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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.

Why indeed.

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. 


  • RZ says:

    Thanks Tim,
    You are not just a great story teller but a very gifted analyst. You see the stories behind the story and apply them to yourself. And then to us. “Generosity is first among human virtues, an uncommon grace.” Your students are very fortunate.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Well, I think I may know the other name for that lake and park, having climbed its glinting bluffs. But what Ivalue here are the layers of meaning, mostly unconscious, in your written excavation. Dooyeweerd said, “De zin is het zijnde van het zijn,” which in English is the less pungent “meaning is the essence of existence,” and that seems right, even when the meaning is not our own.

    • Uko Zylstra says:

      Your quote from Dooyeweerd was the foundation of my teaching about creation care. For me the core of that meaning is that “all thing are from Christ, through Christ, and unto Christ.”

  • Joyce Looman Kiel says:

    “Love is easier when tactile and textured and you can hear the wind.”
    This touched my soul. Thank you. Some people say Autumn; you and Elizabeth Browning say it better:
    Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries
And daub their natural faces unaware…
    –  Elizabeth Barrett Browning

  • Leanne Van Dyk says:

    This essay brims with stunning sentences – what a joy to read such a fine writer. How about this one: “September coasts on the high summer momentum of abundance.” Wow. Just wow. I’m curious if Prof Van Deelen also writes poetry.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Leanne, many of us have long known Tim is a poet as well as an environmentalist.
    What a wordsmith you are Tim. Admit it and carry on.

  • Jack says:

    In Ireland poets are called tradesmen. Essential. Tim is a tradesman.

  • Daniel Bos says:

    Rabbi VanDeelen,
    What is the name of “the most-visited state park in Wisconsin, [that] exists as a bit of a thumb-in-your-eye blasphemy” ? And why is it blasphemy?
    Thank you for you color commentary on your walk in the woods. When I see an interesting rock, you see a billion years of history. That’s a lot to teach in any school.

    • Tim Van Deelen says:

      The Settler’s name is “Devil’s Lake.” That seems like a deliberate insult to the Ho Chunk people who knew it as “Sacred Lake.” And in truth, its one of the places in my own local orbit where the Creator’s brush strokes are still fresh. As such, the name offends my Christian sensibility too.

    • Don Sterk says:

      The most visited park in Wisconsin is Devil’s Lake.

    • George Monsma, Jr. says:

      Daniel, I googled it and it’s Devil’s Lake. The blasphemy to the natives is obvious.

  • Tim Van Deelen says:

    The Settler’s name is “Devil’s Lake.” That seems like a deliberate insult to the Ho Chunk people who knew it as “Sacred Lake.” And in truth, its one of the places in my own local orbit where the Creator’s brush strokes are still fresh. As such, the name offends my Christian sensibility too.

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