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I am wrung out. Seeking sunshine restoration in the wastes. 

The parking lot opossum was likely lapping up the salt leavings. It trundled off into the weedy margin and I tried to follow but wet-then-frozen-now-melting snow was too coarse and stiff to hold its prints. It disappeared in the tangles. I crashed in behind it, clumsy on the slope, finding a bent-over trunk door from some car of indeterminate model buried in the snow in the jumbled soil bank. Despite the storm midweek and the melting today, there was dry and tracked-up soil as far in as I could see. 

Every Midwestern kid knows this place. During late winter, the landscape shows its glacial bones. Unnatural contours and junk and rocks piled together betray its history. Stickery things and rank weedy stems in the corn snow. Cockleburs stuck to my laces. Every Midwestern kid saves up for imagination in the relict woods. 

Cottonwoods in the low area are battered and weary. Blown askew in the soft bottoms. Crippled and hanging on. There’s a box elder bush straining at the circumference of an old fat tire. Perfect.

I wanted to be a mountain man as a kid. I had a Christmas hatchet that I wore on my belt and I built twig fires in my own snowy boot-prints to warm my hands. My mountain horizons filtered sunsets through chicken barns to the west on 32nd Avenue and I knew every tree shrouding a nameless little creek. I assured myself I’d leave some day for the real mountains, or the high desert, or the Alaskan interior. 

And I did, for a time. Chasing beavers for my master’s research in the steep-sided drainages of the northern Rockies.

But here I am at fifty-something, harried, and tired, heavy and wrung out. Stomping through the wastes. Through the cattails and the marsh hay. Stepping across the marsh-ice and listening to the subtleties in pitch of the cracks in the ice to tell myself, based on hard-won knowledge, how far I could step – at risk of a muddy one-legger in the hummocks. 

The creek was dark and spare in the afternoon winter sun. Deliciously barren, all wind-driven cattail margins. Some buried in the heavy snow. Some standing too thick to succumb. Willows on the old fence row and red-osier dogwoods color the middle distance, where the marsh subtlety ripples above the saturation point. 

I rounded the meander to find a muskrat, looking rich even at the distance, until it saw me, swam in, and disappeared under the bank. The stripey-breasted sparrow shape-shifted among the marsh hay and willows. Townie mallards on the wind and Canada geese. When the shadows lengthen, turkeys purr and putt to each other across the marsh.

I come here because it’s close and easy. Familiar. Self-medicating. The bird hunters and their dogs mainly stay in the prairie. I know where the easy trails are and the hills to walk around. I know where to sit and listen on the little amphitheater rise among the bur oaks with the aspen thicket out front.

Ecology is a strange mix of resilience and vulnerability. We take resilience for granted, weeds and wastes. 

I dissociate when I walk here. The scientist looks for birds and wants to know kind and ecology, the midwestern kid wants to dream again and find the stories. The professor steps back. My internal monologue shuffles on oblivious, trying out language, sometimes singing, perhaps even praying. The rest of us pay him no mind. If God answers back, he’ll tell us. 

There’s muddy haul-out with a hind footprint as big as my glove. A dogwood branch neatly pealed nearby. It’s the beginning of the dispersal period for beavers, when the juveniles leave the familial lodges to strike out on their own to find a mate and a new home range. 

Odd. This is not a beaver creek.

But this fellow was no juvenile. The size of that print makes it an old-timer. Likely here because of circumstances it probably didn’t expect. Here alone, given lack of other sign. I wonder about its story. 

Poking around in the wastes.

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. 


  • Joyce and Wes Kiel says:

    What poetic, earthy beauty spilled out of your being wrung out. Thank you.
    Joyce and Wes

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Tim, you are never just the scientist; you are ever the poet. Bless you.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Your “Wrung Out” made me feel young again. I am not a midwestern boy, but your description of the enchantment, dreams and imaginings fit mine perfectly. I was drawn always to the woods and spent every second I could there and to the nameless streams no mater how small. Every tree mattered and was mapped in my head. Thank you! A book that came to mind was “Drifting” by Stephen Jones. It is sadly out of print. “Wooden Boat” magazine named it one of the four best books ever written on boating. What were the others? Around the World Alone, of course, by Slocum. N by E by Rockwell Kent. The other must have been Moby Dick. Or Nostromo? By Conrad. I don’t remember. Anyway Jones captures the allure of water -any body of water no matter the trickle. He captured that just like you captured and carried me back to my boyhood ramblings in the woods-any woods. For those who might be interested the author of that article about the best books about boating was reviewing “Voyages of the Damned Foole.” Gratefulto you again, Tim.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Tim, I am struck by the beautiful language. Thank you for that; I needed that today with the winter starting to draw to a close.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Have you ever stomped around a salt marsh in the winter? West Sayville, Long Island, 1975.

    • Tim Van Deelen says:

      Would I have met you there?

      • Daniel Meeter says:

        Yes, you would have. There remained a very living community in the salt water mud under the ice between the yellow reed hummocks. The salt marsh is less saline than sea water, so it had pure ice layers while the bay itself had salt water ice. We never saw much life above the surface, but when you crashed through into wet ooze it was still all down there.

    • Fred Mueller says:

      I have, Dan. Serving in the Nassau/Suffolk Classis one winter oyster Bay actually froze pretty far out. Some of the boys in my church went fishing on the ice in the South Bay and scared me to death. The native Americans (as I am sure you know) went whale hunting off the forks before we stole their land. Their courage has always amazed me, going out into the ocean in primitive craft and hunting enormous powerful creatures.

  • Tim Van Deelen says:

    Thanks for the comments, all.

  • Thomas B Hoeksema Sr says:

    Wonderful. Thanks for feeding my spirit on this bleak, midwinter day.

  • Keith Vander Pol says:

    This seventy something Midwestern “boy” is very appreciative of your nature based essays, and always looking forward to the next one. Nature uniquely restores when I’m wrung out. Your descriptive language draws us in and allows us to experience the scenic walk with you.

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