John Bates, bard of Manitowish Waters, led our GreenHouse students on a snow-shoe exploration of Raven Trail’s winter stories. After teaching them to speak chickadese (at least the language’s greeting), he guided them into their own wild hearts as the sun set over Lake Tomahawk.
Hanging out with the thoughtful naturalist and writer is always a treat – doubly so when one can watch him warm the imaginations of students forever preoccupied with assignments due on Monday and exams on the horizon. He brought along Wendell Berry, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Mary Oliver, and Kathleen Dean Moore to join the discussion.
I wrote that paragraph in the afterglow of last winter’s retreat at a UW-Madison field station in Northern Wisconsin. GreenHouse is an undergraduate learning community organized around the theme of sustainability. GreenHouse students live together in the same dorm and have dedicated classes and activities designed to engineer community within our otherwise monstrously large (40K) undergrad population.
Greenhousers have a green house on the roof and a garden plot and they grow and prepare their own food, as much as can be done on our big urban campus. The academic year forces them to pay it forward. They eat from the plantings of last year’s cohort. They plant for next year’s. They do service work in Madison and donate much fresh produce to local food pantries.
I am faculty director – a largely figurehead duty but apart from COVID restrictions, I would be hosting them on a deep-winter adventure in the Northwoods and absorbing their good vibes. I miss it.
Against the backdrop of this bleak winter, I am seeking refugia in a memory.
John explained the ecology of Wisconsin’s winter birds, the endurance trade-offs in their dilemma, whether to migrate to the Caribbean or to stay and turn one’s entire physiology to lasting the exquisite crystalline winter nights. He described the imperatives of five months of ice, and the untroubled resurrections of turtles. He spoke about the history of the cutover and waves of timber mining, fed into the maw of growing industries in Milwaukee and Chicago. He talked about fish metabolism, frozen frogs, and dark resiliencies under the ice. We live among the leavings, the graces of time and the stubbornness of life. Creator’s fingerprint.
I live among the cold scientific realities, but he teaches me things I remember. Entwining the ecologies and the stories does not diminish their mysteries. Those horizons expand as we approach them. Such is the stuff of everyday miracles in wild Wisconsin.
Greenhousers come from all points on the campus’s disciplinary map. The arts, the business school, engineers, scientists, some who have yet to be corralled. They unite over greenstick intuition that the common good and the good of the commons are selfsame urgencies.
They war on their carbon footprints, against boundaries of race and class, – individually, collectively. In a life-stage that often associates with cliques and factions, I saw a beautiful act of inclusion that I don’t know how to describe without potentially identifying the players. It was at the same time, casual and affirming and ostentatiously loving and I’ve filed it away for the next opportunity I get to tell someone how much I believe in young people.
They’re mostly freshmen. Their world, buried in soft snow at the moment, is fresh and new. They foster hope. They’re the stuff warbler poets and climate strikers. Seeds all over these woods are dormant, alive but wanting their chance. I want these to grow. Faith is knowing they will.
John throws the conversation over to me and I riff on cedar swamps and the ancient symbiosis of wolves and deer and bloody-snow dramas in the depth of winter. He is paying me a little tribute, given the research I’ve done, but I’m not the storyteller here.
The shadows lengthen and we shortcut across the bay on our way back. We stop to organize a race, running backwards, on snowshoes. Nobody escapes falling in deep in downy snow. Weightless flakes melt on our faces. Laughter all around. The ice groans like whale songs.
Back in the common room, we stoke the fire in the old stone fireplace and pass around a bag of cookies. He invites us into a circle and gives each person a slip of paper. A bit of poetry. A quotation. Even a Bible verse. Bits of grace are drawn from the hat. We read to each other and reflect, the afternoon sun is setting in the windows overlooking the lake but nobody wants to flip the lights on yet. The snowy horizon is an approaching fire in the trees.
“What does it mean to love a place?” he asked. I think I know but I was there to listen.