Most of the time I receive wonderful unsolicited feedback about the dune from people who feel their lives are enriched, their days made brighter, that the dune gives them a destination for bird watching, a spot for photography or a place for deep contemplation and spiritual transitions. Many individuals report they pick up trash regularly, walk by daily, are curious about what is in bloom, and admire the dragonflies. Others are amazed by the variety of life, the disjunct plants (cactus anyone?) the changes from year to year, if not week to week. Thousands have volunteered (Yes, I have counted!)
There are various reasons that a few people don’t react well to the dune. Mostly, negative responses result from a different aesthetic, a different notion of what a beach is, wrapped up with memories of how this beach used to be. At one time, there was lawn grass on level ground that extended to the sidewalk that divides the grass from the beach. The beach was sandy and flat and appeared sterile (although of course it wasn’t.) The entire beach was maintained then, as the “conventional” areas of Loyola Beach still are today, by a beach “sanitizer”, a machine that is driven along the beach and sifts the sand to get rid of trash, cigarette butts, etc. It also flattens the sand and removes rocks. Flat broad beaches are naturally created by tides. This creates a beach that matches our expectations from TV or the movies or childhood vacations, big broad oceanfront beaches that are swept by tides every day.
We do not have tides on the Great Lakes (technically we do, but they are only 2-3 inches and not noticeable). Great Lakes beaches can be broad, but not on our side of Lake Michigan. The littoral drift brings sand south along the west side of the Lake (Wisconsin and Illinois) and up the east side, depositing sand on the beaches of Indiana and Michigan. That is why the dunes in Indiana and Michigan are so tall and the ones in Illinois are not. It also means that there are not many natural beaches on this side of Lake Michigan. In order to create wider beaches, many municipalities as well as private land owners, put out piers or groins to trap this sand before it can make its way around to the other side of the Lake. Loyola Park has a pier, steel sheet piling, and several concrete groins. You can see from the aerial photo of 1937 (seen above) that we have gone from no sand to a good amount of sandy beach. Now part of that is due to the drop in Lake Michigan levels since then. But part of it is also that the groins have performed as intended. You can also see the development of the tamer aesthetic when flat lawn grass abuts a sidewalk with water on the other side.
Great Lakes shorelines are not naturally like that. There are no big runs of sand for miles and miles. There are undulating drifts of plants that grow down to the water and create pockets of hidden beaches. There are back dunes vegetated like prairies or savannahs. There are massive food-creating segments that have given us the blueberry and frog legs. To celebrate the natural Great Lakes shore is a much more intimate, subtle, private experience. Although the classic ocean-shore experience of rows of people laying on blankets in the sun can be artificially recreated, Great Lakes shore-goers instinctively don’t choose that. They choose the hidden spots behind dune grass or surrounded on three sides by vegetation and the fourth side opens to water. They run down to the water and retreat under trees to protect themselves from the blazing sun.
It sometimes takes a while for aesthetics to develop or change. A great part of that change is education. Education can be in form of familiarity, it can be intellectualized, we can learn what function is being performed and how we all fit together. It can also be true that we are just happier near a bit of wildness.