Many marvelous moments seen all at one time

Sunday afternoon the dog and I went to Maple Grove Forest Preserve, where we found the bridge over St. John’s Creek slick with ice. In fact every trail was, even the chipped trail down from the parking lot, where I would have thought the melting snow would soak in. The dog was afraid to cross the bridge, and I carried her across. On the other side she had a stand-off with an abandoned sled that involved raised hackles and a little growling, and we scooted down the trail to the west and north. The snow was falling lightly. Woodpeckers and blue jays were calling. At one point the dog’s legs slid out from underneath her and she splayed out on the trail like a cartoon dog on ice. Beside her sprawling body were the tracks of a squirrel who had bounded by less than an hour or two earlier, without so much as slipping, and up the slope to the west. How was it possible to run at full tilt without slipping on this ice when we were falling just walking across it?

Last week I was in Madison to give a lecture on our prairie work. There was a storm the night before I spoke, and the whole city was glazed with ice. After speaking, then lunching with old friends, then catching up with a colleague about data, I took a walk out through the northeast corner of Curtis Prairie to Teal Pond, thence to Gallistel Woods and Wingra Woods. At the south edge of Gallistel Woods, a pileated woodpecker flew off. How common have they become? I remember decades ago watching one excavate a nest on the West Grady Knoll for several days before he disappeared, and thinking that would be the end of it, the last I’d see a pileated woodpecker in Madison. When I returned to give a lecture years later I heard one again.

I walked these trails for many years as a ranger and naturalist and know them well, but they seemed to have stretched out in a few places. I walked past planted sweet birches and hemlocks in Wingra Woods to the skunk cabbages emerging from the springy soil at Skunk Cabbage Bridge. There must have been a dozen of them, though I couldn’t get close enough to count them all. I walked out past the Indian mounds and the planted yellow birches. I picked up my car, took a few photos and got a cup of coffee on the way out of town, then drove back to Downers Grove.

As I drove, I listened to Slaughterhouse Five, which I’d somehow never read. How had I missed this? Isn’t it required reading anywhere it isn’t banned? I was particularly taken with this passage, in which Billy Pilgrim has been kidnapped by extraterrestrials from the planet Tralfamadore and given a book in their language to read. He of course can’t read it, but he can see that it is “laid out in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars.” Here one of the Tralfamadorians explains the structure of a novel in their language:

“… each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”

As I write this, one week has ended and the next is about to begin. There are papers to write and students to meet with, the dog sleeping beside my chair and my family sleeping upstairs. Fats Waller has finished playing, Carol King and Joni Mitchell are echoing in my mind. There are cupcakes on the counter and a fresh snow outside. I have a good feeling about the coming week.

The whole will be reached through its parts

Winter gave us a break from routine this week. Monday we had a sloppy snow, and the kids were off of school. Travel was crummy. The next day, temperatures dropped to 0 F, and we all braced for Tuesday and Wednesday, which we’d already been warned would drop below -20 F. Temperatures went as low as predicted, and for two days everyone retired to their homes as best they could. We wrote, we played games, we watched movies, we caught up on correspondence, we cooked and ate. We stole outside for a few minutes at a time, putting Vaseline on our faces and the pads of the dog’s paws. Thursday morning I sat in our back room and watched Jupiter and Venus rise with the moon suspended between them. When the sun came up, we boiled a cup of water and whipped it into the air to watch it evaporate instantly into a cloud of vapor.

Friday we returned to work and school. We’d had a dusting of snow overnight, and the East Woods was filled with tracks. Animals seemed to be as stir-crazy as the humans. A mouse had run haywire, inscribing loops in the snow at the west edge of woods. It looked as though it had been scared by something, a hawk or owl perhaps, but I saw no evidence of an actual scuffle. Not ten steps away was a fallen log with a mouse pathway beneath, running straight, directly under the shadow of the log. Squirrels had come down from their trees to excavate a cache and gone straight back up. Things like this–the efficiency of a straight-there-straight-back route–make me think that squirrels must remember where their caches are. A cocoon of what I take to be a cecropia moth hung in a tree. How do they make it all the way through the winter?

At a distance of about 60 feet I saw a fox beneath a fallen tree, hunkered over something. I couldn’t get a photo before it was gone. Underneath the tree, however, there was a dead animal where the fox had been, what I take to have been a rabbit. Tracks were evident in the snow leading up to where the ball of fur lay. I followed the fox tracks westward out of the woods but didn’t see the fox again. Undoubtedly it was back to eating within a few minutes after I was gone, unnoticed, at peace to devour its quarry (or perhaps just its find) as visitors continued skiing, walking, chatting on the trails that pass by.

Saturday, temperatures kept rising. The snow was perfect for packing when Rachel and our younger son and I returned to the East Woods to find fleshy crowded parchment and turkey tail fungi on the exposed roots of a downed tree. Sunday, in Maple Grove Forest Preserve, the snow was melted even further, capturing the nuances of tracks inscribed from the night before. Skunk tracks intersected the trail here and there, and it makes me wonder now whether there is a chance the animal I tracked two weeks ago that I concluded had to be a raccoon might actually have been a skunk. No photos, but the claws and gait together suggest to me a skunk, not a raccoon.

During my walk at Maple Grove, I stood by St. Joseph Creek watching shards of ice breaking from the edge of the creek and sliding beneath the ice that was still frozen to the edge. They made a soft, scraping sound, like a water cracker being dragged across the surface of an unglazed ceramic plate. Some fragments disappeared, but others would pop out from under the ice and the sound would immediately stop, as the ice floated downstream toward Lisle. Chickadees and nuthatches were calling. For a few minutes, there were no papers to be written, no data to analyze. It seemed, briefly, that everything was in order.

As I post this I am turning back to the week’s work, and the moment brings to mind this passage from Seneca (Letter CVIII): “I’m going to tell you how this enthusiasm for learning… is to be brought under control if it isn’t going to stand in its own way. What is wanted is neither haphazard dipping nor a greedy onslaught on knowledge in the mass. The whole will be reached through its parts, and the burden must be adjusted to our strength. We mustn’t take on more than we can manage. You shouldn’t attempt to absorb all you want to — just what you’ve room for; simply adopt the right approach and you will end up with room for all you want.” I often think of this passage when I am trying to balance projects. Oddly, I have misremembered it as being a passage about how many books one has to read, or mixed it up with a similar excerpt from Seneca that is about having too many books to read.

In your lifetime, you get a finite number of moments like this that you then draw on for decades: the fox beneath the fallen tree; ice scraping its way downstream; skunk tracks crossing the trail in the wet snow; the bitter cold. It is remarkable how short these moments are and how much they mean to us.