another festive event to attend the next day—a car show in New Hudson—and he wanted to be up by 4 a.m., about the time things wound down at Creekfest.
Once the weekend was over, I asked Valerie (who twenty years ago declared herself Creekfest Queen) for her thoughts about this year and all the years leading up to it.
"For one reason or another, each Creekfest is the best ever," she says. "Sometimes I've had to stretch a bit to say that, but each year has its best-ever moments, this year included."
Every year also has its share of "oh, s**t" moments, this year included. Like when Valerie lost her birthday kazoo at the ducky race and dropped her iPad into the creek. But by last Tuesday, when I touched base with her, The Queen was chipper as ever and recalling the best-ever moments as well.
"The music, the kids, our kinship and love, the camaraderie. Even the dogs keep things fun and lively."
Another highlight: Creekfest's first-ever silent auction, which helped defray expenses—higher this year due to some necessary repairs and replacements. "We were ravaged by rodents last year," says Valerie. "They took down our inverter for the solar, the generator that pumps our water, the golf cart. They got into the wiring and trashed things."
All things considered, though, this year was the best ever. And next year? Better still.
Do you have an annual event with its share of best-ever moments? What makes you look forward to it?
More scenes from Creekfest . . .
Around mid-summer last year, I wrote about the energizing way a group of friends and I started most weeks: Monday morning yoga class with our teacher Ellie Randazzo at her Woodland Yoga studio and after-class breakfast at Hit the Road Joe Coffee Café.
"No matter how I feel when I wake up on a Monday morning," I wrote, "I'm always uplifted and ready to take on the world (or at least my small part of it) after that session of physical, spiritual and social activity."
My yoga-mates were all just as appreciative. "Her classes helped change my body from pain to gain," says Sue Schneider, who knew our teacher through Ellie's work with animal communication and essential oils before joining Ellie's yoga class.
"Ellie's yoga was holistic like no other yoga I've experienced," adds class member Marsha Reeves, who's going on four years with the group. "She connected with our minds, bodies and spirits with loving kindness and helped us grow and learn in all those dimensions."
Our Monday routine was such an essential part of our lives, we couldn't imagine it ever changing.
Then it did.
Just a few weeks after I wrote that blog post, Ellie's unexpected death left us all numb. Yet we knew the only way to honor Ellie's memory was to find a way to go on. She had always taught us that growth is all about adapting to the changes life inevitably brings. So we continued meeting and practicing yoga together on Monday mornings, with any class members who had enough space in their homes for ten or fifteen yoga mats taking turns hosting us.
"It was an important time of sharing and healing, as we practiced in each other's homes, each contributing to the practice," says Brenda Huckins Bonter, a longtime member of the group. "I believe we became even stronger and more committed to our practice."
That arrangement worked fine, but when Ellie's husband Mike offered to let us practice in Ellie's studio, we knew that was where belonged.
Those first sessions back at Woodland Yoga were tearful, yet joyful. Even as Ellie's absence tore at our hearts, her presence was palpable—in her photo on the altar table at the front of the room, as well as in the memories of her words and guidance that flooded back whenever we entered the space.
"It felt so good to be—and practice—in Ellie's space, with her gardens in viewing distance," says Valerie Deur, who's been practicing with the group since it began, around 15 years ago. "Being there helped me heal."
After a few months, another change came—one so wished-for we pinched ourselves to be sure we could believe it. Ellie's sister-in-law, Behnje Masson of From the Heart Yoga & Tai Chi Center in Grand Rapids, agreed to drive up twice a month to teach us at Woodland Yoga—a round trip of about 80 miles.
We couldn't have asked for a more perfect fit. Behnje's training and teaching style are much the same as Ellie's, and most of us already knew Behnje—through Ellie, through taking classes at From the Heart, or from the healing class she had led for us after Ellie's death. Though we'd enjoyed our self-directed weekly sessions, having a teacher to guide us again inspired new dedication to yoga practice and principles.
Behnje agrees the fit is good. "I am grateful and honored to be welcomed into such a heartfelt and dedicated community," she says.
