• NATURE •
“Long before the light of the first day of fall had broken, I had climbed to a place on top of the Mounds near the former home of the novelist Frederick Manfred. There ran one of the mysteries of my world, a stone fence extending 1,250 feet to the eastern edge of the Mounds, and so placed that it pointed exactly to the spot on the horizon at which the sun always rises on the spring and fall equinoxes.”
– Gruchow, Journal of a Prairie Year
It seems that as the sunless days of November string along so too the narratives of the landscapes diminish, become bare bones and maybe a bit more real. To walk to the top of the old prairie knoll at Governor Nelson State Park off the north shore of Lake Mendota in the middle of the flowering season, every burning color under the blanket of sunlight seems to hold a story up in their leaves, punctuated by wisp of the Prairie Smoke or umbrellaed flop of the Black-eyed Susan. The sky is still telling stories, a mix and match of the airwaves, as songbirds scuttle in among the prairie brush for seeds or insects as the hawk lays on his final seance swirling over entirety of the prairie geography. By offseason november though – the slate of the sky having sunk into lakeside ether seemingly and permanently – its the structures that now take hold of what imagination is left. The woodland path leads up and through slight galleys, filled to either side by the striving invasive of buckthorn and have grown to a height, here by the near end of autumn, closing in mid tree of the oaks behind. I now call this a restoration moment. It happens now as you walk along any park path, the moment when you realize that most of the foliage you are looking at doesn’t belong, so to speak, in that spot, where once the ground cover would have lived in closer harmony to the revolving protection of oaks, and this would have been savanna. The invasives don’t offer much of a story either, a simpler kind of fast-track seeding, edge out the grasses and the prairie clovers, and wave wide leaves around to collect the remaining sunshine. The trail continues along to Panther Mound, one of hundreds that are still available to see in the Madison area, from the Mound Builders native to these sites and ancestors Ho-Chunk and Winnebagos. Signs describe the importance of these burial sights, for the deceased to be bound in an afterlife with earth itself. Other buildings, of much more current time, stand at spots along the trail and tell of past usage – an unusual five-walled stop off building with long overhangs and doors set deep into the structure, maybe an old bathroom or small nature center, but clearly no longer in use. To the front of this building, a short park easement that transitions to lakeside houses benefitting from a particularly wonderful view. I notice here, as I look out onto quiet but more busy streets of the neighborhood, that, as usual, I am along on this back trail meandering through dark leaves and Indian Mounds and wonder how often the Ho-Chunk themselves found their own trails lining these woods and decided to walk for no reason other scouting nature for leads or even beauty. As the trail climbs up what must be something of a knoll over even drumlin, it crests and and then moves backwards through a much better kept grass prairie with rolling hills, mowed to a lush green and loops around the outer edges of the park grounds looking out at Mendota. On more dreary days like these, when the full joy of sun and color are not in offering, there is always the panorama that tells story, of the four lakes chain, the marshland just east where the Yahara flows out and gives this part of world its wonderful water. It’s at this moment when you can picture a moment of choosing this sight for living, a high ground, full of protection and grasses for usage, the routes for transportation and trade, the sky still wide and quiet, and the savanna, then, a welcome home.