What are we hurting when we take something from nature home?

WHEN THE WORLD WAS BELIEVED flat, this place may have seemed like its end. No bridge or boat ventures north. No light appears on a distant shore. The beach is all waves and rocks. They tumble over each other in a tango that began eons ago, before there was anyone to name a thing round or flat, wood or stone, yours or mine.

Now there is.

The beach sits on the north end of Washington Island. The island sits at the very tip of Door County, a Wisconsin peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan and that people sometimes describe by holding up their left hand and moving their thumb slightly away from the other fingers: the thumb peninsula.

About a quarter mile long, covered in smooth white and grey stones, the beach has no sand. The stones range in size from a few ounces to a few pounds, but most are weighted just right to fit happily in my hand and still provide some heft. They are like crane eggs. They are what calm would feel like to hold.

Residents are worried that the beach is slowly disappearing, carried home in people’s pockets.

“Once the rock is in their hand, it’s too late; we’ve lost the battle,” says a Washington Island resident. He is one of about a dozen people at a Parks Committee meeting concerning the preservation of Schoolhouse Beach. It is fall 2018 and I am spending a few months here as a writer-in-residence. I have been asked to cover town meetings for the local paper, the Washington Island Observer. We sit in a small, beige room with florescent lights and blue carpet in the community center, which also houses the library, the town office, the gym for grades K-12, and the medical center. Residents are worried that the beach is slowly disappearing, carried home in people’s pockets. The forum is intended to solicit ideas about how to preserve it.

At the meeting, a member of the Parks Committee shows me a postcard of the beach circa 1965. It is the first time I understand what all the fuss is about. The beach is piled high with stones, which stretch away from the water at least 30 feet into the cedar forest that lines the harbor. In its current state, the beach appears to be about two-thirds the size.

“We’ve been through this all before,” an islander at the meeting says, defeated. She brings out a binder full of meeting notes, communications, and images from the late 1990s when she spearheaded a group intent on protecting the beach. The group initiated a successful effort to put up signs that told the beach’s geological history and implored tourists not to take the stones. The town even created an ordinance making it illegal to take the rocks, punishable by a $250 fine. But the measures did not work well enough. When asked why the issue was resurfacing now, committee members say that the kleptomania is only getting worse. “People are acting less civilly,” committee chair Elizabeth Holmes says.

The island has a year-round population of about 700 people, which more than doubles in the summer when Chicago and Milwaukee families come to their vacation homes. It is both a small, rural town and a tourist destination. It is a place where families have lived for generations and a place where people from Chicago retire. It wouldn’t be surprising to have a far-left former sociology professor and a young man who has lived his entire life on the island work together on the town board to solve local problems.

But the real traffic on the island is day visitors. On a summer weekend, the ferry line carries more than 1,200 cars and their passengers back and forth over the six-mile passage between the island and the mainland. And one of the primary things visitors go to see is Schoolhouse Beach — so named for the school that once stood near it.

At the meeting, people throw out ideas: Can someone stand guard? Paying someone would be too expensive; the island can only afford two police officers as it is. Surely there are community members who would volunteer. But they have no authority to enforce the rules and there is concern for their safety. Earlier in the summer, while visiting the beach, an islander saw a man walking off with the local treasure. She went up to him and said that was against the law. He disregarded her warning and instead lobbed a rock at her, hitting her in the head.

Like so many places that rely on visitors to buoy the economy, people on Washington Island want to lure tourists here but also lament their impact. Now, thanks partly to a few features in Seasons 15 and 16 of the HGTV show Island Life, which ran in 2019, tourism on Washington Island is hitting all-time highs. According to the ferry line, the last few summers have been the busiest they’ve ever had, and they don’t expect it to slow down. At the meeting, a representative from the ferry says that they regularly confiscate rocks from people as they board for the return trip. He says they’ve pulled bags and buckets of rocks out of trunks — sometimes people are purposely hiding them, and sometimes they don’t seem to know what they’ve done.

TOURISTS OFTEN ENTER A PLACE AS CONSUMERS. In many ways, a vacation is about spending time and money in exchange for being taken off and transported. This can lead to a sense of entitlement: to services and goods and conveniences. But it’s hard to be a consumer on Washington Island. There is one grocery store: Mann’s Food Store. And one general store: Mann’s Mercantile. There are a few seasonal gift shops and a bookstore. In the summer, an old house becomes a thrift store: The Twice Around. Its limited hours mean that people plan trips to the store days in advance.

illustration of a beach

Because goods get to the island only by ferry, large items such as machinery and couches are hard to cart over. Once they arrive, it is unlikely they will leave. The Twice Around is only part of the second-hand sharing culture. A website called Island Rummage is a space for people to post things they need (used egg cartons, a lawn mower) and things they no longer need (a crib, an apple press) for others to claim. Even the dump is officially called The Island Exchange. Things that might still be useful are left off to the side. Although there are many environmentally conscious people on the island, this isn’t really about recycling and reusing. It is about practicality. The nearest big box store is over an hour away. If residents are going “off island,” they take requests: “I’m going off island on Monday, do you need anything?” This is a place where immediate gratification can be hard to achieve.

