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Understanding a “Comfortable Wilderness”
At National Park sites such as Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, can we accept cultural landscapes as part of nature?
By Frank Edgerton Martin

When Americans think of national parks, they often envision sublime valleys, geysers, and mountain peaks. But in nearly all states and federal territories, the National Park Service (NPS) manages and interprets landscapes where human presence is part of the story.

Eric Macdonald

Such a landscape is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on North Manitou Island, 11 miles off Lake Michigan’s eastern shore. Here, the harsh conditions of Great Lakes weather and lake effects were tamed, through the century-long cultivation of orchards and the legacy of the genteel culture of summer cottage tourism, to create a “comfortable” wilderness.

The term “cultural landscape” was first defined in the 1920s by geographer Carl Sauer, who saw the natural landscape as a medium for the inevitable transformations of human settlement. Sleeping Bear Dunes had a natural environment of soils, climate, water, and dunes that attracted tourism, commercial fishing, and fruit growing. This ecology of microclimates, harbors, and soils served as a compelling lure and canvas for the human innovation and expression that ultimately grafted a cultural dimension to the island. North Manitou Island is unique in the richness of its combination of scenic and cultural resources.

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