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I thought the woods and the world were connected

This post is a little unusual: it’s also written to fulfill an assignment for one of Chicago-based Prairie Lab‘s Biomimicry Immersion courses, which I attended last month in a very rainy Morton Arboretum. Life’s Principles, which are referenced several times over the course of the post, are described here. The assignment was to observe these principles in action in an ecosystem local to me.

The place I observed was in Caretaker’s Woods, part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Lakeshore Preserve. It was early evening on May 20th, cloudy, and a brisk 10C – unseasonably chilly for late May in Madison, but humid.

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Looking out and up I can see that the trees (maples and oaks) are more or less fully leaved. This makes for considerable shade at ground level; as a consequence, almost all of the spring ephemerals are gone for this year. The only early-spring flower which is still abundant is waterleaf (Hydrophyllum); their shade tolerance allows them to stake out a niche in time with less competition from other ephemerals. I wonder what sensitivity to local conditions they employ in order to emerge later, unlike ephemerals which shoot up with the first warm weather and sunny days. From the ever-authoritative Illinois Wildflowers website, I learn that they are liable to be displaced by invasive garlic mustard. In the Preserve, eagle-eyed hordes of volunteers regularly harrow the garlic mustard, so there is little to be seen.

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Illinois Wildflowers also tells me that sunlight bleaches waterleaf flowers; I don’t see much evidence of this on my walk. There appear to be as many white flowers in the deep gloom as there are purple ones in half-sunlight under the eaves of the woods. This seems like a flag for embodying resilience through variation.

In the shade and damp, fungi are sending up fruiting bodies; on several fallen logs I see large brackets of dryad’s saddle (Polyporus squamosus). They are busy breaking down the wood into re-usable constituents, part of a recycling process. As well as the fallen logs, whose nutrients are in the process of being returned to the soil, the space cleared by their fall is full of seedlings: a very simple mechanism of self-organization and renewal.

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The woods are structured into layers, from the leaf-litter up to the treetops in the open air. High above, I can hear rather than see squirrels running quickly and loudly across treetrunks. I wonder at how loud they are, and what trade-off of speed versus stealth is involved. No doubt there are fewer predators up in the treetops, but there are still hawks and owls.

Birdsong is also audible; I don’t know of what species. They are making sound on purpose; to attract mates? Stake out territory? I recently listened to an interview with scientist Shigeru Miyagawa, who has an interesting hypothesis about the wellsprings of human language: many vertebrates have an active system of signs, such as chimpanzees which make gestures to give directions to one another and have sounds for certain types of food; singing birds have songs with complex structure, but which communicate little beyond, as Lewis Thomas summarized it, “Thrush here”. Only in humans have these two strategies been combined to give rise to language proper. In the call-and-response of the songs, I seem to hear a trace of the feedback loops which hold this community of birds together.

Going over the various strategies I’ve observed, I can see the various Principles at work: Adapting to Changing Conditions (the variation of Hydrophyllum colours, the self-renewal of the seedlings sprouting in clearings); Being Locally Attuned and Responsive (Hydrophyllum‘s timing and the feedback loops of the birds exchanging song); Using Life-Friendly Chemistry (the action of the dryad’s saddles in decomposing); Being Resource-Efficient (the recycling of materials, and the shade-tolerance of the ephemerals); Integrating Development with Growth (the way that the fall of old trees allows for growth of new ones). Nothing immediately calls Evolving to Survive to mind: certainly due to my unpracticed eye, not to its absence!

In my day job as a software engineer, old code rarely does much to foster the growth of new code – really, mostly the old actively inhibits and obstructs the new. What lessons does a forest have for the long-term software lifecycle? How could obsolete code be constructively “decomposed”? I also remain, obviously, intrigued by the Hydrophyllum‘s late-early-spring strategy, and need to read more about how it does this, and think about what more general strategies for adaptation can be abstracted from it.

