SEPTEMBER 11, 2018

Prairie East

“Two rivers meet at this corner of the city

where a one-thousand-step polo field is smooth as if planed

and a low wall stretches around three sides.” – Han Yu, “Poem to Commander Zhang at the Meeting of the Bian and Si Rivers”


Fives Lakes of the Yahara have been rising for what seems like weeks. Those of us on the isthmus watch the nearly golden green bank of the River rise, inching up into the grass like a thousand eyes of snakes. Ducks now splash in unknown banks, plucking, surely, at worms who have lost their skinny canals in the rich earth: a bounty for some, loss for others. No matter. On the fine and bright days, the flood is a new and calm sheet of crystals, new contrasts, frothy in among the long line of bridges that span over, and we can no longer take them for granted. We walk new paths to check on the lochs at Mendota. Rumbling water, churning, surging in between two mammoth walls of four foot concrete, ease our concerns until we look downriver and see the parked pontoons under large and temporary canvas roofs, rising up to meet its ceiling. Tennis courts tilted, and exposing how basically uneven its surface. Hills and valleys exposed at every turn; we are all curious animals, watching the inevitable.

And so a trip to the prairie. And so a trip across the city at rush hour. Main roads closed, traffic in a hurry, hands gripped to steering wheels tighter than ever; all as we find pockets of water damage at the bike path or the swell at a street side storm drain, but quietly glide afloat and behind the wheel. Turn on your music. Ward off the rain forever. Transplant the rain to California, to Spain, the red targets of wildfires, to the villages of the Sahara, find that answer. City is contrasts. City is a game, a love, a world onto its own, Monona Terrace a bright wide smile against the churning blue below; the rip rap down the path has been undercut and weedy water has crept up to the wall of the terrace. What will it be? At Longenecker I follow nothing more than a path lit by sunlight. That is all. A dry path, through the horticulture of crabapple, hawthorn, and finally the prehistoric spruce, limbs like loving arms, draped by beads, kindly as mothers. Two fawns don’t scare easily. I am quite sure that they see me as something as a long companion, as they move closer to me, biting away at the plums that dangle down like finger fruit. The sky is a powder. Faint voices of walkers along Arboretum path are cheery against the Wingra quiet.

It is true that at the highest bench, stationed at the top of a drumlin, I sat for an hour and watched out over the mismatched trees, a long green procession without people and without the gulping of water. It is true that there I told myself not to keep moving, as we are trained at home, keeping watch, checking emails, tuning in baseball games, plucking weeds, prepping meals. It is true that I was already sitting there from the time before I had visited. I had never left. A rabbit began nibbling close to me because it knew I was and was not there. I was the shape and shade of a tree, still, reliable. Crickets did not sing for me and for that I thanked them. Three turkeys passed below pecking at old chestnuts. One of their feathers sat the shape of a miniature boat against the green grass. I took a picture and sent it through my naturalist phone app to test it. The city was not a city. The water of the lakes was not thinking of moving one way or another. There was none of me there. Soon, here, I will leave.