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I’ve missed being north of the tension zone for a year and a half. Part of me never left northern Wisconsin, in the same way part of me still lives in the northern rockies, the upper peninsula, the loess plains of Illinois, and a nameless little farmland creek in Ottawa county.

Wisconsin’s tension zone is the floristic borderlands where the midcontinent hardwood biome subtly grades into the boreal biome to the north. Boreal forests are cold-hardy and more home to conifers that manage the twin constraints of prolonged cold and nutrient-stingy soils. Wisconsin sits on a lesser-known mixing of western and prairie plants and shade-loving easterners. An even subtler gradient – a biotic melting pot. This gentle landscape is home for all comers. Be a good neighbor. Kimmerer says to listen to the plants. Wisdom that.

North of the tension zone, black spruces claim the misty boggy lowlands. While maples and pines lay layer upon layer of riotous summer growth in the richer soils, black spruces mine the peat and doggedly add microscopic growth rings layer upon layer with no more photosynthetic tissue than a Mother’s Day bouquet. They are patient and persistent and as one moves further north, they are the last tree standing before the boreal forest gives itself up to tundra. Their presence here reminds us of the limits of ecology and latitude and is invitation to let imagination peer over the horizon.

Pastor Karen read an extended quotation on the virtue of finding rootedness on this enchanted planet the morning I left:

We all come to know our own lessons as they spring from the study of our households, our woodlands, our watching, our footprints, the trails of our kindred wild ones that cross our paths.
Our intelligent feet, our making hands, our listening ears.
Lynda Lynn Haupt, Rooted: Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature, and Spirit.

During a long windshield afternoon driving north and I found myself pondering the quote and re-rooting into a long-needed trip to what Wisconsinites affectionately know as “the Northwoods.” I used the need to check in on our elk crew, two grad students and an undergrad technician, as an excuse.

On a perfect summer morning, I got to live their experience. For our tech this was all new. Work and heat and mosquitoes and ticks and all that – sure. But then those enchanted moments. The perfect cool morning. The loon on the lake behind the cabin. The fawn she happened on. She said the dark forest was like a fantasy movie set. Light-points of enchantment that flicker and combine in your memory, we assemble and accumulate, and they spin together until they swirl in transcendence.

Isn’t that it? Isn’t that the challenge of the moment? Against the onslaught of extinction and climate crisis dysfunction? The need to dig in and sift the tactile riches though your fingers, to understand at least one discrete place well enough to fall in love? To be vulnerable to its loss, to having your heart broken for the holiness?

And then to rise up.

Back in the truck on the way to the next site, she worked the Bluetooth from her phone. Her music not mine, but then Sinatra in a nod to her home (Start spreading the news…) and then one of my favorite Springsteen songs, substantially older than she is. I looked her way and she didn’t even look up. Smiled though.

I began this essay sitting in a lovely hotel room in a tiny mom-n-pop hotel at the junction of two remote Wisconsin highways, reviewing the way the evening was winding down. Across the road, at the only tavern open on a Sunday evening, the solo barkeep fired up the broaster and served us up a meal of chicken and fries and deep-fried cheese curds despite having no cook. She earned her tip.

Boreal forest graces live in the fleeting warm-light green of evening. The red coat of summer slender deer glows proudly against the nearly neon backdrop of pulsing photosynthesis. Summer is young but should be ever like this. Rich in growth, rich in meaning. Close my eyes and let the insects reign. Close my sleepy mind and let the sultry air soothe and sigh. It smells like last winter’s pine needles.

And despite seventeen years doing wildlife research in Wisconsin, I’ve never seen a Wisconsin elk. No matter. Tonight, in a 40 min drive our elk researchers showed me two (which is not easy in our dense forests)! We watched them through our binoculars and in the morning, sampled their forage plants to learn a bit about their lives.

“…The trails of our kindred wild ones that cross our paths…” In the moment, there is nowhere else. In the moment, I am grateful for the energy and creativity of the students I get to work with. In the moment I am grateful for wild Wisconsin – for a place to park my demons when the summer sun is high and the Creator leaves footprints that the very earth holds on to — for as long as it can.

In the moment, our household. Our watching. Our listening ears.

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

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thanks again.

  • Thomas Boogaart says:

    ….the Creator leaves footprints that the very earth holds on to — for as long as it can.

    I have often thought that the people of Israel were conveying a similar notion of God’s presence in the created order in Genesis 3: …the Lord God walking in the Garden in the cool of the day. The garden for them was an emblem of the world in its coherence and fecundity, the world as God intended it to be, a world to be enjoyed, thus the walking in the evening. Given such an understanding of God’s presence, one would of course look for footprints.

  • Karl J Westerhof says:

    This is poetry, prayer, delight. Thank you! Now I can’t wait to get back to the shack in the UP. I know God lives in cities too, but being in your reflections for a few moments reminds me vividly that getting tuned in is often easier among trees than among buildings.

  • Gloria McCanna says:

    So rich. Thank you.

  • John A Rozeboom says:

    Thanks much for this beautiful instructive piece! Not northern Wisconsin, but 100 motorcycle miles on lovely Wisconsin 14 from Madison to LaCrescent allay the inevitable Interstate grind of my annual bike ride west.
    My Grandpa Ray hauled us kids “up north” in Minnesota with the false claim, “too far north for mosquitoes”. Feasts for the senses of woods and sky-blue waters, the walleyes and northern pike we caught and ate, the astonishing night light show of the Milky Way, made us forget his fib and the flat country corn, beans and oats of our southwestern Minnesota prairie home. Near home, north of Luverne, Minnesota, the bedrock Sioux quartz heaved up enough to make a bump on the land, the Blue Mound, overlooking parts of thee states, another tension zone where prairie grasses, flowers and cacti hold on in the sparse dirt and broken quartzite, where meadowlarks rule with a few magnificent, disinterested bison, and the prairie holds off every attempt to cover the earth here with yet more corn and beans.

  • Steve Van't Hof says:

    You’ve just described how I feel every time I step into my mid-Michigan wooded property with a longbow.

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