Thanks to Prairie Lab’s Amy Coffman Phillips for the course, and to the many University faculty and staff, and volunteers who maintain the Lakeshore Preserve in the middle of the city. (It probably helps that grad student no longer live there in tents in the summer, mind you…)

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True journey is return

To be whole is to be part; true journey is return.
-Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed

(Previous posts from this trip: Black Earth energy receptor fields, The Wisconsin desert, Mother of Waters)

The silence of a country road in the Driftless Area at dawn Sunday morning is deep, though not uninterrupted: it was broken by the odd rooster, a dog here and there, the siren of a single Crawford County Sheriff’s Department car blasting down the lane on its way to some rural emergency, and me getting short of breath and cursing Google Maps for its propensity to direct me down hilly back-roads instead of flatter if busier main arteries.

In about an hour I reached US-18 and from there things were smoother: rolling, but without so many bastards of hills. For several miles I kept passing Mennonites in carriages; the driver would lift a dignified hand in greeting, which I would attempt to return. I think I got the lifting part down. At any rate, it was another hour and a half or so of that to Fennimore, where I stopped for two breakfasts – again featuring blueberry pancakes exceeding my head in diameter, and if you haven’t seen my head it’s one of those long, lantern-jawed Irish deals, I have a hard time finding hats that fit – and then another couple of hours to the city of Dodgeville.

My initial plan had been to roll into Governor Dodge State Park, do a little hiking there, camp, and head home; but once I reached Dodgeville and the head of the Military Ridge trail, it struck me that it was only 1 in the afternoon, and the rest of the way was mostly downhill on trails, with a couple of possible spots to break for the day if I really couldn’t push on. So I kept on going, and ended up home at around twilight: a distance of about 107 miles. That’s my first century, though I feel it was so lackadaisical that it’s hardly worthy of the name.

And so there ended up being no natural history to speak of on that leg of the trip, though the highway did pass through some striking rock-cuts, and there were plenty of butterflies along the trail. I put in my headphones and enjoyed just being out there. When the going got difficult in the last dozen miles or so, I did switch my listening to the heavy inspiration guns: “Northwest Passage”, and the main theme from Pacific Rim. And then I was home, ready to shower, eat, and collapse, in no particular order.

I’ll close out with some of the pictures I didn’t find a place for earlier, and some random thoughts. From Cross Plains, the first morning, this delightful mammoth sculpture at the Ice Age Trail office:
Mammoth sculpture at Ice Age Trail Alliance HQ in Cross Plains WI

A ladybird pupa clinging to a blade of grass, right by my front wheel, at Tower Hill:
Ladybird pupa with bike, Tower Hill State Park

A rock-cut just past the river crossing at Boscobel:
Roadcut on Hwy 60 just outside Boscobel WI

A view towards the lip of Pictured Rock Cave at Wyalusing:
Above Pictured Rock Cave, Wyalusing State Park

and a plaque commemorating the entry of Père Marquette and Louis Joliet – and 5 Métis voyageurs, who are generally not named and not even mentioned by this inscription, but who doubtless did the heavy lifting and navigating – into the Mississippi from the Wisconsin, 300 years and a few weeks before I was born:
Marquette and Joliet commemorated, Wyalusing State Park

All in all, despite some tough bits, it was an excellent trip. If anything went less well than hoped, it’s that really clear nights have been in short supply this summer, meaning that even though I was in fairly dark-sky locations there wasn’t much by way of stargazing to be had. Which is especially sad, given that Wyalusing State Park has its own observatory! But otherwise the weather co-operated, and even the bugs weren’t too bad.

One thing I noticed, though, is that after 2 days of serious riding (60-70 miles), my appetite for adventure on the third day is greatly lessened. Next time I do this, I’ll plan on following every 2 days of hard riding with a down day, probably of 25 miles or less, to relax and recuperate. On that plan, I’m thinking a 350-mile roundtrip over a week, though probably not until next year. Still contemplating possible destinations; possibly the complement to this year’s trip, following the Fox River to Lake Michigan at Green Bay.

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Mother of Waters

(Previously: Black Earth energy receptor fields, The Wisconsin desert)

O it’s fine to get up all in the morning
With the lark flying high in the sky,
And pack up all your belongings …
-John Tams

July 19th; second day of the Mississippi trip. In a way it wasn’t until I was packing up to head westward that I was really conscious of having an adventure: rather than turning around to go back home as I usually do on weekend trips, I was pressing on to fresh fields and pastures new.

I picked up the bike trail for a few miles to the very small village of Gotham – pronounced “Goe-tham” – where I joined Highway 60, which winds along with the Wisconsin River. Wooded bluffs rose on my right hand:

Highway 60, west of Gotham WI

and the river with its many islands shimmered on my left:

Wisconsin River from Hwy. 60, between Gotham and Orion

and for the first hour or so, traffic was almost non-existent.

One of the bluffs that I passed bears the curious name of Bogus Bluff. In his book, The Wisconsin: River of a Thousand Isles, August Derleth has the following to say:

Around Bogus Bluff in the town of Orion has sprung up a really remarkable rigmarole of legend and fact. There is, for instance, the account which is purported to have appeared in print in the Vienna (Austria) Courier of a cave near the bluff in which abounded the bones of prehistoric animals, and the skeletons of a vanished race. One S. von W., supposedly the author of the account, wrote: “Fragments of rock were everywhere, amongst them the bones of prehistoric animals. Here and there were also fragments and antlers of deer and elk … I cannot describe the horror I felt. The bottom of the cave was covered with skeletons of a vanished race. Skulls were everywhere…”

But it is the counterfeiters who lend something of authority to the fascination of Bogus Bluff. There were counterfeiters, apparently…[t]he variety of the stories handed down is infinite.

Orion is a ghost-town now, but just across the river is Muscoda, Morel Mushroom Capital of Wisconsin. Though alive and well, Muscoda was not yet really awake. I stopped for a rest at a park with a war memorial and an appropriately-decorated Little Free Library:

Little Free Library and war memorial, Muscoda WI

which contained a copy of Susan Cooper’s Silver on the Tree, the final book in the Dark is Rising sequence.

From Muscoda westward again, on a path running through Big Cat Slough, and then onto Highway 133 and through Blue River. It was getting on towards mid-morning, and people were out and about as they hadn’t been in Gotham or Muscoda; people sitting out on their stoop waved to me. Looking south from the main drag of Blue River you could see a striking series of high, isolated bluffs rising out of the floodplain, with the sun shining on their tops, so I can well imagine that sitting outside is popular.

And beyond Blue River is Boscobel. Notable in trivia as the birthplace of the Gideons, and home town of Senator Blaine, the architect of the repeal of Prohibition, it was of interest to me in that moment largely as the location of the Unique Café, a popular little spot where I wolfed down two breakfasts in one sitting.

With that ballast, I crossed the river once more. The remaining 25 miles of riding, and particularly the last 10, were a heck of a slog which I won’t go into great detail about; except to note that the precipitous hill climb on the way into Wyalusing State Park was beyond grueling, and in fact for a substantial chunk of it I gave up and walked my bike, and for a percentage of that chunk I just flopped on a bank of grass and got my breath back.

Not far past the top of the hill is a little store selling odds and ends just outside the park entrance, where I stopped for a cold Coke and chatted with the woman who ran it. When I explained that I’d come from Madison on my bike – though, you know, not all that day – and climbed that freaking hill, her reasonable question was “What on Earth possessed you to do that?” The park ranger who checked me in asked more or less the same question.

Inevitably, there was another climb to get to my campsite, but after a couple of litres of water I was able to face that and make camp. I just rested my noodly legs for about a half hour, but then pulled up the trail map and went for a hike.

Sugar Maple Trail, Wyalusing State Park

This trail wound past Pictured Rock Cave:

Pictured Rock Cave, Wyalusing State Park

and down, across a road, across train tracks, to the waters of the Mississippi, where I took off my shoes and waded in the cool shallows:

Wading in the Mississippi, Wyalusing State Park

Just a couple of hundred feet from the water’s edge the Sentinel Ridge trail begins. This climbs fairly steeply up the ridge in several stages, eventually taking you a few hundred feet above the water. It was steep enough that I kept worrying my legs, given all they’d already been through that day, would just give up. But apparently they were willing to do pretty much anything, as long as it wasn’t getting a bike up that damn hill on County Road C. I had to stop and catch my breath several times, but even before reaching the heights there were significant rewards. The constant reader will not be surprised that by “rewards”, I mean “ferns”; lip-ferns (Cheilanthes) to be specific:

Fern (Cheilanthes sp.), Sentinel Ridge Trail, Wyalusing State Park

This is my first Cheilanthes in Wisconsin, though I saw several in Yosemite.

At that point I thought I was close to the top of the ridge, but no – there were yet more steep pathways and steps to traverse. Finally I emerged onto a grassy swathe which ended in a parapet overlooking the river. Set into the bricks was a monument to the last Wisconsin passenger pigeon:

Passenger Pigeon Memorial, Wyalusing State Park

and spread out far below was the delta where the Wisconsin flows into the Mississippi:

View of confluence of Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, Point Lookout, Wyalusing State Park

It was an amazing sight that brought tears to my eyes. I don’t know that it entirely makes sense, but something about having reached that point under my own steam, having bicycled and camped and walked and climbed from my front door, was an answer to those questions from earlier: why I had undertaken the whole weird journey in the first place. Whenever a freight train passed over the tracks, the sound would carry across the water and upward, reaching the ear as a distant, muted and evocative clatter.

About the rest of the evening there is not much to tell, except that a little farther on, at the north end of the park, was a small concession-stand operated by the Friends of Wyalusing State Park, whose primary dinner offering was microwaved cheeseburger. I ate one, and then sheepishly went back for two more. It had been a good seven hours since breakfast in Baraboo, and those cheeseburgers tasted ambrosial. I wandered downhill and back to my camp-site, and read until I started to doze off, which did not, unsurprisingly, take long at all.

Concluded in Part 4: True journey is return.

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Black Earth energy receptor fields

July 18th, 2014, early morning: the air still cool and the Sun not yet above the trees. Saddlebags packed, water-bottles filled, coffee drunk, and it’s time for me to roll out on my first multi-day bike adventure (not counting overnight camping trips) in 4 years.

The first stop is not a spectacular one: it’s the local laundromat, so I can lay in a stock of quarters. With those clinking in a pocket of my messenger bag, it’s off through still-dozing Madison. Lake Mendota reflects the rising Sun in red and orange, for the enjoyment of the stalwart runners and anglers who are already out, and for mine. It’s all well-trodden ground for the first hour, until I reach Airport Road in Middleton and start heading towards Cross Plains.

This is the first of a series of little towns on the way to the Wisconsin River, like a ghost outline of the old railway: Cross Plains, Black Earth, Mazomanie, Arena. Apart from a steep hill I go down towards Cross Plains, and a climb up to the junction with highway 14 in Mazomanie, the road is mostly level and, until I hit 14, almost entirely free of traffic; with the air temperature just about perfect, riding seems like no effort at all. It’s like being on a carousel.

It’s a little more work following 14 past Arena to Tower Hill State Park, particularly the last mile or so, which is, unsurprisingly, hilly. The main feature of Tower Hill is the old Helena Shot Tower, which was used, before technology overtook it, to create round lead shot by dropping molten lead from a considerable height into water. After it fell out of use, it was acquired by Unitarian preacher Jenkin Lloyd Jones – the architect’s uncle – and then on his death donated to the state. It’s still in good shape, and extremely popular with bats, whose chittering echoed from the dimly-lit rafters.
Looking down the shot tower, Tower Hill State Park
While it was still operating, the shot tower was visited by Captain Frederick Marryatt, author of Mr. Midshipman Easy, who writes:

Finding a shot-tower in such a lone wilderness as this, gives you some idea of the enterprise of the Americans; but the Galena, or lead district, commences here, on the south bank of the Wisconsin. The smelting is carried on about twelve miles inland, and the lead is brought here, made into shot, and then sent down the river to the Mississippi, by which, and its tributary streams, it is supplied to all America, west of the Alleghanies.

