Strange animals out of the Ice Age

Here’s a confession: I neglect (though I don’t belittle) the Glacial Drumlin State Trail. This has nothing to do with a lack of beautiful scenery or interesting destinations, and everything to do with the necessity riding 10 miles on busy roads to the trailhead in Cottage Grove, and more particularly the three steep hill-climbs which must be traversed when coming back from the trailhead.

On this account I had never, before last month, quite managed to make it to Aztalan State Park. Now, Aztalan doesn’t quite fall under the natural history rubric, but it is a fascinating piece of human geography; the remains of a town in the northern extent of the Mississippian culture. Some of the mounds have been restored to a best-guess at their original condition:
Aztalan State Park, WI
When the area was settled by Europeans in the mid-nineteenth century, a judge from Milwaukee came down to look at the site. The stepped mounds put him in mind of Mesoamerican pyramids, and he had read in Humboldt that the lore of the Aztecs placed their original habitation to the north, in a location called Aztlan; and undeniably Wisconsin is somewhat north of Tenochtitlan/Mexico City, so, case closed! And the site and the nearby town became Aztalan. Though (as best can be determined) there’s no direct link between the Mississippians and the Aztecs, there was some continuum of trade and cultural exchange, reflected most solidly in food crops such as corn.

Honouring this connection, the day I visited there was a troupe giving a performance of traditional Aztec dance; this is an annual thing. I’m pretty ignorant when it comes to dance, I’ll be the first to admit, but it was vivid stuff, and was accompanied by some compelling drumming. The dancers wore headdresses with incredibly long pheasant feathers in them, which would from time to time be shaken out and fly from the headdress to land point-down in the grass and stay embedded there, still waving. Members of the Milwaukee-based troupe, when providing background, were careful to make the point that though an independent Aztec state is a thing of the past, the culture and language are not: a million and a half people still identify as native speakers of Nahuatl.

Though I went to Aztalan largely to see the mounds, Crawfish River runs through the park as well, and it’s pleasant to go sit on the unobtrusive stone boat-landings and watch the life on the river: water-striders, dragonflies, butterflies, and a leopard frog (Lithobates pipiens) half-in and half-out of the mud:
Aztalan State Park, WI

I watched the frog for awhile, wondering if it would have a go at one of the plentiful insects, but no.

En route to Aztalan I left the trail for awhile to have a look at Goose Lake State Wildlife Area. Goose Lake – like many smaller nature preserves – loses points for not really having any sort of legit bicycle parking in the parking lot. In these cases I usually lock my bike to the sign, but that feels vaguely wrong. I doubt bike thieves are frequenting these places, but not locking up feels like tempting fate. Anyway, Goose Lake is an attractive little wetland, or to be more exact a wetland-drumlin complex left behind by the last glaciation, as the DNR page tells me. It was still fairly early when I rolled up; this harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis) was still covered in dew:
Harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis), Goose Lake State Wildlife Area, WI
but recognizable from the M-shaped (or W-shaped if you prefer) markings on the pronotum. And down below, a viceroy clung to a blade of grass:
Viceroy (Limenitis archippus), Goose Lake State Wildlife Area, WI

Even on the road back to the trail butterflies were plentiful; in one verge between County Highway O and a farmer’s field there was a riot of clouded sulphur (Colias philodice):
County Road O, Jefferson Co., WI

In principle this could have been a day-trip, but there’s a nice little campground (Sandhill Station) just south of the Lake Mills trailhead, so I camped there. The mosquitoes were out in vast numbers by then, but my tent has mesh sides, so I was able to put it up without bothering with the fly and watch the Sun descend while listening to the sandhill cranes calling overhead; this in an environment largely mosquito-free, except for the enterprising ones who followed me in before I could zip up the flap. Those ones filled up in the first few minutes, and then just bumped listlessly against the tent-walls, all round and awkward with tiny little limbs and wings and proboscis sticking out, like Violet Beauregard in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

The showers and the DNR office are at the trailhead rather than on-site; when I stopped in there were Glacial Drumlin Trail T-shirts for sale, with a design featuring a cyclist among trees, streams, wildlife, and a woolly mammoth standing atop a glacier. I haven’t seen one solitary mammoth in my hours on the Glacial Drumlin! If de-extinction becomes a Thing, I suppose that might change. (Not necessarily for the better, though – here’s an informative and somewhat critical post on the idea from Brian Switek.)

They say the dead will rise again, and here they come now;
Strange animals out of the Ice Age.
And they stare at you, dumbfounded, like big mistakes, and we say:
Keep cool! Maybe if we pretend this never happened…
-Laurie Anderson, “Kokoku”

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