The commitment to conservation and outdoor recreation by true Wisconsinites never fails to disappoint, as I was reminded during a business trip to Madison last week.
With a lunchtime meeting set up, I had planned a post-meal walk at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum before heading back to Point. A quick look at the map, however, showed me there was something much closer to the restaurant in Monona – in fact, three somethings in one.
The Aldo Leopold Nature Center, Monona’s Woodland Park, and the Edna Taylor Conservation Park, which are three contiguous outdoor offerings on two properties just a stone’s throw from my lunch spot, ended up being such a nice surprise that it’s going to take two columns and a return visit to report on them properly.
First, a quick aside of sorts, and then I’ll get to the fun stuff. Attentive readers will note that I opened by mentioning commitment by “true Wisconsinites.”
That disqualifies much of our state’s current political leadership, which looks like a bunch of opportunistic carpetbaggers and pigs at the lobbying trough, perfectly willing to give away our natural and recreational heritage for the profit of those who already have more than a fair share of riches.
For reference, simply look at the Foxconn con that will allow unchecked destruction of wetlands similar to those in Taylor Park while some state politicians throw money at an international corporation despite little chance of a decent return on investment.
And that takes us quickly back to the purposes of the two properties – owned by good citizens of Monona and Madison and graciously shared with the rest of us. I’ll focus on Taylor Park, which was where I spent most of my visit, even though that hadn’t been my intent.
Small, but sublime
Arriving at the Leopold Center shortly after 1 p.m., I quickly learned from nature center staff that the center and two parks were essentially a single unit, a cohesive whole despite being owned by two different cities.
Center staff gave me trail maps to all three areas and encouraged me to stop back in to warm up. Monona’s Woodland Park is 46 acres, almost 21 of which are leased to the Leopold Center, a private nonprofit group. Taylor Park is owned by Madison and includes 56 acres connected on the east to the Leopold Center.
Incidentally, the Leopold Nature Center is not the same as the Aldo Leopold Foundation and its center near Portage.
Together, all the entities bring something that people working with a sense of community can accomplish – resources used by all for education, enjoyment, exercise and ethical existence, among other noble goals.
Basically, everything our so-called leaders too often lose sight of.
There’s plenty about the nature center and Woodland Park worth exploring, but I only quickly passed through the center and didn’t get to Woodland Park proper at all, as I ended up spending a fine 90 minutes wandering the 1.3 miles of trails at Taylor Park.
Among the park’s highlights is a glacial drumlin, or elongated hill formed by glacial forces, along with Native American mounds and restoration of oak savanna and wetlands in the park’s lower-lying marsh area.
The day ended up being downright summerlike compared to much of the post-Christmas period – a balmy 12 degrees Fahrenheit by mid-afternoon – with a near-cloudless sky.
I meandered about, taking lots of pictures and enjoying the play of the seasonal sun, low in the sky and sharply illuminating everything ahead of me as I moved east with the long shadows.
As I headed west, the sun’s corona radiated behind dark tree trunks against brilliant blue sky, bringing that mysterious winter feeling one gets in the woods, of being part of a hidden world, but moving toward something warmer and better.
Not that there’s much better than being in the woods on a winter day.
“They just pop out on the landscape.” — Dr. Ray Reser, director, UWSP Natural History Museum
Despite being hemmed in by busy Monona Drive on the west and Stoughton Road on the east, plus lying not far from U.S. 12/18 to the south, the park was very quiet, with only a little traffic noise but the whooshing of light wind and the calls of a few winter birds being more noticeable.
I saw just two other people in the park as I covered most of the main trail sections twice. The sense of isolation apparently led to too much daydreaming as I climbed the drumlin slope, because I didn’t think to look for the panther effigy.
Nor did I see anything recognizable as portions of the linear mounds while headed southwest along the drumlin’s ridgeline, although the contours later seemed distinguishable in my photos.
Such missed opportunities often are good excuses to talk to experts, so afterwards I called Ray Reser of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point’s Natural History Museum to learn more about the mounds.
He hadn’t seen those particular ones, but noted that there may have been too much snow to recognize their features. Ray said the first dusting of snow always sends him out to explore and record mounds.
“It’s an ideal time of year. They just pop out on the landscape, but as soon as you get two or three inches, it starts to obscure things,” he said.
Ray graciously spent a few minutes enlightening me on mound culture. While there’s too much to share here, one fascinating thing he said was that panther mounds like the one at the park often are found in the bottommost elevations of a three-leveled system representing lower, middle and sky tiers of spirits.
Their effigy mounds tend to be found at corresponding altitudes of land.
He cautioned that while it’s a bit of an oversimplification, panthers and other spirits associated with the lower tier tended to be more malevolent (although not always) to humans. People inhabited middle tiers, along with such spirits as bears and deer, while sky spirits, represented by birds and others, tended to be more benevolent and helpful to humans.
Incidentally, Ray’s giving a free public talk entitled “Weathering the Ice Age: 14,000 Years of Native History” at Central Waters Brewing Company in Amherst on Jan. 14 at 1:30. Regardless of the day’s weather, there probably aren’t two better reasons to stay inside than a good local beer and one of Ray’s talks.
That means anyone who can’t make it as far as the Edna Taylor Conservation Park has at least one closer option.
Edna Taylor, for what it’s worth, was a writer, teacher and later-in-life dairy farmer. She believed in “sensible ecology” and sold 37 acres to the city to help put the park together.
I suspect she’d be OK with sticking a little closer to home and hearing a good discussion about 14 millennia of our natural and cultural heritage from a guy like Ray.
So whether we spend the weekend hiking or discussing, either should be good for helping us keep walking that talk for Wisconsin.
This post originally appeared in the Jan. 12, 2018, edition of The Portage County Gazette.