Perhaps that’s why those beach stones — a free souvenir and a bit of the island beauty in one neat little package — seem so attractive to many visitors.

ON THE ISLAND, IT IS OFTEN SAID that Schoolhouse Beach is one of only five beaches like it in the world. This phrase appears in the local brochure, on signs at the beach, and in a number of other locations where the beach is celebrated. That fact turns out to be hard to verify. No one seems to know where the claim originated.

Washington Island is part of the Niagara Escarpment, a geological phenomenon millions of years in the making. An escarpment is a long cliff or slope, and the Niagara Escarpment is a line of cliffs that sweep all the way from New York up into Canada and then down through Wisconsin. It is the most prominent escarpment in the Great Lakes Basin, created as a result of erosion. Solid dolomitic limestone remained as geological events eroded softer rock like shale, leaving the escarpment to tower above what we now call the Great Lakes, but what was, during the cliffs’ long formation, a tropical sea.

From Bowyer Bluff, a point on the Niagara Escarpment that sits at the mouth of the harbor that contains Schoolhouse Beach, the coveted stones first fell. As part of the Bluff collapsed, the sedimentary rock fell into the water where it tumbled with the waves until it eventually formed smooth, round stones. The stones small enough to be carried by the energy of the waves moved towards the harbor shore, creating the general uniformity of the beach. This process is still occurring, although the amount of rock that erodes from the cliff and falls is considerably less than at certain times throughout its geological past.

When I ask John Luczaj, professor of geoscience at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, if the beach is really one of only five of its kind, he dismisses it out of hand. He tells me he can take me to many rock beaches along the Great Lakes. I wonder aloud if perhaps the unique quality has to do with the kind of stone or how the beach was formed? He tells me that the stones are made of limestone turned dolomite and, although he wrote his dissertation on dolomite, it is a pretty boring rock. Not unusual. “For us the Niagara Escarpment is beautiful. It defines our shoreline and affects our culture. But it is not a unique feature in the world,” he says.

Could it be that because Schoolhouse Beach is Washington Island’s to love and protect, its singularity has been overemphasized? Professor Luczaj says it is the only place in Wisconsin with a local ordinance prohibiting rock collecting, as far as he knows. State and national parks have laws against collecting items, but a city park usually does not.

He does concede that it is likely people are taking the rocks at a greater rate than they can be naturally replaced. However, he points out that depending on the water level, the beach might look much bigger or smaller. Years where the water is high, the beach will shrink. For the first time, I wonder how many stones are actually being taken each year. Hundreds? Thousands? The beach has changed; humans are contributing to it. But like so many things about our shifting environment, it is hard to make definitive statements.

Beyond necessity, why do we covet anything? Why do we pick a flower? Why do we cage a tiger?

For a geologist, he is surprisingly perplexed by why people want the rocks. “The rock looks pretty in the water. But then you get it home and it dries out and starts to stink. What do you do with it?” he says.

Beyond necessity, why do we covet anything? Why do we pick a flower? Why do we cage a tiger?

When I make a post in a Facebook Group for amateur rock collectors asking what drives them to collect rocks, the most common answer is that it is an opportunity to get out into nature. The collecting is just a part of the walking and hiking. People talk about how they took up the hobby for their mental health. How being on the beach or in the woods makes them feel alive and if they find a pretty rock, all the better. Others note that it is a way to spend time with and connect to their children or grandparents. People respond by saying they are overwhelmed and humbled by the thought of holding something in their hand that is thousands or millions of years old.

Many of the collectors admit it can eventually become an obsession. Some take buckets with them when they go out so they can collect large hauls. People send photos of their houses filled with rocks: in bowls and on windowsills and in display cabinets. Some are labeled with where they were found. Some are stuffed into gallon, plastic storage bags.

Rock collector Kristin Sterkenburg says there was a time in her collecting when she would have ignored the sign at Schoolhouse Beach and just taken a rock; now she says she wouldn’t. In areas where rocks are abundant she says, “What are we hurting by taking some home?” The answer in most cases is nothing. As far as obsessions go, it’s a good one. But there is a point where reverence becomes irreverence. There is a point where the hurting begins, where collecting can leave its mark. Carting away stones can contribute to erosion, for example. It can also disturb habitat for birds, invertebrates, and other animals. “Large hauls” can change the mineral and nutrient composition of a habitat, which can impact the balance of an ecosystem.

Washington Island is not the only place that is worried about the depletion of its rocks. In Massachusetts, the costal town of Westport implemented a fine for taking rocks from the town beaches. These rocks are also round and smooth and similar in size to the ones on Schoolhouse Beach. Landscapers were taking loads of the rocks and selling them. In a report for the Channel 10 news, Beach Committee Vice Chair Sean Leach said, “Years ago, people brought their kids and grandkids to the beach and picked up a couple of rocks and brought them home, but now it’s becoming a problem where people are taking large quantities.”

