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My day’s highlight was lunch with a former grad student. We caught up on her classmates and mutual friends, departmental politics, her life now. Their first child is due in November, and I got to share a bit in her excitement.

On a peerless late-summer day, we met, as we must according to honored traditions, at the University of Wisconsin’s Memorial Union Terrace. Even more so than Camp Randall (football stadium) or the Kohl Center (basketball), the Terrace may be UW’s best loved feature. It faces north over Lake Mendota and hosts a brat stand and a small stage amid a sea of brightly colored steel tables and iconic sunburst chairs.

I have always loved how the wider community owns this space. On any given afternoon or evening, students and university types blend seamlessly with Madisonians, other Wisconsinites and honorary Wisconsinites from all points to enjoy a brat and a beer and to soak up the good vibes. If you listen, you will hear snippets of languages from around the world. In microcosm, it’s a merging of a great public university and the people it serves. It’s an aspiration that the university promotes, and I hold dear.

I miss sitting there with a dear friend of mine. He lived in Madison for a time but is now back home in Beijing. We joked that when we retired, we would turn ourselves into our own iteration of the old guys who seem to perpetually be hanging out together and laughing. He’s hosted me to travel in China. We ate at his favorite Muslim restaurant in the old city and laughed together at the Chinglish on the menu. Had grad students travel with me to navigate rural areas where the signs have no English translations. I couldn’t do that now. Covid restrictions. Geopolitics. It’s a beautiful place filled with beautiful people. Fading into abstraction.

I am blessed to do what I do. To live the way I do. I remind myself and say a habitual brief prayer of gratitude when I walk across campus. Eighteen years in, I have great relationships with former students, now colleagues. I’ve been to their weddings, rejoiced with their birth announcements, toasted their triumphs and victories. September and return to academic rhythms invite reflection and create opportunities for re-connection. Mostly, we promise to meet each other when the weathers’ nice — at the Terrace.

It’s the move-in window now though. Campus roads and sidewalks are choked with minivans and SUVs off-loading dorm furnishings. People are strolling the campus like tourists. Parents in new Badger t-shirts and sporting pristine Badger caps are clogging the line for the brat stand. Some of them are struggling for a brave face – not quite ready for a last hug before driving back home.

Already on Friday, I’ll need to greet the GreenHouse students at their learning community convocation, playing against type as the genial host. I may be the first UW faculty many of them meet.

The learning community theme is sustainability.

The University is a universe of its own with an undercurrent of hopefulness. An entry point for a new adventure for some, another iteration towards the degree, the job, and the hoped-for future for others. I am a sucker for the vibe of it all, except that when time shifts, as it does, cracks appear and worldly realities bleed into the idyllic fabric of my privileged life.

China is experiencing a heatwave that is unprecedented in 60 years of record-keeping. I wonder how my friend is coping. Pakistan is being gutted by monsoon flooding, tens of millions of people displaced, economy in ruins. Pakistan has contributed only 1% of greenhouse gas emissions. Lake Powell is at a quarter of its capacity, threatening power and water in the west (and another heatwave on the way). Fall at the Terrace in Madison has warmed by about two degree Fahrenheit since 1970. Good for us if that was all that mattered.

Maybe it’s the moment. Certainly, it’s the place. We look forward relentlessly. We strive for it with cheering and encouragement. But we vest our hopefulness for the future with an unspoken assumption of a stable climate. That assumption is looking less and less likely.

I gassed up on the way in this morning. Looked into the cloudless sky as the digital numbers ticked up. Paid $3.39 per gallon.

Been thinking all day about the costs.

Photos credit: University of Wisconsin-Madison, Copyright: Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Usage Rights: Image may be used for news, editorial, PR and non-commercial uses related to communication and further promotion of information about the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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. 

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