“Walk with me?” she asked. “Sure.” I said, happy to give my procrastination an alibi. I shut my lap-top and we drove down to Governor Nelson State Park, our home-turf park not seven miles from the end of our driveway. Her summer was ending, and she was wrapping up loose ends. But I was glad for it. Always glad for it.

I had planned to meet her in the gulf-coast mangroves last March but COVID-19 restrictions were accelerating as our springs were breaking and she changed her flight to arrive in Madison. We drove her home in the dark and she showered before hugging her mom and me. Six months ago. If there is any bright spot in this whole tragic pandemic, it’s been having her home again.

She was frustrated. Finishing her semester online, summer research done remotely. It breaks my heart to see her frustrated and she’s back in Boston now. Back with her friends. Back to start her senior year. A calculated risk. I understand it. I support it. I miss her.

If you stand with your back toward County M and face south, the rich prairie swallows up the park road, the mowed trails and all the waterfront development. If you turn your back on County M, a brief 300 or so years of history sloughs off and you get a vision of Dejope (Dejope, meaning “four lakes” is the Ho-Chunk people’s name for the region) during the 10,000 year interval between the retreat of the last glacier and manifest destiny.

This tiny landscape retains memory, bur oaks standing soldier-like on the crest where the prairie climbs the hill. Behind them are shaggy black cherries, a few odd maples, walnuts in the low areas, swamp white oaks and the gray corpses of elms and ashes that died in battle. The big trees were open-grown in their youth, legacies of prairie fires and pastures. Shadows of bison, elk in the savannas, German cows for a brief time. Bergemot, shooting stars, turkey-footed bluestem higher than a saddlehorn.

Time is fluid. Pandemic days become pandemic weeks and the summer ebbs away while we sift for answers. She has her classes over the horizon. I have mine across the lake. We walk on but our boundaries are indistinct. How old is this prairie? This woods? Who belongs here? Who is the traveler? Whose ancestors? Are they even meaningful questions? Such are our pretensions.

Now the understories are dark with the shadows of buckthorn invaders. Hill forest shadows conceal the conical burial mounds and the panther effigy. Ghosts formed of the very living forest soil. Is it our extinct eastern cougar or Mishibijiw (Mishibijiw is the mythological water panther for indigenous cultures in the Great Lakes region)? Does it matter that the storm clouds are building over the ancient effigies – that Lake Mendota shimmers through the trees? It does – if you chose to let it. But, having spoken its name, I will not be on the water today.

We walked here years ago when was little. A summer storm front was blowing out of the southwest and we went to watch the waves build. We climbed the hill to watch the craggy old oaks shake their fists at the churning sky. The Creator speaks in the whirlwind.

Walk with me and we’ll talk about it all.

Walk me in the tall grass again and talk to me of bees. Pull me from my pandemic cave. Free my imagination and keep an eye on the weather. The prairie collective breaths heavy air thick with pollen and flowers. The dark forest asks us to talk softly and ponder shadows. The ancient bur oaks and the panther effigy. Their history, our history, her history too. Thunderbirds roaring over the summer hills.

Walk with me again when time allows, but safe travels until then.

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. 

7 Comments

  • Thank you for taking me there today to savor the place and its deep history. I’m glad you are sharing your vision and gifts with students.

  • /svm says:

    Breathtaking…….

  • Tom Eggebeen says:

    What a delight to read … I was there with you … and sharing some of your anxiety for your daughter in Boston … thanks for sharing. Oh to have such eyes, to see the ghosts of life that preceded us, and the ears to hear their love in the wind.

  • Laurie Z says:

    Tim – Thanks for your writings – I have enjoyed them. We are from West Michigan and my daughter is a sophomore at UW-Madison leaning toward a Psych major but with a deep heart for the environment. I told her when the circumstances allow to come find your office wearing one of her Calvin College T-shirts. 🙂

    • Awesome! Tell her I’d love to meet her sometime. I likely won’t be on campus much this semester with the COVID-19 restrictions, but my office is in Russel Labs. Hope its a good experience for her.

  • Karen Ophoff says:

    A joy to read, Tim. Can’t believe you have a child in college–a senior! Your love of Creation and the Creator was already apparent when you were in elementary school. Blessings to you and to those with whom you are entrusted.

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