Sorting by

Skip to main content

I woke up all sorts of lazy and dull. They were back from their walk, these two grad students. One worked for me years ago as an undergrad, lived here for a summer of flying squirrels. She’s a mom now and the other a mom-to-be in a few months. Here at Kemp Natural Resources Station. Here in God’s country, according to the old beer ads.

“We were out doing wildlife forensics” they said, now back by the fireplace.

We retreat north each year for a Saturday morning outreach event to showcase the lab’s research. The students were particularly on-point this morning, describing their research with panache, fielding guest questions with good humor. It was fun. Normally, we’d ski on Saturday afternoon, but the Northwoods has had little snow this winter. The trails never opened.

Luck of the draw, this year’s crew were the most senior, for the most part a dissertation away from being Dr. So-and-so, having passed the other landmarks we require. Several were out working up a nearby research plot. The two went for a walk. I took a nap, making an excuse for my sore knee. My doctor thinks it’s a torn meniscus.

They said they found an unusual blood pattern in the snow on the station’s little nature trail.

Reading blood in the snow is very nearly a disciplinary imperative although it’s imprecise. Blood means predator activity. Our conspecifics have an unfortunate tendency for imagining malevolence as companion to the reality of killing and eating other species. Biologists tune themselves to imagine ecological dramas.

The pattern in the snow was entirely of tiny droplets, nearly an aerosol, concentrated in a fan pattern in the middle, extending in both directions sparsely along the nature trail eventually giving out under the hemlocks to the north and in the hardwoods back where the trail crossed the driveway.

I followed the blood because it followed the nature trail and I had little enthusiasm for stepping my tender knee over the off-trail deadfalls. I laced up my boots and bundled up to salvage a bit of the late afternoon sun. To show them that I’m not as lazy as I felt. To assure myself. Hard-frozen forest soil nearly slipped under my uncertain boot on the slopes, something not quite ice exactly, but slick with a dusting of fine snow. I moved slowly.

Without killing and eating mice there would be no owls; without eating cottontails in your backyard no foxes or Cooper’s hawks; without eating deer, no wolves; without zebras pulled down, no lions and so on and on.

We teach detachment, even if inadvertently. But eventually an enlightened veil of sorts slips, we pull from something connected, something informed by empathy but also astute to the great ancient complexity. It’s bigger than all that, cycling nutrients, shaping forests, driving natural selection, creating nodes in the textbook food webs — sometime raising the residual hairs on the napes of the naked apes that stop for a coffee on the way up north. Sometimes a blessed prompt for the imagination.

I met my two best field biologists in the hemlocks because they were out puzzling too. These two, like the others and despite their relative youth, had been poking around in the woods for decades – only lately getting (sort-of) paid for it. “Maybe a funny tissue-tear associated with antler-casting…” suggested the deer-nerdiest of the two, noting that the blood seemed to follow deer tracks. “Lots of small canid prints…” offered the other. The moms speculated about a raptor grabbing a red squirrel.

They left in the direction I had come, and I had the delicious opportunity of puzzling out the tracks of my students while they were puzzling out the layered mysteries of fine bloody droplets and tracks of all sorts of winter-active players.

I was studying the behavior of my expert students, knowing them and imagining their thoughts. It’s no mystery why we find animal tracks where we like to walk (and build our nature trails). It’s all about efficiency, being careful with the hard-won energy we’ve sequestered. This is especially true during winter when the cold saps your body heat and you kick through the snow. Ever notice how deer drag their feet in the snow? They kind of need to. They’re finding the compromise between precious effort and forward progress towards their next mouthful.

The puzzlers are intellectual kin, you know. These curious souls, following their imaginations through the snow-dusted woods. This is where we start, and we return our whole lives.

Hemlocks have dense overstories that block sun from hitting the forest floor. No sun means no understory. On the dark hemlock hillside, the trail intersected a collection of recent deer beds. Exquisite in the way the deer bodies melted the thin snow into the very outline of their recumbency, legs folded under them. They’re here for hemlock sheltering. That crusty ice there? That’s the hollow between the rib cage and the folded front leg where the snow only melted partially. Here in the dark hemlocks, the casual Saturday snow-prints of grad students puzzling out the same stories. Here in the growing darkness, a wounded-knee fifty-something Michigan kid puzzling out the puzzlers – and finding deep satisfactions.

