Sorting by

Skip to main content

One of those moments, I suppose. Here in the gray-scale academic terra incognita between the semesters. I was going to be so productive. I was going to get ahead on things, but I’ve spent days now shirking from the blank computer screen, shirking a thing I need to do, a thing I agreed to do. They expect me to be creative, to wow them with my wisdom and insights and I don’t know how to start. Or I don’t want to.

It’s a skeleton crew around here, most students are home or somewhere on winter break. Most of the campus facilities are shut down. A few dining halls stay open for the foreign students, the ones who don’t or can’t travel. I’ve been here before. Eating Ratskellar veggie chili with my back to the yellow lights over the worn wooded furniture and staring out the window, out over Lake Mendota as the evening grows dark.

Here there be monsters –the old maps used to say. They used to put the phrase in the unknown parts. Assuming the worst, I suppose, about the unfamiliar, the undiscovered country. And I carry it as my own silly conceit. Watching the darkness fall over Mendota, four miles across from right here. No boats, no lights, no navigation markers – nothing. Just open dark water and a raw cold Midwestern sky. I send my imagination out there to root around again. It’s not so mysterious really, but it’s empty and distant at the moment, and I’ll take what I can get, dreaming for the delicious loneliness.

I’m here hanging around the mostly empty campus to do an online meeting with colleagues (friends) on the other side of the world. Their day will be starting, fourteen time-zones away. It’s remarkable really, that we can do this and that it’s become so routine. I can picture them in their world. I was there once – during their graduation. I remember the pond on their campus reflecting the old campus tower and the elaborate wood carvings on the older buildings. I remember noodle soup in their dining hall and the happy graduates and the regalia. Their graduates wear the same silly black caps and gowns that we do – a costume with ascetic origins in the cold stone academies of medieval Europe. But they trim theirs in bright silk with beautiful bold flower patterns. They do it better.

Here there be monsters. I am an addict for online news and commentary. It’s not healthy. Chaos spinning off warring camps of social media righteousness and anger who compete for my indignation. Israelis, Palestinians. How cheaply we trade our humanity for grievance and exclusion. I can’t lament for the violence done to both? God be with the innocents. Here at home, chaos is a political posture. It’s a cult, and a stupid one at that. Wish he would just walk on and take the stupidity with him. Can a Christian wish that? Maybe it matters, maybe not. I feel like I lose something even to type the thought though. Might be lost already.

I’ve been sick since Christmas. Some persistent respiratory thing. Not Covid though. I tested negative three times. Been sleeping a lot. My coffee didn’t taste right. Too bitter.

I knew the forecast. But I navigate the difference between things that I know in the abstract and the way those things sometime become real. Walking back along the lakeshore in the early darkness, gentle waves were lapping at the rocks, indicating a northeast wind. They lower the lake level to prevent wind-driven ice from doing damage. But, no ice yet. Warmest year on record, you know.

Carol, of course, brooks no such navel-gazing. A third-grade teacher, she knows about snow-days. Knows it. When I got home, she knew that Madison had made the call already.

We woke to new snow. It was a mild one as snow days go. Not much on the ground in the morning, building to 6 inches or so by late afternoon when the plow went by, filling the end of my driveway with wet heavy snow. I’ll take it as divine providence that the day was to be different. To be slow and small.

There’s lore that says that the animals know. That they stock up before the storms as a hedge against exposure. I don’t know if that’s true or not but the backyard birdfeeders sure were busy as the wind built and the snow became more insistent.

But the luxury of a day captured and sedated, wrapped in a blanket of snow. Carol slept in and I made chicken soup with wild rice. There are happy noises from the village sledding hill behind us. My wifi connects me to work but it’s different. I need to travel tomorrow, and I fret over it. But the 50-year old snowblower, the one my dad bought, roared to life (again) and we cleared the driveway. Started on two pulls. All hail, Briggs and Stratton (I wish they made computers)!

The coffee tastes like it should this morning.

That blank screen though.

Here there be monsters.

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. 


  • Phil says:

    This is terrific, Tim. I always enjoy your scientificaliterary observations. And I’m with you on Briggs and Stratton. I bought a no-name $100 mower from Meijer three decades ago because it had a Briggs and Stratton motor. It starts in two pulls every spring.

    • Terry Woodnorth says:

      My EGO electric mower starts first time, every time…with no terrible carbon pollution. They make electric snow blowers as well.

  • Mary Huissen says:

    What a gift this is. Thank you

  • Ann S says:

    Haunting. Delightful.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Are those monsters within or out there in the wilderness? Don’t despair, many have these kinds of days and sometimes weeks. Thank you for opening the door to your mind, even in turmoil.

  • Thomas Bartha says:

    Tim. Always enjoy your writing, but this is my favorite to date! You write well in your weariness, and I’ve appreciated the sights and sounds of the cold Wisconsin weather. Hope you are back up to 100% soon, but thanks for this good piece.

Leave a Reply