It echoes what I heard on Washington Island: People are acting less civilly.

A FEW MONTHS AFTER I LEFT THE ISLAND, I happened to visit the Petrified Forest in Arizona. At the entrance to the park, the booth attendant said, “We just ask that you don’t take any of the rocks.” Here, the rocks are the main attraction. There is the petrified wood — wood that has turned to stone — and rock towers called Hoodoos and gravel laid in colorful patterns by prehistoric rivers. “That’s a pretty good thing to ask,” I said. The woman and I smiled at each other and I felt in the know. Who were these people who thought they could just take things? Who thought that majesty millions of years in the making was for them and them alone?

Once a thing is possessed it is no longer about the possible; reality is always a little bit disappointing.

But then, I headed down a walking path by the Blue Mesa, a stunning mudstone formation striated in blue and purple and grey. Little bits of petrified wood sat along the edges of the trail, only a foot away. Signs instructed me to stay on the path. It was the middle of the day on a Friday in February and there were only a few other people around. I soon found myself alone. And once alone I wanted — urgently — to reach out and pick up a small segment of the wood. Using restraint, I left it be.

At the Petrified Forest, the legend goes that if you take a rock you will be cursed with bad luck. The book Bad Luck, Hot Rocks, edited by Ryan Thompson and Phil Orr, is filled with images of petrified wood people collected and the letters that accompanied the stones when people returned them to the park. A note dated 1982 reads, “This stone, with misfortune abounds!! To you … I am absolved.” Another says, “Please put this back so my husband can get well. I tried to keep him from taking it.” The park has named these missives Conscience Letters.

Can we make amends for the things we have taken? Can we put them back where they belong once we realize we have been cursed?

I recognized a similar reflex to the one I had on the path when I was in the park’s gift shop later looking at mugs, t-shirts, and little rock-like sculptures. I felt an urge to purchase something even though I knew it would mean nothing to me in a few weeks. Still I wanted a trifle to carry away. I was a tourist, a consumer. How could I leave this place without a piece of it coming with me? In the moment, acquiring something was full of possibility and pleasure. However, once a thing is possessed it is no longer about the possible; reality is always a little bit disappointing.

I LIKE TO IMAGINE WHAT THE ROCKS on Washington Island used to be. The Niagara Escarpment began to form about 440 million years ago, during the Ordovician Period. This was also about the time of the first mass extinction on the planet, when 86 percent of species died out. The dead animals mixed with sand and mud to become sedimentary rock. That rock turned into the Escarpment, which then became the stones on Schoolhouse Beach.

The stones on Schoolhouse Beach are inconspicuous time capsules composed of the things that have come and gone before us. Photo by Paula Carter.

These stones were once giant, lake-dwelling predators with clawed mouthparts, known as pterygotus. They were crinoids, like the marine animal known as the sea lily, with feather-like arms attached to a stalk. Some crinoid species are still living, but most are gone. They were halysites, tiny coral polyps linked together to form chains that created large structures on the seabed. The rocks were trilobites, animals a couple inches long that ruled the world 450 million years ago, in part due to their advanced, compound eyes, which each had up to 15,000 lenses. These little guys were so tough they survived the first mass extinction, but not the second. The stones are inconspicuous time capsules composed of the things that have come and gone before us. Which will eventually be our fate.

What are the stones now? They are bookends on someone’s shelf. They ring the garden. They are paperweights. Googly eyes have been glued on them, and they have been named Mildred. They are hiding in the shoebox in the closet.

Can you own a piece of Earth? Legally, yes. But Schoolhouse Beach and the Petrified Forest might disagree. They are owned by the eons.

“BY ONES AND TOWS, BY POCKETFUL, purse full, by box full, truck full, or truckload” the stones have disappeared, says the sign at Schoolhouse Beach, erected in the early 2000s when islanders were first concerned about theft.

At the Parks Committee meeting, the idea that gets the most traction is an educational campaign using the slogan “Help Save Our Beach.” (There is also a suggestion to host a “rock concert” to raise funds to add more security, which we all think is pretty clever.) The thought behind the campaign is that rather than scold or threaten people, islanders will try to get visitors to feel that they are a part of something, that they are doing good by not taking a stone.

But the committee runs into resistance from the town when they attempt to add yet another sign. They do put up a few donation boxes asking people to donate $1 “to contribute to the maintenance of this beautiful beach we all love to visit.” After a few months the donations are counted and they are dismal. The committee is disappointed and disheartened. Feeling unable to make any progress, several members quit. Eventually, new signage created by students at the Washington Island School, is added. The effect is still unclear.

A YEAR LATER, I VISITED SCHOOLHOUSE BEACH on a blustery Tuesday. It was the off-season and no one else was there. The beach didn’t notice. Looking north, the grey clouds were thick, obscuring the view. It was easy to imagine that just beyond the shore, the earth dropped away to nothing. The rocks clacked in the surf, doing what they have always done without any concern for my thoughts on their existence. It was the sound of an ancient clock marking time.

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