Changes to our world – and to our environment – have been a matter of course throughout history. But knowing that offers only limited comfort to Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator Mike VanBuren:


Changes to our world – and to our environment – have been a matter of course throughout history. But that knowledge only offers limited comfort to Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator Mike VanBuren.

Many years ago, when I was a rookie newspaperman working in northern Michigan, I often drove from my home in Mancelona to Whitefish Point on Lake Superior.

Whitefish Point was a glorious place to visit – particularly during the spring and fall, when raptors, waterfowl and songbirds were migrating through the Great Lakes region. Hundreds of thousands of birds funnel through the Point each year, thanks to land and water features that create a natural flight corridor.

I enjoyed going there to walk the beaches, watch the birds and see the giant freighters pass by on their way to and from the busy locks at Sault Ste. Marie.

Whitefish Point was a peaceful place in those days. And I was often alone, as I stood on the shore with my face against the invigorating Superior winds.

But something unsettling has occurred in the two decades since I made those pilgrimages. The Point has been discovered by large flocks of tourists. And the narrow road that reaches north from Paradise is sometimes clogged with cars, SUV’s and tour buses.

I returned to the Point recently, hoping to find the same peace and serenity I’d enjoyed there as a young man. I was pleased to discover that the old lighthouse – first lit in 1849 – had been carefully restored, along with a handful of whitewashed outbuildings.

That would have been enough for me.

But developers apparently thought the Point needed something more to attract visitors. They built a new facility to house the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, along with a large gift shop – complete with meeting space and flush toilets. Wooden walkways had also been laid across the sandy dunes to allow greater access to the surrounding forest and beach.

I didn’t see many birds that day, although the folks at the tiny Whitefish Point Observatory could probably have told me where they were. I did see a lot of people, though.

“All things must change to something new – to something strange,” said Longfellow.

You’d think I’d be used to it by now – that I’d no longer be surprised by change. But I am. It always leaves me feeling a bit disoriented.

In my more lucid moments, I know the Great Lakes region will continue to evolve. And I know I’m as much a part of this process as real estate developers and gift shop proprietors.

Some change is even good – although the definition of “good” varies from person to person. Life itself is an uncertain migration – with constant shifts in our needs, attitudes and relationships to the outdoors.

I think it has always been that way.

As I retreated that day from the Point and drove south toward the Mackinaw Bridge, I thought about the Native Americans who lived beside Lake Superior long ago. Like me, they probably watched earlier generations of hawks, eagles and owls cross Whitefish Bay – and marveled at their beauty and grace.

I can imagine their ghosts, skirting the shores of the bay in birch bark canoes on cool moonlit nights – searching for some familiar landmark that will lead them home.

Perhaps one day mine will do the same.

***Mike VanBuren is an environmental writer who lives near Richland, Michigan. ***

Campaigning for Farmer Safety

Farming is one of the most dangerous occupations. Every year, thousand of farmers are seriously injured in the Great Lakes region, often because of carelessness or fatigue. And as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris Lehman reports, sometimes farm work turns deadly:


Farming is one of the most dangerous occupations. Every year, thousand of farmers are seriously injured in the Great Lakes Region, often because of carelessness or fatigue. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris Lehman reports, sometimes farm work turns deadly.

“For any farmer listening, it makes me feel really dumb to do what I did”

What Illinois State Representative Dave Winters did was attempt to clean up a grain bin with his hands, instead of a broom. A slow-moving auger caught his glove on a wintry day last year and before he knew it, Winters was missing most of his little finger on his left hand.

“Any farmer is aware of the dangers of augers, and I certainly was. I was just careless, tired and not thinking”

When he’s not in the state capital of Springfield, the 49-year-old Winters grows corn, soybeans, and prairie grasses on his farm. After the accident, Winters decided to use his position as a public official to spread the word about farm safety. He says working alone, like he was, greatly increases a farmer’s risk.

“And you try to reach too far, you try to do things that you need help doing but there’s nobody available, so you get yourself into dangerous situations. The other problem is that if something does happen, in some instances farmers have lost their lives or have been severely injured because there wasn’t anybody there to turn off the equipment or to get help immediately”

Most family farms are too small to fall under federal occupational regulations that require a minimum of safety precautions. So sometimes, the simplest of safety measures may be overlooked. And that plus the presence of powerful machinery can make for a very dangerous work environment. Each year more than 700 farm-related deaths occur nationwide as well as tens of thousands of injuries requiring medical attention. These accidents cost farmers billions of dollars a year in medical bills and lost productivity.

The largest cause of farm deaths is tractor rollovers, and nearly two-thirds of tractor deaths involve people over the age of 60. University of Illinois Farm Safety Specialist Bob Aherin says this is probably due to slower reflexes among older farmers and their tendency to use outdated equipment. Most new farm implements offer greater protection to users, and Aherin says those safeguards have contributed to a general decline in farm deaths over the past twenty years. One area of particular concern on farms is children. Most farmers live and work in the same environment, and Aherin says it’s not unusual to have kids around.

“They’re either out doing work sometimes before they’re ready to some things and they are not prepared both physically, but more often it’s because they’re not old enough, they don’t have the mental processing skills to do some of the activities we ask them to do.”

The 1989 death of Iowa teenager Shaun Peterson in a farming accident led to the creation of a support group bearing his name. The Sharing Help Awareness United Network provides counseling to farm families who have lost a loved one of any age. Board member Kenneth Thu is a Northern Illinois University anthropology professor. He says farm accidents are especially tough on a family because the tragedy usually occurs very close to home . . . and that means they can’t get away from it. Even a serious injury can lead to a significant loss of income, and a lack of health insurance can be catastrophic. The result can be severe depression, and Thu says it’s sometimes tough to get help because many mental health professionals simply don’t understand the needs of rural farm families.

“Not recognizing the kind of living and work-structure that they live in. The kinds of stresses and strains they feel, particularly these days with so many farming couples working off the farm, the fact that the kinds of social networks that used to exist in rural areas are dwindling away quickly. And so people are often-times more isolated then they used to be”

And though it may be a stereotype, Thu says most farmers think they don’t need any help.

“Getting support services, counseling services to farmers is probably more difficult than providing those same services to people who live in urban settings, because there’s more of a reluctance for rural dwellers, particularly farmers, to get those kinds of services. They think of themselves as more rugged, more independent. So they’re less prone to access support services”

Even with a decline in farm deaths nationwide, those support services will continue to be needed. Farming trails only underground mining as the second deadliest occupation in the United States. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Chris Lehman.

Shining Light on Women Astronomers

  • Matt Linke, the creator of "Women in Astronomy: A History" in the University of Michigan's Exhibit Museum planetarium.

Astronomy historically has been dominated by men, but women have left their mark over the years. A new planetarium show is trying to shine a little light on advances in astronomy that were made by women. And it could be coming soon to a planetarium near you. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tamar Charney reports:

Appreciating the Night Sky

The invention of electric lights at the end of the 19th Century ended the ancient tyranny of darkness over our lives. Turning on the lights at night has allowed us to make every hour count. But while nighttime lighting has given us unprecedented security and uncountable opportunities, we may be reaching the point where we have too much of a good thing. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Ed Janus reports on two people involved in an international effort to turn the lights down a little and take back the night: