Sorting by

Skip to main content

Dorn Creek is really a crummy little property. A couple of forties, a few belonging to the state of Wisconsin, a few to Dane County. Besieged here in the valuable real estate north of Madison where the predators prowl the gentle glacial hills with thoughts of “developing” them into parades of homes on streets with silly bucolic alliterative names that have no sense of place. The few farmers who still make it work here are no doubt planning to cash in when they’re done being tied to soils and seasons.

Here, a crummy little creek meanders through a broad flat floodplain of marsh hay and cattails. The geology is all out of time for the sleepy little stream, likely a long distant trace of a glacier. This crummy little floodplain likely wound up in public ownership because it was too wet for machinery and too flat to drain. Add a few scrubby forties and a gravel parking lot and there you have it. A bit of public peasant commons in the endangered farmland north of Wisconsin’s capitol. A precious and rare bit of green shading in the weathered Gazetteer you keep behind the seat.

I found it when looking for a place to hunt deer and turkeys. I walked the crummy little woodland patch, a weedy little tangle of box elders and willows. I picked my way to the lower end and found a riparian corridor of oaks meeting the muddy creek. Rock piles hinted that somebody tried to farm the upland long ago. A weathered shotgun shell casing, a few deer tracks in the mud. Enough cover to make it interesting.

It’s just off my commute. I cross Dorn Creek twice a day when I take the direct route to campus. It’s downstream of the capped-over landfill and the composting facility where earnest suburbanites drop their yard waste. There are turkeys reliably and cranes in the alfalfa fields bordering the marsh hay. I drove by the crummy little box elder woodland some years ago and found it chain-sawed into a stump field, the crooked stems stacked akilter, the tops and slash piled for burning.

I hurried home to go online and try to find out whom to complain to. “Here? Even here in this crummy little remnant, ya gotta cut down the trees and build something? “

Turns out Dorn Creek was to be first among a slate of creeks to be restored in the Yahara watershed, the chain of lakes that define Madison. The box elder patch was excavated into an enormous bath-tub shaped containment perched in the uplands above the water table. Dredges sucked up the “legacy sediments” from Dorn creek and pumped them into the containment where the water could drain away and sediments left behind, to be entombed in the uplands and planted over with native trees. Legacy sediments are the mucky aftermath of farm practices that pressed the soils with chemicals and bare soil tilling and erosion of the organics into the low areas. Those sediments sit in the upper creeks of the watershed as biological time bombs, washing into the Yahara chain with summer rains, causing overgrowths of harmful algae and plumes of persistent farm chemicals.

On Sunday, I biked by and watched them do a prescribed burn. They burned into the wind and it moved slowly. Fire is life to a prairie, pumping ash nutrients into the soil and holding the suffocating shrubs at bay. Biologists sift for faith in the ashes.

I walked that burn a few days later and found the weathered bones of a yearling doe. I also found a turkey carcass, fresh enough that it was not there during the Sunday burn. Carried in by a coyote? Eastern bluebirds in the fire-charred shrubs. Burrows of ground squirrels now exposed where they dug themselves out to survey that aftermath. Burnished beer cans by the parking lot. Within a week, the palest fragile tendrils of prairie grasses were emerging from the char. The reborn prairie lays its secrets bare.

I prowled the riparian oaks and was received by birdlife royalty. A hermit thrush, rose-breasted grosbeaks and red-headed woodpeckers. Flighty little wrens in the understory. Three species of sparrow. I stood in the warming sun under a fire-and-brimstone oriole and thought about sitting down and spending the day doing nothing more, and there – there in bullet-proof bur oak – the royal flame of a yellow warbler, perched in the gray branches and singing in the spring.

Fire and water sanctify here in this liminal place while the landscape succumbs to the press of bluegrass and fashionable homes. The smell of a prairie burn on my pant cuffs, glacial mud on my boots. Restoration ecology is easy enough to understand. Redemption ecology follows you home.

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. 


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    This is enough to make me weep. “But some will be saved through fire.”

  • Kay Hoitenga says:

    So poignant and yet redemptive!
    I so look forward to your entries!

  • Dale Cooper says:

    What beautiful gifts–your keen eye for nature and its Creator, and your facile ability to describe them–the Lord has given you, Tim. Thanks for using them so faithfully and well to bless others; among them, me.

  • James Schaap says:

    Love these walks in the wild with you. Thanks!

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    I think I’d enjoy going on a walk with you, Tim. Your description matches my various wanderings through the public land patches in my area – always wondering what is over the next hill, past the next slough, through the next thicket that will reveal a bit more of God’s creative will and sing his praise. Simple things. Profound things. Dirty things, yet uniquely pure in their own way.

Leave a Reply