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Such a week. Between successive Sundays, I’ve traveled from the opposite side of the globe, navigated a frenzied week on campus, ascended the mountain, and then crossed the continent again to stand here in the wind.

On Tuesday, we saw Bruce Springsteen and the East Street band in Milwaukee and I am, well, speechless. I’ve been a helpless fan since I was a teenager and this experience was a gift from Carol that I’ll never match. I would say that it was a religious experience but probably I shouldn’t say that on this blog without inviting criticism, so I won’t.

 On Thursday, I hosted three younger researchers for a fancy interview dinner, settling into my emerging role as the silverback with a fully exercised university P-card (and the headaches that follow). That conversation found me panting in my lane, watching fresher scientific athletes accelerating the baton on down the next leg of the race.

On Saturday, I car-pooled up to Stevens Point for a workshop on supporting women’s careers, especially young women’s, in Natural Resources professions. I drove with a Ph.D. candidate and an intern from a colleague’s lab. Both women, one with a harassment story that motivates her, the other I knew less well. But women colleagues, to a person, have hard stories. We struggle in these fields, with pick-up truck swagger and hunting-camp banter baselines that still extract a psychic cost on women professionals. My students are mostly women. It matters to them, it matters to me.

It’s been a chaos of conversation, emotion, fatigue, work, and pondering. I took it in, marinated it, and let it stew. I told my pastor in a zoom meeting last night that brooding was my superpower. Ultimately, I took it to the Gulf Coast of Florida and laid it into the breakwater waves lapping at my pale feet. 

I am tired. The introverts’ sort of tired. If God can speak to Job out of the whirlwind, you will forgive me for listening for something in the gulf coast’s humid offshore blow. I watched the waves, just watched with no expectation. I saw rhythms and patterns form and then dissolve and then reform, Semper reformanda

I stood in the wind and sun. I listened and noticed that I wasn’t annoyed with incessant hissing in my ears. It wasn’t so much that the sounds of wind and waves masked my tinnitus, although they evidently did. Moreso, the wind and wave sound was of a piece with the hissing, folding it in, sublimating it with the rhythm and roar. And despite it all, my mind felt quiet again. 

Pale blue and opaque waves. Breaking themselves on riprap chunks of ancient Florida, stone created, in part, from deep time rain of tiny calcareous skeletons. Unimaginable numbers. Waves washing in and out on generations of shells abandoned by soft little animals. Shells become fragments become sand become the plumes giving the shallow warm sea its signature pale opacity. 

You leave the engineered artifice of the airport and south Florida enfolds you in an immersive experience of biology. The plant life, the dark mangroves, the scratchy piney flats with their twin constants – cabbage palms and saw palmetto. The gothic cypress forests and the sawgrass horizons interrupted only by forested hammocks where a few inches of elevation make all the difference. All of it, kingdom to the birds. Great birds, indeed, magnificent birds. Creatures for whom flight is so easy, we wonder if they ever indeed need to land. Even the mineral ground you walk on, much of it, is legacy of living beings. 

I watched the boats, and my imagination rode along with each one. I know the bobber-like motion of canoes and kayaks, I know the stately pitch and roll of big boats like the SS Badger which sleepily conveys me home every summer. I know the movement of boats of every interstitial type from work experience and recreation and a lifetime love of the motion of boats and watery horizons. 

I wonder, because I enjoy wondering it, if some fondness for boats lives in Mom’s Frisian DNA, if ancestral memory lives somewhere. You sometimes hear that seawater has the same salt concentration as blood. That’s not really true. We make the point to wax philosophically about connection through a shared evolutionary history. More important though, is the funny chemistry of water at the earth’s surface temperatures and how our watery imaginations, our spirituality, our history and everything we experience, in addition to our physiology only function there in that universally improbable sweet spot. 

On Wednesday, the limnology folks did a demonstration for my freshman class. They sampled from a tiny shoreline lead at the edge of Mendota’s cloudy and rotting ice. There, in a few ounces, a whole community of tiny animals, algae, and plants. Despite gray muddy March, despite the dark trees and snow, life hangs on. I knew this of course. I know about dormancy and hibernation and the tricks that temperate zone life uses to cheat the seasonal ice crystals. But I am also dull enough to need to be reminded in an essential part, by seeing it in the flesh.

Next Sunday, I’ll be back, hoping for open water, eager to turn the season again to temperate zone warmth. I’ll return home in the simple sense of the word. But here, where my parents are, where I can enjoy Mom’s cooking and gulf coast richness, where I’ve been often enough to recognize more and more of the birds and plants, where there’s comfort on the waves and in the ebullient ecology – where my mind turns quiet. Here I may need to expand my definition.

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:

    Thanks for the journey of water, land, bird, and soul

  • Jan Hoffman says:

    Thank you so much for this! I’m the mom, also with Frisian roots, who retired to east coast Florida for the water, the sun, the birds, the fast-growing plants and vegetation. So grateful for a place for you to ponder and be soothed. Blessings as you mentor the women!

  • Ron Calsbeek says:

    I love your writing, Tim. Thank you.

  • Emily R Brink says:

    Thank you indeed, Tim. Your writing is beautiful, helping us also wonder as we better see the beauty you see.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    Thanks for the lovely piece. I could feel the Spirit all over the place.
    One, nitpick/complaint … if you experienced a religious transcendence at a Springsteen concert, tell us, share it. Why should the trees, beaches, waves, birds and so much more be transcendent, while the music of a man and his band who has drawn so many to listen, be any less transcendent, at least to some (I’m not a Springsteen fan)? If there is a thin line between the sacred and secular where the incarnation bears witness to the sacred breaking out, then I want to hear about your experiences of the sacred breaking through too (of course, I know that wasn’t the point of this article)!

    • Tim Van Deelen says:

      My first reaction is: Be careful what you ask for. Heh! You are right, of course, about transcendence apart for my typical nature beat. I may yet write about Springsteen. The experience is marinating at the moment.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    As our daughter would say, Tim, in several ways we’re “cosmically connected”——
    Introverts who tire from external stimuli
    Have the hissing distraction of tinnitus
    Florida. We lived in a houseboat in Key West
    Florida flora and fauna
    Mostly women students
    Spiritual experience in what isn’t often seen as such
    Lyrical and specific imagistic writing
    Springsteen. My mother, when in assisted living, covered her door top to bottom with that poster of The Boss, red handkerchief dangling from his back pocket. She was stretch-limoed to his every concert in Pittsburgh
    Many many thanks for evoking what real poetry is in all you write, do, and are.

  • Christopher Poest says:

    Thank you for this gift today, Tim.

  • Glenda Buteyn says:

    From a fellow water/ boat lover- I absolutely adore your writing! It is so informative and poetic at the same time. Thank you!

  • Henry Baron says:

    Thanks, Tim, for the kind of creative writing and reflective thinking that you bless us with, that stirs our imagination and moves our soul through God’s creation.

  • Scott VanderStoep says:

    I always enjoy your essays. This one more than most. You had me at Springsteen. Saw him in Milwaukee during Magic tour. Going Saturday in State College, then Detroit, then in the summer to Chicago and Baltimore. Been a fan since 1984. He always has me thinking theologically. “This train carries saints and sinners.”

  • Elizabeth McBride says:

    Beautifully written and certainly honoring the varied loveliness to treasure in each environment. Thank you so much for sharing!

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