Eastside Neighborhood

Evolution of Bow in the Clouds: Kalamazoo's Eastside urban oasis

Off well-traveled Gull Road and behind the majestic motherhouse of the former Nazareth College, now home of the Sisters of St. Joseph, sits a 60-acre pristine nature preserve and wetland known as Bow in the Clouds. 

This urban oasis may be little known to those who aren’t seeking it, but as a place of learning and retreat, it is being embraced as the Eastside’s wild backyard.

Well-used by neighborhood youth programs, the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy (SWMLC), which now owns it, is also designing its boardwalks and paths for greater accessibility for wheelchairs, walkers, and eventually even for the blind through a designated acoustic trail.

Youth from Eastside Youth Strong (EYS), Peace House, and the EYS’ summer program Eastside Arts and Experiential Learning program (EASEL), are frequent visitors to the preserve.

“We hoped the Eastside would take ownership of Bow in the Clouds as their own natural area,” says Nate Fuller, director of conservation and stewardship of the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy, which has been the custodian of the preserve since 2007. For SWMLC, Fuller says Bow in the Clouds, as a natural area within the city limits, provides new “opportunities for an urban conversation.”

“Nature is nature and you just need to be in it, but how to share it is different,” says Fuller, who has been working with local organizations, such as Disability Network and Western Michigan University, to increase the preserve’s usability and access. “We’re early on the journey.”

Fuller recalls a visit to the preserve by EASEL youth that illustrated the importance of natural places in urban landscapes.

“She found a box turtle and was so excited to look at it. She said, ‘I can’t believe it’s here in my own neighborhood and I don’t have to go out to the Nature Center to see it!’ That was the first time she had found a wild turtle on her own,” says Fuller. “That experience has always stood out for me.”

Rebecca Joyce, an EASEL instructor, brings youth to Bow in the Clouds each summer. “We want the children to feel that they have a hidden treasure in their neighborhood,” says Joyce. “We hike and picnic there. The children love to look for eggshells from turtles hatching. Their favorite thing is cooling off their feet in the stream.”

Visits to Bow in the Clouds have served as inspiration for riddles about plants and animals, says Joyce, and have also helped youth develop leadership skills by becoming ambassadors to their parents and other visitors to the preserve.

Kalamazoo Eastside Neighborhood Association Director Pat Taylor, who grew up on the South side of Kalamazoo with neighborhood access to the Kleinstuck Preserve, says she feels fortunate that the Eastside has its own wild place.  “Bow in the Clouds is a similar opportunity on our side of town (to Kleinstuck),” says Taylor.  “I love it over there. It’s very open. It’s very inviting. We’re blessed to have this opportunity to spend time in nature so close to home.”

Despite its urban home, much of Bow in the Clouds is wild and untouched. Accessible by 1,000 feet of boardwalk that traverses a clear stream, spring-fed ponds, and wetlands, the preserve features abundant flora, fauna, and wildlife. An osprey stand, constructed last year, awaits the preserve’s first nesting pair.

Many features in the preserve have names and stories, like Swan Lake, Bethany Hill, Quiet Bridge, and Babbling Brook. Officially 46 years old this spring as a nature area, the preserve has a unique history grounded in its caretakers, the Sisters of St. Joseph, a Catholic congregation who are active in justice, peace, and environmental issues. Transformations Spirituality Center, run by the sisters at the motherhouse, offers retreats and workshops focused on spiritual growth.

Everywhere you look at Bow in the Clouds, nature has something interesting to say. Photo by Eric Hennig, VAGUE PhotographyThis embracing of Bow in the Clouds by Eastside residents couldn’t make the preserve’s longtime lead caretaker, Sister Virginia “Ginny” Jones, any happier.

“That is really what I wanted, that the neighborhood would embrace it,” says Sister Ginny, adding she hoped that the preserve encourages residents to become invested stewards of the area. “I wanted this to be a place where people could come and experience a close connection with the natural world.

“People will preserve what they love, and they won’t love it unless they experience it,” she says.

“This is your neighborhood. This is your community,” says Fuller of the Eastside preserve. “You don’t have to so go somewhere else to find nature. It’s right here.”

Land of Vision becomes Bow in the Clouds

The land behind the former Nazareth College, a small liberal arts college that closed in the 1990s, has seen many incarnations. Long ago, it was likely a Native American hunting ground, and possibly even a Native American residence, as many arrowheads have been found. Later it was farmland. But as it naturalized, the Sisters of St. Joseph used the land as a place of retreat.

“When sisters wore their habits, they marched out here for picnics in the '70s. They called it The Land of Vision,” says Sister Ginny.

“They would go out there to re-energize. It was a place for meditation and recovery and thought and so I think there is still a lot of value of having that for our community whether people need to go for a trail run or just a quiet place to go and be,” says Fuller.

In 1968, Sister Ginny arrived at Nazareth as an environmental science teacher.  As part of their broadening mission, the Sisters of St. Joseph became advocates for the environment, attending to their own carbon footprint even before it was a well-known concept. In 1972, Sister Ginny helped host Kalamazoo’s first Earth Day Celebration, held on the campus. Her students helped her build trails and plant trees.

