For Love of the Earth

SUNDAY, APRIL 20, 2014

The three most exciting things that happened on our Easter Sunday tour were finding a Pasque flower in bloom, standing amidst a great ensemble of chorus frogs on the Icke Boardwalk, and witnessing a tree falling in Gallistel Woods!

The pre-tour description had invoked Easter, Earth Day, and John Muir’s birthday – all celebrated within the same week this year – and asked, “Where does your inspiration come from?” In preparing for the tour I’d discovered several other interesting tie-ins.

One was that April 14th, 2014 – just a few days before our hike – had marked the 50th anniversary of the death of scientist and environmental prophet Rachel Carson. In her honor, I read a short passage from the introductory chapter of Silent Spring, concealing the cover of the book and asking people to think about how long ago these words might have been written (italics are added):

“The history of life on earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings. To a large extent, the physical form and the habits of the earth’s vegetation and its animal life have been molded by the environment. Considering the whole span of earthly time, the opposite effect, in which life actually modifies its surroundings, has been relatively slight. Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species – man – acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world … The rapidity of change and the speed with which new situations are created [now] follow the impetuous and heedless pace of man rather than the deliberate pace of nature.”

Carson went on to write “Future generations are unlikely to condone our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life,” to assert the public’s right to accurate information as opposed to the “little tranquilizing-pills of half-truth” offered by those whose primary aim is to make money in the short term, and to quote Jean Rostand in saying ‘The obligation to endure gives us the right to know.’”

One visitor was able to identify Rachel Carson as the author; the others were surprised to learn that the words had been published in 1962. Carson’s specific topic in Silent Spring was of course chemical pollution from pesticides and fertilizers, but her points still stand, and unquestionably apply to the planetary crisis of our time, human-caused global climate disturbance.

I’d discovered another interesting date coincidence as well, this one having to do with three famous environmentalists associated with Wisconsin: John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Gaylord Nelson. I’d already known that April 21st was the birth date of Muir (1838) and the death date of Leopold (1948); I confess I hadn’t also related that to Nelson’s establishment of April 22 as the first Earth Day (1970). Lots of environmental anniversaries to note in this part of April.

But back to the tour. We found our first blooming Pasque flower (Anemone patens) of the year in the sand-prairie portion of the Wisconsin Native Plant Garden – located immediately south of the Visitor Center building. When Pasque flowers emerge in other (flatter and more accessible) areas of the WNPG, they are usually immediately eaten by winter-starved deer. I’m betting this one survived thanks to the steep rocky slope leading up to it. Deer are, after all, not mountain goats.

At any rate the flower, for whatever time we get to see it, is lovely and welcome. Pale lavender on the outside of the petals and white on the upturned surface, with large yellow center, it always reminds me of a sunny-side-up egg. If you are noticing the similarity between the words “Pasque”, “Paschal” (denoting Easter), and “Pesach” (the Hebrew name for Passover) – you are right on target. They all grow from the same linguistic root, and refer to the same time of year.

Noting the sound of chorus frogs trilling in the distance (more about them shortly), we strolled quickly to Teal Pond, where we caught glimpses of two painted turtles sunning on logs. This species has recently emerged from hibernation. I haven’t seen a snapper yet, but doubtless they are-activating too.

Moving on toward Gallistel Woods and the Icke Boardwalk, suddenly we heard a LOUD! SHARP! REPEATED! sound like gunshots, or firecrackers! I was about to charge ahead on the trail and confront whoever was responsible for such an outrage, when we realized that a tree had cracked, twisted, and fallen, coming to rest at an angle against its forest neighbors. Though nearby, it was not over a trail, so there was no danger in our continuing on our route.

The noise had been amazing. It was not a particularly windy day; I’m sure I’ll never know what caused the tree to fall at that particular moment. Certainly added a bit of drama to our expedition.

On to chorus frogs. At this time of year they can be relied upon to be audible in the Icke Boardwalk portion of the Teal Pond wetlands system. They did not let us down. We’d heard them singing as we approached; as usual, they went silent as soon as we stepped onto the boardwalk.

This was a chance for me to stage the annual Chorus Frog Magic Moment. I got the group in position in the middle section of the walkway, then asked everyone to be silent and hold still as we counted off the seconds until the frogs would resume calling. Just over one minute into the pantomimed count, one little frog piped up. He was almost immediately joined by another, and another, until soon we were surrounded by a great commotion of frog sound. It’s an event that delights visitors, and never gets old for me, no matter how many times it occurs.

Chorus frog

Western chorus frogs – the species we have here; as opposed to boreal, Cajun, California, mountain, ornate, Pacific, spotted, or upland – are tiny, brown, and striped, meaning that they are very VERY hard to spot against last year’s marsh vegetation. Luckily they are easier to hear than to see!

With some reluctance we left Frog Town and continued through Gallistel Woods and an edge of Longenecker Gardens en route back to the Visitor Center. In the woodland we found early leaves of false rue-anemone, twinleaf, and troutlily; bright green “ramps” or wild leeks; toothworts just coming into flower; the feathery leaves of Dutchman’s Breeches; and the purplish-mottled ones of prairie trillium. A couple of violets winked at us from the woodland border, and the non-native but lovely forsythia glowed yellow in the “shrub trial” section of the garden.

I closed the tour with a bit of John Muir: “Everything new and pure in the very prime of the spring when Nature’s pulses were beating highest, and mysteriously keeping time with our own!”

Kathy Miner, UW Arboretum Naturalist

Located between Lake Wingra and the West Beltline Highway at 1207 Seminole Highway, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum features the restored prairies, forests and wetlands of pre-settlement Wisconsin. This 1,260-acre arboretum also houses flowering trees, shrubs and a world-famous lilac collection. Educational tours for groups and the general public, science and nature-based classes for all ages and abilities, and a wide variety of volunteer opportunities for groups, families and individuals are available.