After a couple of months of classes with Behnje, another change. Mike needed to convert the studio space into living quarters for a relative who was moving to the area. Sad as we were to leave that place, we could practically see Ellie smiling as a solution seamlessly appeared. Ellie's sister Kathy Powell Reider, who lives just down the road, was converting her basement into a studio for her yoga nidra and meditation classes. We were welcome to use that space for our classes with Behnje and our practice sessions on alternate weeks.
More glad news: Behnje would resume the men's yoga class that Ellie had taught for a small group that includes Ray and the husbands of several other class members.
Just before the move, a group of us pitched in to paint the studio and an adjacent meditation room a serene shade of blue.
"Helping to prepare that space was an opportunity that helped us get ready for yet another change," reflects Sue. And working together on the rooms "helped us to bond even more," adds Brenda.
Announcing the new studio in an email, Kathy wrote, "Though Ellie has passed, this place continues Ellie's work as well as mine." The photo she included with the announcement showed a shimmery presence that inspired the studio's name. "Both the land and the studio are special and have a close connection with all of nature," Kathy wrote. "The fairy folk were here before me . . . Hence, the beautiful space within my home where I will teach and host a variety of uplifting opportunities has been named Fae Wood Studio."
To begin our first yoga class at Fae Wood, Behnje, Kathy, and Behnje's husband Rick Powell (brother of Kathy and Ellie) performed a puja (dedication ceremony), chanting before a figure of Ganesh, one of Ellie's favorite Hindu archetypes. Earlier, Rick had wafted incense through the room and around the perimeter of the house.
At the front of the room, on a low table brought from Ellie's studio, sat a candle, crystals, flowers, a photo of Ellie and a statue of Lakshmi, an archetype who represents abundance.
Before we began practicing, Behnje talked about bodha—awareness—not as a state of superior enlightenment to be attained, but as an everyday practice, becoming more aware of ourselves and the world around us.
What a fitting sentiment as we move from these months of transition into a new phase in our practice and our lives as a deeply connected community.
Some of the Monday morning yoginis. Front row: Nan Pokerwinski, Sally Kane, Brenda Huckins Bonter, Kendra McKimmy, Behnje Masson. Back row: Karen Kuck, Kathy Misak, Eileen Kent, Valerie Deur, Linda Cudworth, Kathy Powell Reider. Not pictured here: Marsha Reeves, Sue Schneider, Nancy Waits, Ruth Hetherington, Sandy Vandenberg, Tanis Rhodea and former class members Diane Sack, Peggy Straathof.
"I like to think that the universe aligns us, but I'm not always a believer," says Kathy Misak, who has been practicing yoga with the group for more than a decade. "In this case however, I pause and think, this looks good . . . Perhaps we are a swarming group of honey bees moving together. I do feel that energy, including Ellie's, is helping us move forward. First Mike letting us continue to use the studio and now Kathy providing us with a brand new space to practice at a crucial time. And then, voila, Behnje, teacher extraordinaire, agrees to teach us in our own north woods. We take a deep breath and move forward in our practice, ever grateful."
Eileen Kent, who is in her fifth year with the group, echoes the thought. "So grateful to be sharing this yoga journey with these lovely women! We are now in our new sacred space at Kathy’s that already feels so much like home. . . And that energy that touches our lives every day continues to carry us forward with Behnje’s guidance and instruction. Is there a 'Thank You' big enough for Ellie, Behnje and Kathy?"
For more information on classes, workshops and special events at From the Heart Yoga & Tai Chi Center, please visit http://www.fromtheheartyoga.com/
Fae Wood Studio's debut public event, the Creative Imagination Workshop will offer a combination of meditation, creative imaging and intuitive exercises. The workshop is Saturday, June 24, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Cost of $125 includes a light, gluten-free, vegetarian lunch. Register by June 19th, as space is limited.
Kathy Powell Reider also offers intuitive readings and individual sessions in animal communication.
More information at IntuitiveSVS.com, or call 616-635-6029.
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.