Tom Springer’s lifetime journey through the natural and spiritual worlds

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Tom Springer’s new book, “The Star in the Sycamore,” was 12 years in the making, but it was worth the wait. It’s been a long time in writer years since Springer’s first book, “Looking for Hickories: The Forgotten Wildness of the Rural Midwest,” introduced his views on the natural world.

Springer said his new book was delayed by life. There was a new job and raising a family, he told City Pulse from his home base of Three Rivers, where he has lived with his family lived for decades.

“I’ve always been a proponent of what I call the wild-nearby. We tend to compartmentalize nature. There’s the Upper Peninsula, the Redwoods and Yosemite,” he said rather than exploring nature in one’s back yard.

Springer said nature came to the forefront during the coronavirus shutdown.

“It really hit home for me during the shutdown. The machines went silent, and we were shown how resilient nature is. People saw the Himalayas for the first time,” he said.

Also, he points out how wildlife began to creep back into urban environments.

“Everything from shutting down streets to encourage outdoor dining to installation of bike lanes — the shutdown really shook up our consciousness. Not all changes will stay the same, but we may not go back to the way were,” Springer said.

In his 36 essays, he helps readers contemplate the seasons in ways they may not have thought of before. Springer, by intent, doesn’t apply the rigor of winter, spring, summer and fall in a traditional way. He looks more to nature for example to tell us when summer arrives. For example, summer starts for him when the wild strawberries ripen.

As he recalls his days of yore, which he says felt like “Lord of the Flies,” he sees it differently as a 60-year-old.

“In the span of two generations, that childhood knowledge and interest in the wild nearby has fallen off markedly.”

Parents and grandparents worry about this. One solution may be to read books like Springer’s or Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac,” and then begin trekking to nearby nature preserves or into one’s backyard.

Springer also realizes that things of his childhood have changed dramatically. In his essay, “Blackberry Mornings to Goldenrod Afternoons,” he writes of the nostalgic summer days as a child on the Portage River at the Boy’s Dam. Returning to the same area as an adult, he writes: “I realized what was something more existential. There were no boys (or girls) at the Boy’s Dam.”

I asked Springer what his favorite essay may be. He didn’t hesitate to point out one of his last essays,  “From War to the Woods,” which is based on a November business flight when he sits next to a combat veteran returning home to Michigan. The wizened combat veteran on a 15-day leave from Afghanistan is still juiced from combat, talking about battles in staccato sentences.

Springer writes how he asks if he’s going deer hunting; the soldier tells him he’ll be going bow hunting. “I don’t want to touch a gun while I’m home.”

The conversation moves onto a mutual appreciation of Michigan’s Northwoods. Springer writes: “You could almost hear the whir and rustle of white pines creep back into his vocabulary.”

This particular essay is not only moving, it’s almost a mystical experience that Springer was chosen to sit next to this veteran. You’ll have to read the essay to learn why.

Springer also writes about a new generation of those who seek solace and healing within nature in his essay, “Gut Checked: The Natural Redemption of Lisa Rose.”

Springer began writing about Lisa Rose Starner nearly a decade ago, after taking a foraging class from her. She’s written “Foraging in Michigan,” and Springer’s essay has captured her absolute love of nature and its healing properties or dangers, like when she cautions Springer against using mullein for toilet paper. She tells him, “Don’t ever use that for TP. See those little hairs on the leaf. Those are like fiberglass.” But then she proceeds to tell him about the plant’s positive characteristics, it’s a “quick picker-upper” when it’s is taken orally in a drink and filtered.

Springer beautifully tells the story of Starner from her successful running of a nonprofit to painful setbacks to her renewal through the natural world. It’s one of the many inspirational stories that define his new book.

Not all of Springer’s stories are about finding a new life in the natural world. The vast majority center on enjoying the natural world and its many mysteries.

For those who want to follow his path, he has some advice for modern-day “trampers.”

“Stay close to home; do what appeals to you naturally and don’t think you have to be an expert; learn slowly by identifying trees and birds,” he said.

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