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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.