The short, forested path up the shallow side of the bluff to the tower is home to a great many unobtrusive but subtly attractive moths:
Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers Trip, 7/2014
and on the way back down, I was lucky enough to see this splendid ebony jewelwing:
Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata), Tower Hill State Park

Rolling out of Tower Hill I pick up the road again, which winds past Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin to the bridge across the Wisconsin and into the town of Spring Green.
Wisconsin River at Spring Green

Once into Spring Green I pull into a Culver’s for lunch. I have to confess, that when I’m on a bike trip my tendency is to go for predictable, fast, plentiful food in lieu of culinary adventures. Over lunch I enjoy the contemplation that I’ve already done the bulk of my planned distance for the day – it’s only about ten more miles to the campground I’m booked into. And so, I head farther up the road to the Spring Green Preserve, confident that I have plenty of time for a relaxed wander there.

Continued in:
Part 2: The Wisconsin desert
Part 3: Mother of Waters
Part 4: True journey is return

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A topographic anomaly

Despite falling in the middle of a spell of humid and stormy weather, the Fourth of July this year dawned with almost perfect weather, and I took advantage of it by heading to Blue Mound State Park for the day.

Last fall I posted a view of West Blue Mound, seen through mists from the trail winding past its foot:
Blue Mound in mist, 9/8/2013

And this summer, the view from the top, in sunshine:
View from West Observation Tower, Blue Mound State Park, 7/4/14

That’s from the top of one of the observation towers helpfully provided, since in summertime the view would otherwise be confined to what you could see through the trees. The tower is not incredibly high, all things considered – just enough to be over the treetops – but it was an epic enough climb for me, given my lack of head for heights, that getting to the top without a panic attack felt like a considerable achievement. The view (as you can see) really was worth it.

When I reached the ground again, I was met by a bedraggled but still striking Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus):
Blue Mound State Park, 7/4/14
I often see butterflies gamely continuing on with very torn-up wings, and I’m sure it’s anthropomorphizing but I always find it moving. Particularly those last few tatters of iridescent blue that you can see in the tail there.

The Flintrock Trail runs down from the Tower and around through the northwest section of the park; as the name suggests there are many boulders and outcroppings of chert along the route. Apart from being visually striking, the masses of chert on West Blue Mound are a strong going explanation for why it has stayed a high point:

Blue Mound State Park, located in the state of Wisconsin (USA), is host to a topographic anomaly known as Blue Mound. This mound is the western of the two mounds that make up the park, and it marks the highest elevation in southern Wisconsin. Unlike its eastern sibling, Blue Mound possesses an unusual chert cap that may have protected it from erosion, thus preserving its stratigraphic integrity. Although Blue Mound’s unique chert armor was noted in 1927 by the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, no published work has satisfactorily explained its origin.

The plentiful chert outcroppings and boulders also support a variety of plant-life, from mosses and liverworts, to rock polypody:
Blue Mound State Park, 7/4/14
and even flowering plants, such as these tenacious harebells:
Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), Blue Mound State Park, 7/4/14

Perching on a rotten log was an ichneumon wasp with an ovipositor as long again as the rest of its body:
Blue Mound State Park, 7/4/14

Mourning-cloaks flitted around like little scraps of shadow:
Blue Mound State Park, 7/4/14

The cooperation of the weather with the holiday really was striking; the day before and day after were both dismal. The bison statues next to the bike path in the Midvale Heights neighbourhood of southwest Madison were decorated for the occasion:
Bison of Liberty, Midvale Heights, Madison

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Where the Sun doesn’t hide

I want to be where the Sun doesn’t hide
Down on the unbeaten track
Over the border, under the wire
Out in the back
I’ll never turn back…

-The Men They Couldn’t Hang, “A Map of Morocco”

At the crossroads,  SW Wisconsin
Dear Reader, is this sign not Romance incarnate? You can roll to a stop in the grass and consider, under a noonday sun that seems poised – in defiance of all Newtonian mechanics – to just hang there forever, which way to go next. It suggests that in another dozen miles or so you would meet a similar sign, and another, indefinitely; sad to say, not really the case (yet) – the farthest you can go is Freeport, Illinois, and then it’s back to the highways. The Road does not go ever on.

