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It’s all so familiar on a September Saturday morning. Up early, obligations to a student event, though I’d rather have the day to myself. Another year, another group, another little driftless road trip. The model fits me well enough, but stats folks say to look for patterns in the residuals. Mine are like my coffee, a little bitter, a little angry – but familiar and warm.
Our destination is a landscape anomaly. A rift in time. It was a river gorge before the last glacier scoured away its upstream and downstream leaving earthen dams of glacial debris on both ends and in between, a section of river gorge clipped off and isolated. A lake now, a bit of rocky relief poking through a landscape of softened and soft glacial soils.
The lake and its quartzite bluffs are a deep-time relict of the pre-Wisconsin glaciation. But the quartzite itself has ripple marks from an even deeper-time sea bed more than a billion years old, now heaved up and towering over the abraded midcontinent landscape.
I met them at the bus and the parking lot was already filling. They gathered for my short orientation for how the day would go. “I want to teach you a word,” I said. “Tawacunchuk.” I said. “Repeat it with me.”
The name means “sacred lake” or “spirit lake” in the Ho Chunk language. To know that is to know why the settlers’ name for this, the most-visited state park in Wisconsin, exists as a bit of a thumb-in-your-eye blasphemy. And it’s not hard to imagine the performative pietistic impulse behind it. I heard a Ho Chunk elder say that her people were removed from this land seven times. They kept returning. They hold cultural memory of a cold homeplace on the terminal moraine.
September coasts on the high summer momentum of abundance. Cranes and turkeys and geese and raccoons glean the ag-field margins and grow fat in bright daylight even as the machinery of canopy chlorophyll breaks itself down for another season of cold dormancy. Fall color is just biochemistry. The emotional response is the human thing, the still small voice. Warblers migrate south again and we attach our associations and take selfies. During September, time advances more quickly and we spend down the warm sunlight while it lasts.
They went off to explore the trails in smaller groups, sorted by ambition for distance and exertion and a calculation to be back to the picnic tables for lunch. I went to hike the east bluff, a little absent mindedly, since it had been a while.
I went off alone, because it’s awkward to hang with the professor when you’re a freshman and you’re barely a month in. It’s OK though. I admit my selfishness. I prefer solitude when I hike.
The parking lot was full and the overflow was filling too. You had to cross them to get to the trailhead. Wind had been from the south for a day or two and the air was thick. I climbed the bluff trail and was soon sweating through my shirt and staining my daypack where it sat low on my back. It felt summer-right, like sweating was normal, a sensation that would have been clammy and uncomfortable in April. Blessed is the breeze, though.
The trail was crowded with families, and couples with genial leashed dogs, and groups of friends. I would have had more solitude standing in the parking lot. I used to get grumpy about this, seeing the peculiar movement of people through the middle-distance trees, picking up snippets of conversation everywhere.
But the sounds of kids playing in the rocks convicted me one time, and intuition that people seek the same spiritual currency that I do speaks to me. Some of it’s novelty, some of it’s opportunity but it draws you in if you let it. It’s about connection, always. And we have so little opportunity, given our peculiar fetish for privatizing creation. It’s as ancient as the Ho Chunk stories. As urgent now as anything.
I can’t love on cold command and my heart isn’t big enough for such crated virtues. But sweat and thirst and the peculiar little stand of yellowing and stunted hickories on the bluff-top where the soil is thin draws me off the trail and I wonder. Love is easier when tactile and textured and you can hear the wind.
They’re good folks. They really are. They kept the itinerary and got back to the bus on time. They gave the bus driver a turkey sandwich from the stash and some cookies and they said “thank you” to him as they de-bussed. He was a flinty no-nonsense type. Wore a Desert Storm cap. But you could see him visibly soften for them.
Generosity is first among human virtues, an uncommon grace.
Ripple marks frozen in deep-time quartzite were wrestled into steps of a sort where the trail is steep, polished to a glossy patina by millions of human footfalls. Here in a long-buried river relict. Here in the relative eyeblink of a glacial interval. Here where the old trees live and die beyond the scale of human lifespans. Here on a September Saturday during their freshman year. If time is a river, its motion is the laminar movement of nested flows and fractal patterns on patterns, directional and tumbling into eddies and obstacles, as connected as a fluid and as distinct as we choose to believe.
On the way back, I stopped to read the interpretive sign by the bear effigy mound. The mound-builders are ancestors to the Ho Chunk people. A family walked up behind me as I attempted a photo without my shadow on it.
“Why don’t they teach this stuff in school?” The teen asked.