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On the Trails: Going home, coming home

Posted: October 31, 2013 - 11:00pm

I recently made my annual pilgrimage back to southern Wisconsin, on a family visit. In addition to an art fair and a symphony concert, there were several treats in store. I always look forward to exploring a variety of habitats in the vicinity of my home town, and I was not disappointed.

A group of sandhill cranes foraged in a field of corn stubble, probably finding loose kernels and maybe a few worms. A flock of eastern bluebirds flew up from a marshy area where they may have found dogwood berries or a place for a bath. A red fox ambled along a small stream.

One trail passed between a cornfield and oak woods. As we walked along, a little flock of wild turkeys popped out of the standing corn and fled down the trail ahead of us. A minute or so later, we were startled by a laggard, who burst frantically out of the corn and flew over our heads to catch up with the rest of the flock.

But perhaps the biggest treat was just wandering around in a forest of maples, hickories, big-tooth aspens, black cherries, white pines and various species of oak. I greatly miss the diversity of deciduous trees (especially the oaks) that comprise the Midwestern forests, so it was good to be among them again, if only briefly. The sugar maples were a blaze of yellows, oranges, and reds, assisted by yellow-leaved hickories. Oaks supplied shades of red and russet. Along the edges of the woods, banks of sumacs seemed to glow a bright red.

Invisible shifts of soil type and moisture brought visible changes of forest composition along the trails: maple stands gave way to mixtures of maple, white oak, and red oaks, and then came black oaks and burr oaks, an ever-changing array. We explored a conservancy area on sandy soils where oak savannas, once prevalent here, are being restored by removal of non-native trees and perhaps controlled burns. Here, the widely spaced oaks preside over expanses of grass and wildflowers that make a fine show in summer.

More edible treats were also available. A traditional trip or two to a local orchard yielded possibly the best caramel apples in the world and—oh yummmm!—cider donuts! We also visited a long-abandoned orchard back in the hills and easily found enough good apples (pesticide-free) for a batch of applesauce.

And then it was time to come back here, and I wasn’t quite ready to leave all those good things. A long, tedious day of air travel back to our lovely autumn deluges … Seattle was socked in and our airport not much better.

However, the day after returning, I was roused from my easy chair by some very loud thumps under the deck, and a cat came streaking up the stairs with big eyes and a tail like a bottlebrush. A quick inspection (with hackles up!) discovered a mama bear with two roly-poly cubs sauntering alongside the house and then around the pond. There they climbed a tree, trying in vain to reach the bird feeders suspended over the water. Mama and one cub came down the tree in the conventional way, down the trunk. But cub number two made a more or less controlled descent, bouncing from the end of one branch to the next. And they all went off in search of better foraging — maybe a nice coho?

It was then I felt like I was home again.

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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