But it’s enough for a weekend off, cycling among these little towns; their names paying tribute to (among others) Thomas Jefferson, St. Hilary of Poitiers, and Edward Brodhead, Chief Engineer of the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad. The trails are converted rail-beds, making for mostly easy riding. There are bright and sunny stretches of recovering meadow, shady woodlands, and long segments with marshland to either side, particularly on the Sugar River Trail past Monticello. And, of course, there is the former railway tunnel, south of Belleville; not all that long, but very dark when you get into it due to bending in the middle. Even on the hottest days it exhales cool, moist air, and if your bike lights, like mine, are sufficient to keep you from running into a wall or stumbling over a rock but not adequate to illuminating the whole interior, then it is something of an awe-inspiring experience: a brief jaunt into the Underworld. The rock-cuts at either end almost always have water trickling down them, and are festooned in moss, ferns, and spiderwebs.

In high summer, which we seem to be entering early, once you get past around Exeter Crossing Road on the Badger Trail there always seems to be a profusion of butterflies. I definitely saw a great many crescents and clouded sulphurs, and a few viceroys and swallowtails, and a couple of blues. None of them had time to stand still for my camera. The trail banks were covered in flowers; mostly dame’s-rocket and wild geranium, but with the occasional Canada anemone, wild salsify, and in one spot, greater celandine:

Greater celandine (Chelidonium majus), Badger State Trail near tunnel

.. not to be confused with the lesser celandine of the Wordsworth poem; or the celandine-poppy, which I blogged earlier in the season. (Sidebar: in several places, mind you, I’ve read the assertion that on Wordsworth’s memorial in St. Oswald’s Church is a carving of the greater celandine; if true, an error similar to the placing of an Archimedean spiral rather than a logarithmic spiral on Jakob Bernoulli’s memorial. The Archimedean spiral is all very well, but lacks the particular symmetry which justifies the Latin motto Eadem mutata resurgo (“though changed I shall arise the same”). In both cases, perhaps unsurprisingly, my sympathies are with the artisan who was given insufficiently-clear requirements.) Though not immortalized in poetry, the greater celandine may yield antibiotics effective against MRSA.

More servants wait on man
Than he’ll take notice of; in ev’ry path
He treads down that which doth befriend him,
When sickness makes him pale and wan.
-George Herbert

The crossroads above actually marked the point where I turned back, to follow the Sugar River Trail to its end in New Glarus. That stretch of trail meanders past Monticello’s old railway station, offering a bench in the shade, and has a very beautiful segment with a rock-face on one side and a slope running down to the river on the other:
Sugar River State Trail, N of Monticello
I only resisted with great difficulty scrambling up to that cave to have a look inside. I did scramble up a bit to snap these ferns:
?Rock polypody (Polypodium virginianum), Sugar River Trail between Monticello and New Glarus
.. rock polypody, I believe.

A spur trail leads from the town of New Glarus right up to the park. Their walk-in sites are lovely: mine had adequate shade, just a bit of a slope, and an expanse of mostly rock-free, mossy ground to pitch my tent on. After a short rest I headed out for a ramble. I checked the current weather on my phone and it had hit 30C; definitely hot for the 31st of May! New Glarus Woods is not a huge park but it has about six miles of trail. Oddly enough, it was only when I was wandering down the paved spur trail back into town to get some dinner that I saw my first tiger beetle of the year:
Six-spotted tiger beetle (Cicindela sexguttata), New Glarus Woods State Park

I ate, by the bye, at a place right on the trail which basically wins at signs: “Sugar River Pizza Company: 80+ Craft Brews”. They will also serve you an enormous bowl of cinnamon nuggets and vanilla gelato. Oddly, after a long day’s ride plus about an hour and a half hike, I was unable to do proper justice to their food; the heat and sun must have flattened out my appetite. (The next day, after the ride home, I was able to inhale a full order of biscuits and gravy from 4&20 plus a full order of their French toast, so there’s that.) Then back to a nice quiet campsite, and the cool night air stealing under the fly of my tent.

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Lost City Forest and Area X

Out of a looming work deadline, I managed to carve out a short jaunt last weekend, in which I walked in the Lost City Forest and thought about Area X.

