Kalamazoo Lyceum on Nature: Act locally, think globally

What do we owe our natural spaces — from Asylum Lake to your backyard — in Kalamazoo?

Reverence, activism, and an acknowledgment that we are a part of nature are how the participating audience at the May edition of the Kalamazoo Lyceum answered that question. 

A perfect Saturday in the lush Kalamazoo Nature Center helped remind participants of the value of trees, birdsong, and distant frog peeps and croaks. Since 1960, school kids on field trips have walked the Interpretive Center's boardwalk through the Michigan woods. They returned in 2023 as adults with concerns ranging from possible car wash on Asylum Lake's border to PCBs still lingering in the Kalamazoo River, to the current worldwide climate emergency.

Kalamazoo Lyceum panelists with founder Matthew Miller.The panelists were Lynne Heasley, Western Michigan University professor of Environment and Sustainability; Doug McLaughlin, executive director of the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council; and Kyle Martin, senior ecological services manager for the Kalamazoo Nature Center

From the Kalamazoo River to the Atlantic: All interconnected

Lyceum host Mathew Miller expanded on the event's question — "What do we owe our local nature?" — by asking what the panelists consider nature in Kalamazoo.

Matthew Miller, Lyceum founder, introduces the panel members.For Heasley, it's the Asylum Lake Preserve, "our largest urban natural area in Kalamazoo," plus the Kalamazoo Nature Center, the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy preserves, State land in Barry County, to her "very tiny front yard, tiny backyard, " where her husband gets a thrill spotting rare sparrows.

It was in Barry County where she recently saw "a fox going across the road carrying a dead woodchuck. That was nature for me."

Martin follows by outlining his work for the KNC helping landowners manage their natural aspects all over Southwest Michigan.

Panel member Dr. Dough McLaughlin is the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council Executive Director.The panel couldn't stay within the borders of Kalamazoo County. McLaughlin's focus on the Kalamazoo River showed how impossible that is. 

Since 1971, it's been known that paper manufacturing in Kalamazoo and Plainwell contaminated the river with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The contamination remains despite efforts to clean the river. A  fish consumption advisory has been in place since 1979. PCBs become concentrated going up the food chain, and repeated fish consumption can cause cancer in humans.

The Kalamazoo River's watershed, the area where rainwater runoff and creeks flow to the river, covers over 2,000 square miles, from Albion to Saugatuck. It's an official "area of concern," one of "the worst of the worse" in the Great Lakes Basin, he says. PCB cleanup is making progress, but it's a long, difficult process: "Dig out the contaminated sediment and put it into a landfill, which is a much more controlled environment." Cleanup is expected to take decades, he says.

Dams along the river inhibit natural habitats, and despite the Clean Water Act, wastes still manage to flow into the watershed. "So, what happens to that water along the way as it interacts with the land surface makes a huge difference to the quality of the river and the quality of the experience that we have with that river," McLaughlin says.

Danielle Marschke contributing to question segment"What natural spaces are important to us? The shoreline of Lake Michigan is really important to us as well." 

The Kalamazoo River drains into Lake Michigan, and that water continues on. "What is the waterbody that drains the Great Lakes basin? The St. Lawrence Seaway... The activities we do on the land impact the water that is so essential to life in so many different ways."

Act locally

A lot seems to be happening on the environmental front, Miller points out: The Town Hall on Graphic Packaging and its pollutants, efforts to protect Asylum Lake from a massive car wash, "and alligators coming from Albion," he jokes.

"In what ways is our local landscape changing, for better or worse?" he asks.

Dr. Lynne Heasley, WMU Professor of Environment and Sustainability, was a panelist.Heasley says she arrived in Kalamazoo in 2000. "It's a more beautiful place now, both on campus and off." In 2000 Tom Small had "just fought the good fight to have native plants in his yard," she says. The Land Conservancy has grown. "So many things are going on that are giving us a more-reciprocal relationship with nature in our region and in our own backyard, in our own sense of community."

But then there's Asylum Lake. "We're in a tough spot right now," Heasely says. "I feel very angry about the possibility that if we don't reverse course on two planning proposals, we will end up, perched on Asylum Lake, with one of the large Drive and Shine carwashes." There are three Drive and Shines in Kalamazoo now, this would be a fourth, she points out.

Car washes are popping up when we know that solving "our biodiversity crisis depends on urban and suburban biodiversity restoration efforts." 

Attendee sharing the group's takeawaysMartin points out that there is a lot of urban development happening as a result of an increase in population. "One of the goals is just trying to find a better balance of that."  Kalamazoo, with work to create greenspace and the establishment of the Natural Features Protection overlay, is making an effort to balance development with conservation.

Also, a good sign is, more people doing native landscaping, Martin says. "It's a big part of trying to bring back biodiversity into our urban areas that have already been developed." 

McLaughlin points out that the Clean Water Act had its 50th anniversary last year. It "led to dramatic improvements in water quality." But its focus is on "point sources," like pollution from factories. "It has less teeth when it comes to non-point sources, or in other words, runoff from urban spaces as well as farmland spaces."

(A few days after the Lyceum, the Supreme Court weakened the Clean Water Act.) 

Matthew Miller, Lyceum founder, introduces the panel members.Miller says that the Graphic Packaging Town Hall showed a community with "a lot of unity" in demanding the protection of people and the environment from pollution. 

But some changes seem "very out of our hands and out of our control," such as the global climate emergency. Miller points to the World Meteorological Organization's forecast that in the next five years, the globe could hit the temperature threshold needed to limit the destructive effects of climate change.