It’s nearly cliché to see gothic cathedrals in the dark hemlocks. The open understory space follows the dark massive trunks ramrod straight to the canopy-occluded sky where light breaks through on the edges and wind churns the tops in stately rhythms. If you’ve seen stone vaults filtered through stained-glass shadows, you’ll know. Cathedrals were designed to draw your attention (and your soul) skyward, where God was, and the angels.

I missed my Ash Wednesday service this week, walking the freshmen among the ghosts of the hill-prairie back home. The conservancy burned the prairies, and I tried a bit to put the ashy pieces together and spin the allusions into something significant. Sometimes it works. Might’ve gotten a blog post out of it.

We poor creatures, consigned to living in two dimensions while tempted by our ability to gaze deeply into a third. Is it any wonder we put our God in the sky? Beyond reach but accessible with enough imagination, with mounting up with wings like eagles. Why should we climb the hill prairies and watch the wind churn in the hemlock tops? I’ll miss church again tomorrow, when we pack up and head back. But I’ve got hemlocks for the moment.

I’ve been avoiding Lent. Maybe less deliberately so, but I can muster little enthusiasm for it, and I am too lazy to force myself. I remarked to a colleague, himself a Christian environmental scientist, that living in a time of climate crisis was like a perpetual Lent. But I won’t live to see the payoff, if, indeed, there is one to come. I worry for my kids and now my students’ kids. He said he returns to that metaphor in his own teaching, and I worry about whether it fits really, or (more ominously) not.

But a little bloody mystery in the snow, at the same time a familiar drama and unknowable. It’ll disappear in an instant, in the blink of an eye when the weather shifts. We pull from something connected, something informed by faith but also astute to the great ancient complexity. A walk in the snowy woods, the dark hemlocks and the wind-burnished lakeshore. These good people and their energy, their company for a retreat weekend and walleye cheeks at the supper club, and their native puzzling. It’s redemptive or as close as I’m apt to get at the moment.

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. 


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Marvelous. Thank you.

  • Alfred Jackson says:

    Professor Van Deelen, my dad. Arnold “Pepper” Jackson, was a 1940’s student of Aldo Leoplold at UW Madison. I believe their picture working together is still enshrined at both the Curtis Prairie and at The Shack along the Wisconsin River. Your essay reminds me so much of walks in the woods with my dad, who was also a teacher of nature to a younger generation. His generation, one of Enlightenment, seemed focused solely on the physical observations. I really appreciate your connection to the sacred in this article. It seems ever so important as the future is more cloudy for this younger generation, more so even though my dad lived through the Depression, WW2, the Cold War, and the growing stress on the environment. I believe those sacred connections you offer gives us hope when many are hopeless.
    Or ignorant. .Blessings to you and your important work.

  • Lori Keen says:

    I always your enjoy your reflections and ruminations. Completely off topic, but nothing says “Wisconsin” like “walleye at a supper club.”

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Your work is science . Your writing is music. Your being is one of us. Your essay makes them inseparable.
    Isn’t it time for The Collected Reflections?
    Ever grateful,
    An outlier to the tradition

  • Beth Rinsema says:

    Captivating, poignant and vulnerable

  • Tom Brandt says:

    I wish I could write half as well as Tim Van Deelen

  • Jane Porter says:

    Beautiful. Thank you. This is the first piece I’ve read by you. I agree with Jack Ridl – hoping for a collection of reflections in the future.

  • Joyce Looman Kiel says:

    I often feel like I am with on your walks through nature. Your word pictures draw me in and make me want to be ever more aware. Like “ Exquisite in the way the deer bodies melted the thin snow into the very outline of their recumbency, legs folded under them. They’re here for hemlock sheltering. That crusty ice there? That’s the hollow between the rib cage and the folded front leg where the snow only melted partially.” Beautifully experienced. Thank you for writing from your soul.

  • Al Cornell says:

    Reminded me of my partial blood trail. I started at the county line which is also the property line and I’m not welcome to cross. A bleeding deer being chased by 3 coyotes. After 3/4 mile, I couldn’t continue to determine the end. Starts and finishes can be important. How did they wound it? Was it weakened be CWD as some are here (no chance to get a sample)? The neighbor in that direction said his dog brought in a fresh deer leg. When they ran past our house, the coyotes veered off into the ditch. They don’t know I’m not their enemy. And, always the Word comes in at least two fashions — in script and nature as told in Romans 1:19-20.

Leave a Reply