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They ran the brush-hog late along the edge of the prairie. Winter-rank fuzzy stubble stems bristled from a beating off with a dull blade. An eight-inch limb dropped in a storm. They stopped to grind it down, leaving big toothy traces across the face grain like the giant Pleistocene beaver who used to live here might have. Maybe it’s a fire-break, maybe some preemptive prep for a spring burn. That would be good. The woodies are marching in from the edges. Willows, dogwood. Some bur oak saplings — they’ll be okay though.

The brush-hogged trail makes for easy walking. Important, because I’m taking my class here on Wednesday to teach them something about the Yahara watershed. Something about their home, at least for now, on Mendota’s south shore. It’s required recon in the rare winter sunshine – even though I could walk this trail in my sleep. That’s what I told Carol. Something I need to do.

They recontoured the uplands. Part of a bigger project to scoop out and bury legacy sediments from the creek and mitigate Mendota’s spring pulse of nutrients that fuel opaque eutrophic overgrowth of algae. I saw the effect one sad day at Tenny Park. A young family, the dad was humping a red plastic canoe to the water’s edge. Mom and two rambunctious toddlers toddling along with their pfds. They got to the water’s edge, set the canoe down, evaluated the stink, picked it all up again and headed back to the minivan.

It’ll kill your dog, you know.

Last spring, the rip-rap rocks by the Union were painted eutrophic green before the trees were leafed out. Before Easter.

That’s what you get with too much manure in the upper watershed. With straight-sided drainage ditches and cropping from fence row to fence row. With profligate use of farm fertilizers, with our fetish for silly sterile green lawns. Joining house to house and field to field.

There are half a dozen of these efforts in the upper watershed and this one is closest to their dorm. I’ll walk the freshmen in and try to remember where the catchment basin was. I talk a good game about reading the landscape, but I forget stuff too easily, even stuff I’ve seen with my own eyes.

I’ll walk them in the old access points where a twin-track anomaly pushes through the cottonwood saplings and sedge hommocks. You can see the equipment tracks, this many years later, when old snow lingers last in low points, where the soil compacted. I’ll point to the softening pile of box elder stumps. I’ll drive them to the top of the esker and show them the horizon, no longer a patchwork of prairie, wetlands, and damp woods. I’ll duck them into the game trail and show them how to identify invasive buckthorn in winter.

I’ll show them the ghost-print of the tiny farmstead 80. Now re-becoming marsh and prairie and muskrat domes. During summer the grasses are different here. There’s a hard-edged patch where the lawn used to be. Dane County bought the easement, and cranes will return in a month or so, and song sparrows, and iridescent grackles, and frogs calling when the rain smells warm again. The neighbor dumps his grass clippings and yard waste there on the south boundary – where bergamot blooms. I wonder what church he attends. Hard to hide it in the snow-flattened prairie.

I’ll walk them up to the creek, through the marsh hay, among decrepit willows with uncertain footing. We’ll look for tracks in the mud. We’ll interpret the duckweed – green now where the creek should be iced over. The water is turbid. It would be better if it weren’t.

It should not be this warm, first week of February.

But it felt good after a long spell of travel. I stopped at the top of the rise where I sat and watched the deer last fall, or rather we watched each other. One of those magic moments. Evening light. Enough distance to be aware of each other without her feeling threatened (as long as I sat still). Something dark was moving in the trail up ahead and I fumbled my binos out of my pack, taking care to not let it leave my sight. It ducked in and out of the shrubby margin. Moving like a predator. Liquid and cat-like. Not the minimalist stilting of raccoons. Not the easy loping dogtrot of coyotes and foxes. The tail in profile was serpentine and confirmed the cat-like movement. It was black in the afternoon sun, likely tabby gray with study in the binoculars, but black to me.

I’ll pitch it all as hopeful. Management of the surface water, restoration of the wetlands. See the deer prints in mud? The nuthatch and its shadow in the bare bur oak? Blood on the snow-flattened leaves and tufts of downy underfur. There’s a red-bellied woodpecker here somewhere. I’ll take their imaginations and be gentle. I’ll talk about restoration and mitigation and soft-peddle the feral predators, stalking the nestlings and covering the uplands with fashionable parades of homes.

You point to the redemptive sparks and blow carefully. And if it works, fire catches and consumes the invasives and tips the scales in favor of prairie natives made durable through their devotion to deep roots. That’s hope — or a reasonable approximation anyway.

It should not be this warm (metaphor aside).

I sat in the prairie, on my pack to keep my butt dry, in the sun. I sat where I watched the deer last fall – eventually laying back in the snow-flattened grass. My black-body jacket absorbed sunlight warmth. I pulled my cap over my eyes. I would sleep the afternoon away if I could. If I could only shut the hard drive down and let go.

Attention is a precious trust. I’m always surprised by how freely it’s given. They tell me their secrets, some of them. Like they want me to know.

You hear cars on the county highway.

Always.

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. 

8 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thank you for the sparks.

  • Leanne Van Dyk says:

    I always look forward to your blogs, Tim. Many thanks for such vivid writing.

  • Brian White says:

    I grew up in Madison, on the east side near where the Yahara empties into Lake Monona, not far from Tenney Park. I’m a UW alum. And now I live in Hudsonville. Thanks for the reminders of home–and for trading places.

  • RZ says:

    Vivid is a good description. Vividly educational, provocative, inspiring, convicting. On some level I am that grass-clipping guy. My clippings have no fertilizer and they are scattered away from a clear drainage zone. Hooray for me, but I still travel way too much in fossel-fuel-powered vehicles and perpetuate the production of way too much plastic. I even use Amazon delivery at times! Where do we draw the line for responsible Christian living?
    I am wrestling this morning with Jesus’s words to the religious leaders defying/denying his healing of the blind man. If you were truly blind (ignorant?), you would not be guilty but now that you claim you can see your guilt is established (paraphrase). We cannot blame God for climate disasters and the imbalance within nature. We now know better. Here is another clear case where we are punished by our sins and not for our sins. God’s punishment? No, God’s non-intervention.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    We moved into seven acres of woods with an acre pond. We’re not going to mow the piece of grass. I think we can protect the pond: it’s 14 feet deep. The woods leave me baffled. I want to do right by it. There’s Asian bittersweet, grape vines, poison oak wrapping tree after tree. The birds, deer, etc seem fine. The neighbors prefer the usual: few trees, lawns, dogs off property. I’m ever grateful for your heartbroken endurance, Tim.🙏 the woods?

  • Norm Steen says:

    The first few sentences had me wondering if this was a prose piece from Gerard Manley Hopkins. Thank you. Thank you.

  • Keith Mannes says:

    Strong, painful, and beautiful. Thank you.

  • Joyce Looman Kiel says:

    I lived up north in Michigan for 25 years. We had a five acre plot and small winterized A frame cabin style home surrounded on three sides by a forest of hardwoods and all the natural life that came with it. In front was a spectacular view of beautiful Torch Lake. I had been a city girl all my life until this opportunity. We cross country skied, hiked and kayaked the Torch River and Rapid River nearby. It was our little Eden that we nurtured the best we could. By the time we left, only because of my then husband’s illness, a neighbor had clear cut the five acres north of us. A huge subdivision took over the old apple orchard behind us; the Torch Lake Sand bar became national news; the Torch River was like driving in bumper to bumper traffic and smelling their fumes. Heavy Sigh.
    Reading your heartfelt post Tim, reminded me of the time we were privileged to experience in such a beautiful spot on God’s creation and how it was being slowly diminished by the time we left. Keep speaking your soul. May it keep hope alive at least one person at a time.

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