McLaughlin says it's a "challenge that we have... to connect our everyday, shorter-term activities with much-larger scale problems like climate change. 

"We have a hard time changing our everyday behavior because of something that is predicted at a large macro scale," he says. "I know how many miles I tend to put on my vehicle each week. It's a lot of miles." His personal carbon footprint "is not admirable," McLaughlin says. He understands the consequences of climate change, but making a personal change "is very difficult to do... very important, but it's very difficult."

Martin says it triggers "a paralyzing feeling." There's the motto, "Think globally, act locally, so think what you can do in your community to make a difference." 

Lyceum attendee submitting a questionLocally, "people have been showing up to meetings, demonstrating to the city that they cared," Martin says. He's not sure if it would make much difference if people "showed up at the White House," though citizens are likely to have more impact on local governments. 

Heasley says that being from a family "with mixed politics," and having students also with different political backgrounds, she's had to talk about the polarized issue of climate change very carefully in the past 20 years. She took care in classes to "take them very methodically" through the science, and "used safe words like 'global climate change.'" 

Now, "we don't hold hands anymore. It's a climate emergency.... and biodiversity is its twin emergency," she says. "We're allowed to frame this now not as a scientific question but as a moral imperative, now and into the future." 

"High on hope-ium"

In what's become a Kalamazoo Lyceum tradition, Miller asks the panel, "What gives you hope?" 

Martin says that people coming to a lyceum on nature gives him hope, and "shows that you care." A lot of people seem to care in Kalamazoo, he says, from the environmental community to the local government making some progress in policy. "You look for bad things, there's always going to be bad things," he says.

A list of Lyceum group discussion topics.McLaughlin says he's hopeful that the past 50 years have shown improvements in how we treat the environment. "I think there's more to come. I will also say that it's going to be messy." 

(An example of that messiness came later in an audience question about the Ford vehicle battery plant coming to Marshall. On one hand, "It's a step away from fossil fuel." On the other, "it has the potential..... to negatively impact the river.")

The plant will replace farmland, but McLaughlin says farmland pollution is another risk to the river, compared ”to wastewater which goes through a regulatory program and treatment that has much more teeth associated with it. The mega site will change the landscape of the community in many ways, so all I can say about it is, at this point, it's something that we're very much paying attention to.")

McLaughlin gives credit to activism — he owes his first job to Greenpeace, he says. He had just earned his master's at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay when the group came to protest PCB contamination of the Great Lakes, "right in front of the paper company that, ultimately a couple months later, posted a new position for an environmental scientist," he says — a position he took. 
"It's going to be messy, but it requires activism, it requires science, it requires policy, it requires all of the pieces," he says. "Participation is essential." 

Lyceum attendees in a group discussion.Heasley says with a laugh, "I'm high on hope-ium today!" That Saturday was packed with a fundraiser for Wild Ones, an Asylum Lake event, and the Lyceum. There's an "intense curiosity" about the environment, she says.

"People want to learn different ways of being on the land and in the water," from people who've gotten into birding during COVID, to landscape managers at WMU digging up and moving mature trees instead of cutting them down during construction.

Audience discussions, toasts

In the Lyceum tradition, the audience formed groups to discuss what they'd heard.

This journalist (in his 50s) chose a group whose average age looked less than middle-aged. The conversation landed on various points -— car-dependent culture, the tragedy of urban people never seeing natural spaces — but seemed to gravitate to a doom-versus-hope theme.

One younger man was disappointed in how there was "not enough call-to-action," from the panel. "Just ended on hope. And I was like, Urrgg! Can we get some substance, maybe?"

The third Kalamazoo Lyceum, held in Cooper's Glen Auditorium of the Kalamazoo Nature Center, focused on the theme of nature."How are we affected by the climate crisis?" another asks.

"It affects my decision to have children, for sure," a young woman replies.
"Very controversial, talking about 'we can't breed,'" another says with a laugh. 

"The future is kind of a scary, bleak place in my mind," the young woman says.

I bring up how I didn't expect to survive this long — my generation had nuclear war looming on the horizon. Now it's climate change.

To wrap up the Lyceum, as is tradition, each of the groups were asked to select a member to make a toast that they all agreed upon:

First toast: We should treat nature with "reverence" for "sacred spaces, and the way we think about this beautiful place that we inhabit." Also, we should "choose to not objectify nature, but consider ourselves all a part of that. Nature's not separate from us, but a part of us. We would not throw garbage on ourselves, why would we throw garbage out the window?"

Second (my group): "Although our efforts may be small, it's better than doing nothing at all." The challenge is to "move it into the community, because we need action, not just hope." 

Third: We need to develop "a culture of agency." People should invite others to dinner, and after dinner, all "go down to the zoning board meeting, and we're going to find out what's going down." Make it a social event, a part of one's culture. "Here's to agency!" Lately, it feels like, "We're all isolated! We have no power! Invite me over, I'd love a good dinner!"

Fourth: From a man who lived in Colorado, West Virginia, and now Kalamazoo. His two previous states were "extremely different examples" that were "despoiled by extractive industries." One recovered, and one hasn't. "A lot of good things going on in Kalamazoo, and a lot of beautiful places, but it is perhaps teetering on the edge and could go in either direction. It's up to all of us to decide which direction to go." 

To read earlier Southwest Michigan Second Wave stories on the first two Lyceums, please see these links: on local media and Kalamazoo culture.

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Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.