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Red and Yellows, Fall in Wisconsin

A patchwork fall decline spread below as the plane dipped into Madison. Washington is not known for autumn color, vine maples, growing as an unassuming shrub in most places, are the most assertive of native hues. Wisconsin, I would soon learn, had a plethora of colors to choose from.


Intimating that the landscape below reflected a native state would be a falsehood. Less than 200 years ago the scene below would have been of prairie with encroaching hardwoods in an eons long land struggle. The area we call Wisconsin was very different before plow, cow, and the human aversion to wildfire. Buffalo would have roamed the grasslands and the only the toughest of trees would have been able to stand strong against the annual fires that renewed the quilted prairie. My home of Washington state can easily bemoan the loss of stable ecosystems, of species, of diversity. But our state still resembles what it was, albeit less grandiose. We have also lost much of our native prairies and shrub steppe in the same schemes that have gobbled Wisconsin’s. I guess we’ve just had less time to muck things up.


My first walk through the beautiful hues of fall was with my dear friends Dave and Jamie, my hosts and impetus for my trip. I’ll never travel somewhere without binoculars, meaning that plans to scamper off are never so spur of the moment that I’ll not consider birding, but this wasn’t necessarily a birding trip. The season wasn’t known for birds and I simply wanted to see a new place. Cherokee Marsh, my first step outside, embodied exactly that.

The overcast day lit the parkland in subdued tones complementing colors dripped across the landscape. None of the birds were new, laughably common to the ardent birder, but I struggled to think about the last time I’d seen an actual blue jay, or seen more than one white-throated sparrow foraging along the treeline. American tree sparrows were always a treat and stayed true to their names. Warblers were scant but an ovenbird walked down the path before us and the constant chip of myrtle warblers accompanied me every day during my visit. The familiar trumpets of sandhill cranes summoned memories of wetlands bordered by shrub steppe not prairie, my connection to them wholly different. Canada geese flew over in loud strung out skeins just like anywhere up north.


Birds may have shared similarities to home but the plant life was far flung from my world of evergreens. Maples, oaks, basswoods, hickories – the species were all new to me. My favorite of them was the burr oak, one of the most fire resistant of the bunch with a fine shield of cork swaddling their trunks. Shag-bark hickory was a close second, simply because of the wonderful loose texture of a mature tree’s trunk. No matter that my friends didn’t know all the native grasses, their mosaic was unlike any I’d seen. Seedheads had long replaced the prairie flowers but this made for interesting investigations too.

I can’t help but compare what’s familiar with the new, a habit that’s useful but is also a distraction. The Rocky Mountains and vast plains may separate my chosen home from that of my friends’ but it’s still in the Northern Hemisphere. They too had great amounts of ice cover and scour their land. The cordilleran sheet sent out the Green Bay spur into what would be called Wisconsin. Washington had a spur called the Vashon lobe that crept into a river valley that would become Puget sound and the strait of Juan De Fuca. Naturalists in both places appreciate the hardscaping provided by the ice, viewing it as a part of our heritage.

Nothing beats having the time to poke around and on a clear, cold day I took off on a bike to explore the expansive University of Wisconsin campus. I followed the contour of lake Mendota eventually leading out to picnic point, a popular wooded peninsula jutting into the water. Flocks of palm warblers, a different race from those that show up in Washington, flitted low through the open woodlands, pumping their tails enthusiastically. Strolling towards the point I enjoyed the intense yellows of the fall palate, the few hints of red were from northern cardinals and red-bellied woodpeckers. Out on the point I looked across to Madison and thought about two of my heroes Aldo Leopold and John Muir, both of whom had a home and found inspiration in this part of the world.


Cycling back I saw some other inhabitants. A turkey, simply sitting by the side of the bike trail was unassumingly scratching at the dirt. My jaw dropped a bit and I slowed down (this is not the norm back home). It looked back, suspicious, as if to say “what’re you looking at freak?”

Sound being such an inherent part of my understanding of the natural world, new places are a whole new challenge. Every utterance seems different, out of the context, and during the times I was able to sit quietly I would try to sort through the birds I could hear. Red-bellied woodpeckers reminded me of the black-backed woodpeckers I spent hours with in the Northern Sierras, with odd raspy croaking. The chip notes of cardinals echoing through the trees were not new but so far flung from the cardinals I know best in the American Southwest. Myrtle warblers, less common than their counterpart Audubon’s in Washinton, dripped from trees around Madison; their skewed call took some getting used to. White-throated sparrows surprisingly took me the least effort to recognize and meld into my aural vocabulary.

Just Northeast of Madison sit some forest land covering the largest hills in proximity. Amongst them is Devil’s Lake, a glacial lake in a quartzite basin damned on either end by morraines left during the previous ice age. Yet, just as that description is too simplistic to describe how the basin was formed, it does no justice to the beauty of the lake. Bordered by tall, pinkish walls that attract rock climbers, the forested cliffs are an emblem of beauty in that part of Wisconsin. The hills that Devil’s lake crouches in are part of a defunct mountain range, the Baraboo mountains. When I wandered off to explore, I didn’t realize the rock I was scrambling over rock that was 1.6 billion years old. Geologically speaking, most major land features I’ve been around have been infantile in comparison. This rock began as sand, conglomerated into sandstone and yet again warped, pressurized, to become enduring quartzite. I assumed that the valley where Devil’s lake sat was carved by the Green Bay Lobe that extended along the Eastern edge of the Baraboos thirteen thousand years ago. I was wrong, this feature was prexisting and likely where the Wisconsin river used to run. Metamorphic quartzite is far too strong to get pushed around by some ice, it merely got a nice glacial polish.


Lonely oak woodlands in autumn are next to none. It was a clear day and sunlight filtered through the rainbow of fall overhead. Little stirred, these forests were home for the breeding season to neotropical migrants, but the doors were closed to most business till next spring. Aldo Leopold’s red lanterns illuminated the floor, but this wasn’t a swamp for quail and I had neither gun nor bird dog. However, I had my ears, my eyes, and I continued to wander till the shadows were long, pondering prairies, oak woodlands, glaciers, and great naturalists.


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