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If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow growing trees
on a ruined place,

I didn’t know what to make of Earth Day — 2023’s iteration began angry and early. I read Allison Vander Broek’s on “Riches and Racism” and thought how seamlessly “climate injustice” could sub for “racism” in the framing. I almost commented to say so but didn’t want to hijack her point. 

I then wandered into a Guardian piece (no fossil fuel advertising) on the book/movie entitled “How to blow up a pipeline” and a related argument among English climate activists on the strategic costs and benefits of disrupting London’s marathon to advance the righteous cause. 

I perused a chapter from a sympathetic book with my coffee, for a review I’ve promised, and then read social media paeans from my peeps on their Earth Day activities. And all of this after an Earth WEEK on campus that I largely ignored to do the very important stuff that needed doing very importantly. Too much. Already, and the sun wasn’t yet up. 

And then the best decision of the day. I refilled coffee into my travel mug, grabbed the binocs and walked over to Six-mile in an April snow squall. I knew warblers were returning from students of mine who are smarter about their time, but I hadn’t yet seen any. There at the bend by the VFW’s derelict military tank were the yellow-rumped warblers. Right where they were last spring. And there where the bridge crosses, were the golden-crowned kinglets. Right where they were last spring. Common species here. But my case of adult-onset birding is still acute, so I took this as a win.

If we will make our seasons welcome here,
asking not too much of earth or heaven,
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live

I promised part of the day to my wife Carol. She turned her school-teacher dervish energy to helping a local charity provide a soft landing in Madison for a refugee family. She pitched and organized donations and I met folks from church to load the U-Haul at the storage facility and unload the donated stuff into the family’s new apartment. It had fresh paint and new carpet and we hung the mirrors and made the beds and did our best to make it comfortable and welcoming. 

For reasons of safety and privacy, we couldn’t know the family or why their story needed a refugium here. Even so, a cursory glance at geopolitical flashpoints would suggest petro-state malevolence and oily fingerprints. We left a new soccer ball on the kid’s bed. I hope it helps. I admired Carol for working so hard for the well-being of a family that we’ll likely never meet. She’s prepping for the next one.

President Biden signed an executive order to promote environmental justice, declaring: “Restoring and protecting a healthy environment — wherever people live, play, work, learn, grow, and worship — is a matter of justice and a fundamental duty that the Federal Government must uphold on behalf of all people.”

Good on you, Mr. President, but the tribes and I would like a word about a certain pipeline. Meanwhile the House vandals released their Kabuki budget during Earth Week, pledging to repeal the climate provisions of Inflation Reduction Act and to fast-track permitting of new fossil fuel projects. Moral poverty aside, read the room — Sheesh

Gen Z is watching and taking notes (God bless ‘em).

In their voices they will hear a music
risen out of the ground. They will take
nothing from the ground they will not return,
whatever the grief at parting.

Back home in the gray afternoon, I took the overbuilt treehouse down – backing out hundreds of deck screws driven in fifteen or so years ago when the twins (now twenty-somethings) were grade-schoolers. That treehouse made me a hero briefly. They loved it.  Carol’s mom made a point of giving her approval.

It should have come down years ago. The mountain ash that held it has been dying slowly, fungus-soft branches raining into the corner of the backyard. It’s a favorite perch for cardinals and chickadees, but I think it’s a hazard, standing there on the edge of the Village’s sledding hill spillway.

Mountain ash is an arboreal nobody in the working forest. I couldn’t even find it in the USDA’s “Silvics of North America Volume 2 – Hardwoods” but I noticed it in the Canadian bush one time. There among the balsams, and spruces, and aspens of the boreal shield, lifting its bright red berries to the birds and bears. There in the roadcut on the way to walleye paradise and pierogies from the lone grocery in Ear Falls. It lives quietly in the northeast. A hanger-on. An associate of boreal eastern Ontario and out to the Maritime provinces, staying above Wisconsin’s tension zone and petering out as the spine of the Appalachians loses latitude. Its climate window is moving northward. It’s out of time and out of place here in my little backyard. 

Me too.

Even so, the mountain ash held the treehouse stalwart against the elements for more years that it was fair to ask. It hosted the kids and their friends and the occasional grad student back in the day. My daughter and her best friend slept up there one summer night and I opened the window all the way and slept fitfully, if at all, on a hair-trigger for any hint of trouble. She’s an environmental writer now, reporting from the front lines. 

native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow 
into legend, legend into song, song 
into sacrament.

Mountain ash is a humbler member of the rose family. True ashes, like the black ash that succumbed to emerald ash borer by her bedroom some years ago are members of the olive family. I cut the first ash into backyard-campfire cordwood and I wonder about this one — rows of woodpecker scars hinting at the punky wood underneath. Ashes to ashes I suppose, though most of ash 1 has gone soft and mossy in a pile by the neighbor’s fence. 

With the old lumber neatly stacked out of the way, I packed up my demolition tools. I lingered, welling with distance and looking at the now emptier sky. I get this way, and my back and shoulders were sore. If I cut the ash, the sky will be emptier still.

My church’s daily email newsletter offered up Wendell Berry’s poem, “Work Song, Part 2: A Vision.” 

I don’t know what to make of Wendell Berry sometimes, properly curmudgeonly about the costs of capitalism in his essays, the sweet-tea agrarian singing in his work poems.

We sang into winter-barren farmland at Easter sunrise and I carried it around all week. We sounded thin and reedy and spare as if farmland mud and morning and road noise on highway 19 sapped sound from the air.

The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its possibility.

Sing. Sing even if it makes no sense. Sing for possibility. Let your voice drain away into the thin morning. Sing like the earth is hungry for it. 


Wendell Berry 2013 “Work Song, Part 2: A Vision” in New Collected Poems. Counterpoint press. ISBN-13: 9781619021525.
Poem used under fair use principles:

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. 


  • Lori Keen says:

    Memories of the mountain ash in my aunt and uncle’s farmyard on Highway G just outside of Randolph, WI. Lots of family gatherings under that tree. Thanks for bringing back the memories.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    As usual, thank you.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    This is wonderful. Thank you. Unfortunately, as it comes from Wisconsin, and so eloquently ponders our climate crisis and all that it might portend and will portend for those who have the least to do with its cause, I could not help but be drawn to your “beloved” senator (that one) who responded to testimony regarding an important climate study about the consequences of rising temperatures with the cold, heartless, and obtuse discovery that warming temperatures would be good for Wisconsin since the cold kills more people than hot temperatures, and since it’s good for Wisconsin, what more does he need to think about it?
    I just couldn’t. Six more years of watch this guy pontificate about who knows what is mind-numbing. I beg of you and your neighbors to do whatever it takes within the democratic process to move him to the sidelines. I mean … SMH

  • Henry Baron says:

    Grateful for your wife and you caring about what all of us need to be caring about more….

  • Jack says:

    There’s a loving, exhausted sigh wandering throughout this beautifully lyrical and multi-layered, subtext implied piece. As always, thank you for what you attend to in writing, and in phrasings with the musicality of a cello.
    I, too, don’t know what to make of Berry. I once asked him if things were getting better or worse. He drawled,”Oh they’re getting better all the time. It’s just that they’re getting worse a whole lot faster.”

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