Fiddlehead, Gallistel Woods / Lost City Forest, UW Arboretum

Lost City Forest is a part of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum. The name is not a flight of some ecologist’s whimsy – it refers to the land’s previous but short-lived existence as the site of a housing development touted as the “Venice of the Midwest”, where construction started with grand ambitions, but failed to take adequate note of some engineering considerations, such as the load-bearing capacity of the low-lying, marshy soil.

Not to put too fine a point on it, they built a subdivision in the swamp, because everybody said it were daft, and it sank into the swamp. Such difficulties can be overcome with sufficient cash and political will – for an example, St. Petersburg – but the Lake Forest Land Company was not the Tsar of All the Russias. They simply went bankrupt, and nobody else really felt like taking up the torch of building the Venice of the Midwest, so the land became part of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, and in time turned into Lost City Forest.

Area X, on the other hand, is not exactly a real place. It’s a creation of weird fiction author Jeff Vandermeer, in his Southern Reach trilogy, out this year (the first two volumes already published, the third due in September). In Area X, inexplicable and unsettling things happen. There is a tower – or maybe it’s a tunnel into the ground, people can’t quite seem to agree – with a fungus growing on the walls whose fruiting bodies spell out semi-coherent apocalyptic text. People who enter Area X either never come out, or re-appear suddenly well outside its borders, dying of cancer. Meanwhile, the air and water there are oddly low in environmental pollutants.

I say it’s not exactly a real place, because it is inspired in part by St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, not far from where the author lives. The descriptions of natural and semi-natural places have the detailed feel of careful observation; in the first book, Annihilation, there is a vivid sketch of an overgrown, abandoned swimming pool, a touchstone for the book’s viewpoint character (not given any name beyond ‘the biologist’ and her husband’s nickname for her, ‘Ghost Bird’), which appeals to all the senses – even reading it on a bus in icy February, I could smell the algae in the water, and hear frogs calling in the humid night air.

As I wandered through the hush of the Lost City Forest, the bones of hundred-year-old house foundations invisible beneath my feet, I found myself thinking of Area X. Before its mysterious transformation, Area X was not a pristine wilderness; people lived there. Like almost every place on land it has a history with humans; “history” having the colloquial connotation of “there’s been a messy relationship”, as well as the primary meaning. But, uniquely, it has been forcibly re-wilded by some undetermined agency: God? Aliens? Ghosts? Its own will, somehow? That aside, there remains something unsettling about how quickly and thoroughly a piece of terrain can be, well, un-settled, the traces of human work reduced within a lifetime to crumbling cement under tree-roots. You feel that very strongly in Lost City Forest.

Where there was full sunlight and water, there were turtles (Chrysemis picta):
Turtle, Teal Pond
They basked at the edge of Lake Wingra and in Teal Pond. By my feet, a young snapping turtle zipped into the water, too fast for me to get my camera in place. By the way, this belief has no basis in fact, but every year I feel that once turtles are out, winter doesn’t get any more touchbacks. A solid wall of clouds laden with snow could move in, but then they’d have to be “I can’t, you guys. There’s turtles.”

It doesn’t quite fit the narrative flow, but most of the good pictures I got that day came from neighbouring Gallistel Woods, rather than Lost City itself. As the season advances, more colourful wildflowers are starting to appear, like celandine-poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum):
Celandine-poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum), Gallistel Woods, UW Arboretum
and prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum):
Prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum), Gallistel Woods, UW Arboretum

In Ontario, where I was born and raised, the (white) trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) is the provincial flower, and it’s actually kind of a big deal there; I can’t think of any other province or state where the official flower is such a thing, except maybe Texas with the yellow roses. The state flower of Wisconsin is the wood-violet, and even here in the capital I’d be prepared to bet that only a minority of people I buttonholed on the street would be able to tell me that without recourse to Wikipedia, which, full disclosure, is how I found out to put it in this post. Anyway, as a boy I was assured any number of times that picking trilliums was highly illegal, although this doesn’t actually seem to be the case.

Outside of the woods, the life of my species went on. A helicopter came in to land on the roof of St. Mary’s Hospital; a brass-band in the park played “Solidarity Forever”; someone went by with most of a windowsill container gardened balanced on the handlebars of their bike. If any naturalists are observing us, that is the sort of thing I’d prefer them to see.

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