Sorting by

Skip to main content

My Badgers played the Nittany Lions, the Big 10 opener, on Saturday. Classes started yesterday. Labor Day came on Monday with bratwurst on the backyard barbeque, beer in the cooler, and grad students. The academic life cycle begins again.

Last week, 40,000 undergraduate students moved in. This was the first weird weekend before classes and homework, when all is happily adrift, the staging of a busy fall. Pandemic thunder in the distance. Packs of students roam the familiar campus. Unfamiliar to many of them but it’s theirs now too.

Welcome. You belong here. Make it your own (but wear your mask).

I got up early to get to the Madison Area Farmers Market before the crowds. Capitol square and campus face each other from opposite ends of State Street, the funky downtown. There is so much goodness here. Madison is in the orbit of a hub of organic farmers in the southwestern driftless. Every Saturday during summer and fall, they populate Capitol square and strike a joyful blow against the urban food desert, each in their own space (food share coupons accepted). Students walk up from campus. We regulars know where to find our favorites. I carry the old pack.

Green beans, a sweet pepper, a cabbage, dried garlic, a bunch of pungent cilantro, a ripe tomato, a lovely purple onion — fat and firm and cleared of its papery outer skin so that it shines. My kids grew up hearing me tell them that onions are objective proof that God loves you. What else explains the existence of a humble earthly bulb that makes everything delicious? There’s a bit of Hudsonville kid muck-worker in that sentiment (although I don’t carry a parallel fondness for celery). Our woodlands grow wild mild onions. You can find them yourself if you make the effort to be in the turtle island woods in spring – or look for them at the Farmer’s Market.

Fry them up in a little butter.

It’s been a rough week. Ida made landfall on Houma, Louisiana and then flooded the subways and basement apartments of New York. I watched it from the safety of my Midwestern living room. Signs and portents. Grief that should not be lost. Distance that should not be detachment.

I know a bit of Houma, having visited there years ago for an otter project. I keep Houma in my quiver of favorite stories. A small hotel, live-oak dark and Spanish-moss spooky. I slept under an ancient ceiling fan one night after a day of Cajun hospitality, beer in the cooler and crawfish in the wheelbarrow. I wonder if it’s still there. I know a lesser bit of New York. Prayers for their safety.

I am back from my summer teaching gig in Michigan, back from the family fishing trip in Minnesota. Kabetogama woke to a smokey sunrise last week. You could smell it. Lake water as warm as your bath. Walleye hugging the bottom. The ferns are rank and yellow in Northern Minnesota. The tamaracks are smokey gold and the roadside sumacs are red. The odd low maples are giving in too. Fall rains and winter snows are coming to smother the stubbornly smoldering peat. I hope it’s enough.

I worried this summer with a friend about his family and the fires out west. Smoke in the Minnesota black spruces and storm surges on the bayou and the subway. Groaning. As with childbirth, says Paul.

Here on Capitol square, the early Badger and Lion fans in their finest sectarian vestments and regalia kill time with spicy cheese bread and paper-cup coffee. The Sierra Club wants me to sign their petition against line 5 (I do). So too, the veterans against war. The raging grannies sing their songs of resistance. I received a rainbow ribbon and pinned it on the old pack last time I was here, and it turned into an adventure in grace and a story I will tell someday.

There’s legit, regal, and righteous mud on the zucchini I buy. I am going to stir-fry it for Carol this week. Sweet carrots from the Hmong family for my salad. Starting to see apples and winter squash. A head of red lettuce. I fish a few bites out of the old pack. No packaging. No processing. Minimal transportation. No marketing, save for the care the farmer took in peeling a bit of that lovely onion. My money supporting the families of my neighbors. Occasionally you taste a bit of grit. Count it as a blessing of place.

I met a former student for the first time this evening. Turns out there are real people behind those little rectangles you see in the online teaching screen. We sat in the grass and ate vegetarian burritos with a new cohort of eager young people. Real people behind the news footage screen too.

Everything counts. Every purchase, every mouthful, every instance of grace. My neighbors live in Houma, and New York, in the dorms on my campus. They swim straits of Mackinac and roam southwestern Wisconsin’s driftless. My neighbors need clean water and productive soil, carbon stinginess. My neighbors need my every intention and prayer. Every onion.

There is so much goodness here.

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:

    Everything counts. I married a Hudsonville onion-topper (Gerrit Schut’s muck) and this piece gave me great joy. Very spiritual, to my mind.

  • Robert Otte says:

    Thanks, Tim. Brought back good memories of summers I spent in Madison working on a Master’s Degree.

Leave a Reply