Pilgrim at Flat Iron Lake

The 'gift of place' informs alumna's writing

by Gayle Boss
Fall 2010

Every day Carol Vanden Bosch Rottman ’60 walks another leg of her pilgrimage. Her destination isn’t a place travel guides designate as holy. Nonetheless, she writes, “Every step opens me to the possibility of an encounter with God.”

Her pilgrim’s destination is a mailbox at the end of a quarter-mile-long driveway that begins at her house on the edge of Flat Iron Lake. Rottman’s daily journey takes her down that driveway through 17 acres of restored prairie bordered by deciduous woods 20 miles north and east of Calvin’s campus.

In All Nature Sings: A Spiritual Journey of Place she has written her own kind of travel guide to a holy site—the land that she and her husband, Fritz ’59, have called home since 1999—including how it has shaped the traveler.

In excerpts from our conversation and her book, Rottman tells a few highlights of her journey.

From the very moment we moved from Cleveland to this land I felt so terribly much at home. That’s why I call the book ‘a spiritual journey of place.’ Here I was, plopped down where I never expected to be, and I found a peacefulness about it, a sense that this was a place I needed to be.

We had always talked about retiring to Colorado, where I was raised. We love the mountains. But when we realized that all our kids were going to settle near Grand Rapids, we started looking for property here.

I remember the summer we moved temporarily to Ann Arbor from Cleveland so my husband could get radiation treatments for prostate cancer. One night we took a slow walk alongside the Huron River and came across the sign “Prairie Restoration.”

“If I survive, that’s what I want to do!” he insisted in his weakened state. Fritz quietly began to research just what it would take to reclaim the prairie on land somewhere in Michigan.

When he set out to learn how to do prairie restoration, I set out to learn a new kind of writing. I took continuing education classes in Cleveland, and I went repeatedly to the Iowa Summer Writers’ Workshop. That was very important for me—to start regarding myself as a creative writer, rather than thinking of writing as work or a pastime. It’s not a pastime. It’s something I have to do for my soul.

To say that I was unprepared for this gift of place is painfully true—I couldn’t even imagine a use for it … I had to start at the beginning, like a child, seeing, hearing and sensing the world around me as though for the first time—which it often was. … Curiosity was my saving grace.

I knew when we moved here that I would be writing, primarily. But I had no idea I would write about place. I would take this walk to the mailbox and look around and invariably go to my journals and jot things down. I realized I was totally fascinated. The place was becoming the subject instead of just the background.

A sea of white greets me, and because of a gentle breeze that sea is filled with breakers so thick there is no discernible space between them. The new white sea fills the troublesome prairie plot that has dogged us for years. … Who are these new tenants? Thousands of fleabane.

At some point I became the ‘invasive spotter.’ When we bought the land it had been planted in corn and soybeans for years. To restore it to its native state, first we had to break up the soil, then plant it with a mixture of native prairie grasses and wildflowers. But when the new seeds tried to take hold, invasive weeds that had thrived alongside the corn for years asserted themselves and defended their territory. It was a cosmic battle! It still is, even though the prairie is now established.

So I’m the sentry, watching for invasives as I walk the driveway every day. The ones I spot, I pull. It’s tedious, but I get fired up about getting rid of them. They’re bright and pretty, but you know they’re going to crowd out the native plants. To get rid of a lot of invasives at once, we burn a third of the land every year. The burn, we’ve learned, is vital.

[The burn crew] began by torching a perimeter band and then quickly extinguishing it as a firebreak. Moving into the wind, they turned and set ablaze the next wider band. The fire leaped dramatically, higher than a three-story building, and then smoldered into dense smoke. … In the weeks that followed I averted my eyes from that awful, singed earth on the lakeside of the driveway, trying to imagine its promised renaissance.

You see things grow up out of total nothingness after a burn. Life comes up through. But then you also see those things die. The life lesson is inescapable. That’s why I couldn’t think of this as a book only about nature. I’m at the point in my life when I’m trying to make sense of where I’ve been, why God placed me here and what’s yet to come. So the book is also about that spiritual journey.

Before I began to fully embrace my life here on the prairie, the mountains seemed to be the only place to find God. Today I know that God sings to me every day right here, through nature and grace. The ecological implication is clear: Wherever God speaks is sacred ground.

This book is a for-instance of what any person can do in their own places of the heart. My hope is that readers will walk with me wherever they are, appreciating not only the beauty at hand, but everything—people, work, ideas—that has the possibility of feeding them.

Gayle Boss is a freelance writer living in Grand Rapids, Mich.