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A stream with no tributaries is a first-order stream. One with only first-order tributaries is second order and so-forth with ever increasing fractal complexity. So it is with terrestrial pathways.

I drove my pony up Woodland Ave on my way home, parked and walked up the grassy mowed pedestrian path into the conservancy. Off from there on the well-worn footpath into the woods, taking the ever less-traveled paths as they branched off. Thus, until I was following a vaguely discernible, first-order sometime game trail, I suppose, there to its woodland source on a big-oak hilltop – a 200 acre remnant in a sea of sprawling suburbia.

It was the essential spring day, warm, warm dry wind, emerging leaves pale and fuzzed. I stopped to look for returning warblers and hence stepped slowly and quietly save for crunch of curled and left-over winter-brittle oak leaves. Just off the grass path, I watched a fat raccoon climb an open-grown legacy bur oak (not something one sees easily – even as common as they are in this synanthrope nirvana).

And there near the first order source, a modest black cherry had blown over without breaking. Across the vague trail, it forced me to duck under if I wanted to pass. It was chest high, signature square scale dark bark still tight. Provided, I’ll believe, because God Almighty wanted me to cross my arms over it, to rest my chin there and be quiet.

I heard footfalls in the leaves before seeing the turkey (and then seeing it see me) and I mused about how slow and quiet I had become to walk up on one. And then, looking back down through the trees, I saw a tawny shape on the trail, broadside, of the right size, the right animal movement.

Immediately my wildlife-scientist brain said “cougar” and an electricity sparked around me. And I was there for a tiny fraction of a second before the wildlife-scientist brain did the calculation that said the probability of it being an actual cougar was vanishingly small. Roughly then, the animal movement revealed itself to be a golden retriever, trailed by a hoodied teen intent on a cell phone.

That nanosecond flash has been occupying me all week. It was not pure imagination although imagination provided energy. I knew from empirical evidence, that seeing a cougar in a sedate suburban woodland in the Midwest is not impossible. I knew from the same evidence, only the smallest bit later, that was improbable.

So what to make of it with a blog post deadline on the horizon? Do a deep dive into the status and history of eastern cougars? That could be fun. Explore that electricity through the lens of a distant hominid ancestor whose selection for seeing and reacting to big cats in the savanna is enabling me to write for you about it? Launch into consideration about the confusing taxonomy and our modern human bias for neat categories?

Turns out, the nanosecond flash kept intersecting itself with my puzzling on the nature of student activism – something else on my mind this week. Why does energy for grand course corrections crackle as it does in student activists? Why is that a historical pattern?

The Palestinian solidarity encampment on my campus is now gone. It came down peacefully after a negotiated settlement between student activists and the Wisconsin-Madison administration. A key provision for the students was opportunity to argue their case for having UW divest from entities that support or profit from Israel’s war-making. The administration agreed to facilitate that discussion with the relevant UW investment decision-makers.

But even before the UW encampment went up, while demands for divestment were rising from other encampments on other campuses around the country, a UW Investment manager was interviewed and said preemptively and matter-of-factly (my paraphrase) that UW does not incorporate outside perspectives on its investing.

As if that were an immutable truth.

I imagine the activists thinking, “Certainly, some human beings make decisions about UW investments,” and “if so, surely those decisions can be made differently if the reasons are important enough.” And “what about the divestment movement of the ’80s? Isn’t this the same thing?” Student activists saw the cougar and lingered in that space.

I think about this a lot – not the least because as with the atrocities occurring in Palestine/Israel, the energy for demanding real change in addressing the climate crisis is disproportionately the wheelhouse of young activists. In the context of our climate crisis, we lack the imaginations to find a better way apart from tinkering around the edges of our current reality and we entertain implausible fantasies of perpetual economic growth, pollution, and fossil fuel use despite the realities of physics. Because it’s all we know.

Certainly, there is value in wisdom borne of experience and institutions, indeed my job largely depends on that fact, and I happily curate a shady little backwater of it. But what passes for wisdom may also be a longer history of having one’s ideals abraded by compromises and cynicisms. And real wisdom would invite some self-reflection on that possibility.

I think the essential value of youthful idealism is the greater comfort with standing in that space where you see possibility un-encumbered. And there may be a link to faith there. And as our status quo becomes more and more untenable, and its largely our students who will experience the worst of it, I think we should listen to them more seriously.

My prediction: the cougars are returning and it’s the probability rather than the possibility that’s changing.

Snapshot cougar:, Public Domain.
UW Gaza Encampment: Angela Major/WPR

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. 


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