Please welcome today’s guest writer, Tim Van Deelen. Tim is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

We Midwesterners complain about the weather and I am especially insufferable in July. A cold weather phenotype, I am descendant of the North Sea low country. I smell winter-wet mud as perfume, the stuff of home. My native state is wool socks in my boots and a quilt pulled to my neck at the end of the day. Sirens’ songs call to my imagination across gray, cold-water horizons, wind-driven and streaked with foam stringers. White horses and walleye chop. Blowing leaves and then winter darkness and sun dogs at noon. Short days and a crystalline black sky as deep as the universe. The bite on my cheeks and toes. Snow and silence. Walk slowly if you need to, but don’t stop.

As a young guy, I suffered the steamy, searing onion and celery fields in July to make gas money. Ages before, the Grand River ran nearby these fields before glacial rebound redirected it. For ten thousand years, the river and then the captured wetlands supercharged the soil. For ten thousand years, the mineral soil was enriched with a yearly autumn rain of dead leaves and rank herbaceous plants that were compressed by uncountable snowfalls to decay in the languid summer heat. For ten thousand years, speckled alder and its microbial symbionts pumped atmospheric nitrogen into the soil. For ten thousand years, fungi and bacteria broke down the dead trees that blew over in majestic summer thunderstorms or died simply from living too long.

The muck fields of my hometown grew from wetland relics drained and planted to pay the mortgage. Tilling raised once sodden logs and the buried arrowheads. Scraped bare, that ancient mud bakes dry and brittle in the merciless July sun. Working on that mud, I remember sweat in my eyes, sweat beading on my shins, bleeding through my jeans. I remember thunderheads in the evening and shiny streets under the streetlights. Water in the soil, water in the air, water pulsing through it all.

As much as I love the Great Lakes region, July was always an endurance. Sticky sweat, salt stains on my old ball cap, sunburn on my neck. But July is also the opulent nadir. Plants busting with chlorophyll, clouds of mosquitoes. Midges dancing in columns at the waters’ edge. Bird song and rowdy riots of prairie plants and understory herbs wherever the light goes. Deer in the wetness of the morning. Cabbage butterflies and lighting bugs in the tall grass. Frogs. The water under my boat is a green soup of algae and micro-animals. The hull is covered in a biofilm—the biologist’s pedestrian name for whole ecosystems compressed in time and space. Our temperate zone rhythms are baked-in by evolution. Winter is coming if still far off. For most of my kin, July is the time to make hay—even if I want to hide somewhere cool and green and shady.

But since I now do my work largely in the air-conditioning, I am softening. Perhaps it’s age, perhaps it’s simply resignation. In July, I give in to the sleepy warmth. I sweat and measure my steps. In July, the landscape exhales its extravagance. Its chest heaves with the exertion of laying in stores for the lean winter. Its humid breath lies in the low areas and coats all the stems in the relative cool of the morning. You breathe it in. You taste its richness. It seeps into you and you are enveloped in its intimacy as surely as if you were lying forehead to forehead under a blanket of morning fog.

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 

11 Comments

  • Mary Huissen says:

    Beautiful – thank you

  • Linda Krol Brinks says:

    So very descriptive and well written! Thank you! My roots are the same as yours, but I was spared working in that muck! It brought back memories of when I was a teen and would sleep on our back patio to find some coolness at night before we knew the luxury of air conditioning much later in life.

  • Henry Ottens says:

    Thank you! When you’re done counting the large mammals you can head up the department of English at the U. and publish books of poetry on the side.

  • Cathy Smith says:

    Wonderful writing. A joy to read. And I learned a few things on the side. 🙂

  • Ria says:

    Love this – peaceful memories!

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Even before reaching your bio, I saw those glorious muck fields that traverse Hudsonville that have fascinated me for years. Their beauty, their longevity, the mysterious depths of fertility that still yields crops. You have filled in the blanks with poetic abandon. Thank you.

  • Henry Baron says:

    You inspire the reader with a beautiful blend of the scientist and artist – thank you!

  • Eunice Bossenbrook says:

    Wonderful, vivid writing. Food for the soul. Thank you.

  • Dave Tanis says:

    Thanks for jogging my memory! As I passed through the Hudsonville muck fields early this morning on my way to play golf, I noticed they were busy with a second planting of onion sets. And I recalled the dusty summer weeks in my youth topping onions by hand in the fine dust of those fertile fields. A day walking 18 holes in the warm July sun sure beats another row of onions dragging that crate behind me!

  • Joseph A Brinks says:

    Tim,
    Thank you for your fine, descriptive article. When I was young, July meant forking hay into a hot barn hayloft, later picking tomatoes in a hot Greenhouse, and still later working in a hot factory.
    Your former pastor,
    Joseph A. Brinks

  • Rick DeVries says:

    Beautiful! Thank you!

    Except the Hudsonville muck fields reminder. Spent July/August topping onions and made 10 cents a crate. A monster day was 120 crates. The blisters, cuts, sunburn would make you want to go back to school. The money? – used to buy school clothes if I remember correctly. But still fond memories.

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