"Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land" ~ Aldo Leopold
Conservation Officer Carl Vanderwall ~ November 1, 1973-April 17, 2016
Earth Day dawned cold, gray and damp this year. It was fitting to the melancholy I felt, because I knew what lay ahead. We were about to bury Carl VanderWall - Emmet County Conservation Officer and loving father of my two daughters' dear friends, Ahna and Noel. But Carl wasn't just leaving his daughters behind. He was also leaving two sons, Jaden and Noah, as well as his loving wife, Jennifer. Cancer took him from his family at age 42. My prayers for his healing of the past year were not answered in the way I wanted, and now I prayed for one last thing - sunshine.
It seemed fitting that this man who made a career of protecting wildlife and the environment be buried on Earth Day. I had hopes of a bright spring day to help everyone's gloom, but Friday April 22 was far from it. The weather this spring has paralleled the roller coaster ride that Carl and his family experienced in the last year as he was diagnosed with brain cancer. Prayers were answered. Doors were opened. Miracles happened. The cancer was gone without a trace. And then it returned. I don't know why God would take such a loving father, coach and dedicated CO from our Earth. I've given up pretending to have all the answers about faith. I know very little. Still, I believe.
It was the trucks that first struck me. The night before, we pulled into the visitation at Walloon Lake Community Church, and two black CO Silverados stood high on the grass bank before the church, flanking the parking lot entrance like silent statues, bearing testimony to the seriousness of this occasion. About eight more were neatly parked between them, down in the lot proper. Then I noticed the uniformed officers wearing the gray and green, but this time with white gloves, standing at every door to the church, and I thought to myself, "This is what it means to belong. This is what happens when you die in the arms of a brotherhood of protectors. Protectors of wild places, protectors of animals, and protectors of each other."
The ceremony and honor bestowed on Carl and his family by the men and women wearing the green and gray at the visitation was powerful, visceral, concrete. It was just a foretaste of what would come the next day at the funeral. In the midmorning gloom, I pulled in to the church to see what I can only describe as a legion of black Silverados. Over 120 conservation officers were on hand to pay tribute. During times of grief and stress, humor helps. I turned to Brian Shaw, a childhood friend of Carl's and said, "I just feel like I should be out poaching something." Without missing a beat, he responded, "Some people think free fishing weekend is yet to come, but today's the day."
The brotherhood of COs brought the grief to the surface that I was trying to hold down. Two of them stood at attention on either side of Carl's casket, and every 10 minutes two more marched down to replace them, silently saluting, measuring every step, every move, never leaving Carl alone. When the funeral began, the entire group marched in to the mournful but powerful notes of a Scottish piper, and they filled row after row after row. Carl's partner, Duane Budreau spoke. He spoke of the integrity of Carl and Carl's unwavering belief in right and wrong. He spoke of a man who had been arrested four times by Carl, but who still showed up last spring at Carl's benefit dinner in order to share his financial support for the very CO who arrested him. He spoke of losing a brother.
I saw many things that day that I will never forget. I saw my daughter, standing next to Ahna, comforting her with her hand on her back, moments before her father's casket was closed. I saw a young girl who tried to honor her coach by sharing that this was her first year in wrestling, and Coach VanderWall encouraged her with the words, "Every day you're improving." But her voice broke as did other young athletes who tried to speak words of love of their coach. I saw a funeral escort of black Silverados followed by Michigan state troopers, Petoskey city police, Odawa tribal police and members of the Emmet County sheriff's department. I saw a casket cover spray painted in 80s-style green leaf template camo. I saw 125 Michigan Conservation Officers standing in rows, at attention, on the lawn of Greenwood Cemetery to honor their friend and brother, Carl VanderWall. And I cried. Not for Carl, who is healed and rejoicing in the arms of his savior, Jesus Christ, but his children, his family, his friends, and his colleagues who now are all coping with the pain of losing someone they loved.
But I also saw the sun come out. It shone over Carl, his family and his friends. It shone over all the officers there to honor him. And there atop the hill overlooking Little Traverse Bay, amid the gulls soaring and the crows calling and the clouds floating by, amid all the promises of spring in northern Michigan, Carl VanderWall was laid to rest on Earth Day. Soon I will fish for browns and rainbows and brookies in the warm spring sunshine, but for now I'm content to remember a Conservation Officer and all he meant to the community who loved him.