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.