Dedicated as Bow in the Clouds Natural Area in St. Joseph’s Day, March 1974, which was also the golden anniversary of Nazareth College, the preserve has seen a few changes over the years, including an addition of Bethany Hill (put in place with 1,000 woman hours of labor to stop the dumping of trash into the marsh), and various types of paths, many created by the nuns themselves and with the help of Eagle Scouts. 

The name Bow in the Clouds has biblical origins, coming from Genesis 9:13 in which God set a rainbow as a sign of a covenant between Him and the earth. 

“The sisters saw it as their own covenant with the earth,” says Fuller.

“The whole point of Bow in the Clouds is that we wanted people to experience being one with their whole earthly community through God’s relationship with all of creation—and we’re a part of that,” says Sister Ginny. “You don’t have to belong to the Christian tradition to appreciate this interconnectedness. You can be a Buddhist. You can be a Hindu. All major religious groups have a sense of contact with the holy through the natural world.”

Thirty years later, and as an aging religious order dwindling in numbers, the Sisters of St. Joseph found they no longer had the resources to care for the land in the way they had envisioned. As it was important to them to retain their covenant, they transferred ownership, after several years of discussion, to SWMLC in 2007.

“They gave it to us with the hope we would steward it, care for it, and make it available to the community to enjoy it for the long term,” says Fuller.

Out of that collaboration, a special friendship between Fuller and Sister Ginny arose, one that was shared with listeners in a StoryCorps interview, sponsored by the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, in 2013 during which Sister Ginny shared stories and history about the preserve.

“She’s a special, special woman,” says Fuller. “It’s really powerful to think about the scientific and spiritual blending that she’s brought to that place, and we really hope to convey something of that spirit out there.”

“What did I do to the Land of Vision?” Sister Ginny asks. “I extended the vision.”

The fondness between the two is evident, as is their mutual appreciation of the land.

“I think of this as a very sacred place,” says Sister Ginny to Fuller. “So I’m glad you’re taking care of my sacred place.”

“I’m honored to do so,” says Fuller. “I consider it my church.”

Eco-spirituality: Nature as a means of spiritual communion 

Through Transformations Spirituality Center, the Sisters of St. Joseph, a progressive congregation, hosts many programs that promote eco-spirituality, a philosophy that combines ecology with spirituality and advocates environmental activism.

“The first scriptures were written in nature before we had written scripture,” says Sister Ginny. “One of the things I was trying to do through my teaching was to share that recognizing that creation is also God’s world incarnated in a different way and how we could use lectio divina (hearing God's word through reading).”

There is always something new to see on a nature walk at Bow in the Clouds. Photo by Eric Hennig, VAGUE photographySister Ginny’s own connection with the land is as deep as the taproot on one of her special trees, a Pignut Hickory. She recalls many experiences over the years, such as watching an unusual geese formation or the hatching out of thousands of snapping turtles, that inspired spiritual and personal insights.

She shared a very personal one that influenced her own journey to become an avid protector of trees.

“Father died on Earth Day 25 years ago this year,” she recalls.  The following year was difficult because it required the care of her mother, losing their dog and selling her parents’ belongings. She was walking down the woodland trail in December a few days before her father’s birthday. “It was a hard time emotionally,” she says, “and so cold I had heavy gloves on.” 

She walked past the marsh and Swan Pond, up by the cemetery, and came to “a nice big tree,” a Pignut Hickory. “I had noticed in the past that the tree had some scars on it,” she says. “It knew something about healing.

“By the time I got there, I was so frozen inside emotionally. I put both gloved hands on the tree and laid my forehead against it.

“It was bitter, bitter cold. Sap doesn’t run in the middle of December, but this energy from that tree ran through me. The mighty word leapt down and helped heal my grief and my frozen, cracked heart.”

That profound experience inspired Sister Ginny to start working with the trees on the Nazareth campus with gypsy moth issues by seeking biological controls.
“That protective energy that I felt from the Pignut Hickory I had to take to every other tree, especially the oaks. I monitored that whole campus for many years because that was part of my effort of healing.”

The evolution continues

In 2007, when Sister Ginny and Fuller met at Bow in the Clouds following the transfer of the land, a miracle occurred: a rainbow appeared over the preserve. 

“We were both almost in tears,” says Fuller. 

That rainbow, witnessed together, was a fitting and synchronous symbol to what has become a new covenant, a gift to the community inspired by the generous spirit of forward-thinking sisters and their passionate ecological spirit. 

Volunteers built an osprey stand last year hoping to lure an osprey to nest. Photo by Eric Hennig, VAGUE photographyIf you enter the preserve paths from the south, you will pass the Sisters of St. Joseph stoic cemetery. Small, unadorned stones mark the graves of those from this faith community who walked and tended and meditated on the land. 

As Sister Ginny, like the other Sisters of St. Joseph, advances in age, she says she is excited about the Land Conservancy's plans to increase accessibility on the trail. “Now that I feel more limited, it’s exciting to me,” she says

While sadly, the motherhouse may not be in existence much longer as the sisters move to a newer building located behind it, the congregation’s presence remains an indelible part of the landscape.

For directions to Bow in the Clouds, which is accessed off Nazareth Road, please see (LINK).https://swmlc.org/project/bow-in-the-clouds-preserve/

Read more articles by Theresa Coty O'Neil.

Theresa Coty O’Neil is a freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher with over two decades of covering people, places, and events in the Kalamazoo community. She is the Project Editor of On the Ground Kalamazoo.