M id-morning, two Fridays ago, a pileated woodpecker was hammering away at a dead tree in the Navarino Wildlife Area just north of the Sedge Meadow trailhead. Usually pretty jumpy, this woodpecker was hidden by foliage and apparently enjoying a big breakfast. He remained unperturbed even by the annoying sound of opening the Velcro cover on my camera case. He stayed hidden though, and I never got a picture.
The grass-eaters have extended the snowmobile trail right to the edge of the Sedge Meadow, where I almost stepped on a grouse who flew up in my face.
Some kind of asters with lavender-tinted petals were the last flowers blooming in the Sedge Meadow. Bees and other pollinators had abandoned them, though the cicadas and crickets sang incessantly.
After crossing the meadow, I headed south from Town Line Road and saw buckeye butterflies with tattered wing tips engaging in what may have been their last attempt to procreate. The rendezvous lasted longer than I could stay. I’ve never seen buckeye butterflies before.
Further south along the trail, the white pines in the woods have dropped their needles. One seemed to have dropped them all, the golden carpet around it almost glowing in the shade. I paused to look up and saw only bare gray branches.
The oaks were throwing their acorns down with a clatter. The blackberry leaves were turning red and the stems where the berries had hung were black, shriveled, brittle, empty.
There’s a new bench at the northeast corner of the Pike’s Peak Flowage which was donated in memory of Liz's violin teacher and his wife: a strange echo from the past. During those lessons, I waited in the cluttered back hallway of their home many an autumn evening listening to Liz learn to play my Grandpa’s violin. I’ve heard children attempt to scratch out a tune on a violin. I can’t imagine how difficult it is. Liz was always on pitch and pretty precise, but the instructor was never pleased. Liz had to play the same piece for weeks. Which caused her to quit. The violin remains in its case. A chrysalis unopened.
This story is similar to the one about the lessons Katie took at college with a perfectionist vocal teacher. Those were her last lessons. Katie and her high school vocal teacher, on the other hand, sang together splendidly. That teacher sang opera for her entire career in Europe. She presided at her grand piano and demonstrated proper pronunciation and projection peppered with plenty of laughter. Katie still sings.
Why my Grandpa had a violin is a mystery. When it was found in his attic after his death, it gave rise to the story that Grandpa had played the violin “up north.” At dances? In the Crivitz Symphony Orchestra? My Dad had no idea. I’ve also heard that Grandpa was a surveyor. And a bootlegger. Federal Authorities, in fact, had raided the store my Grandpa and Great Grandpa ran. Their store, innocently named Kwality Products, sold legal home-brewing supplies to disgruntled Germans on Lisbon Avenue in Milwaukee. The Feds found nothing incriminating, though they trashed the place and confiscated $5,000 worth of stock. My Great Grandpa, John B. Lange, photographed behind his store’s counter with a wry, displeased smirk, was quoted by the reporter in the May 24, 1930 Milwaukee Sentinel:
I have always conducted a clean place, and have never sold the products of my store with the avowed intention of doing anything illegal. Neither have I advised anyone as to the methods of manufacture of intoxicating drinks. My whole aim was in conducting a store to serve my neighborhood in a legitimate way.
My Dad was one year old at this time, but when he was a few years older, Dad remembers my Grandpa bursting into their house in the middle of the day and charging down the basement stairs with an empty box of papers of some kind which he dumped into the fortuitously fired up furnace. Maybe the Langes were radicalized by repressive government powers. The violin, meanwhile, had been stored in the attic, the leather on its case rotting to an orange powder.
Liz’s violin teacher, who gave the money for the bench on which I enjoyed my cheese and pickle sandwich, died suddenly at age 68 on a backpacking trip on the Florida Trail in 2016. He had designed a trail he called the “Ice Age to Flamingo Trail” utilizing the Ice Age, North Country, Appalachian, Florida Trails to provide a continuous route from Wisconsin to Florida. He was a marvelous musician. I wonder where his violin is now. The bench is great. You can see purple martins drinking in-flight, and you can hear the chatter of kingfishers. In the season when each of them sing.
After lunch I spotted a large snapping turtle making his way across the trail away from the Pike’s Peak Flowage. He eyed me suspiciously as I crept closer for a picture, assuring him I’d never hurt him. Assuming he knew English. An older couple I had passed on the trail caught up to me at just that moment. When I was lying on the ground talking to a turtle.
All along my walk, witch hazel blossoms, hundreds of yellow starry things, had outlasted their big yellow leaves. It looked like the gray twigs had sprouted fireworks. Witch hazel branches do have special powers, after all, and are used by water dowsers to find springs and minerals and other hidden things.
In the next flowage I came to, six painted turtles were sunning on a log. Upon hearing me open the Velcro camera case cover, they all slid into the water. Time to silence that Velcro seal.
I headed back north again to a short cut I discovered on a map of Navarino between MacDonald Road and the railroad tracks. While I rested near the tracks, a large porcupine waddled out of the woods, clambered up the stony railroad bed and over one of the steel rails. In the middle of the tracks he paused. Languorously sunning himself. Aware, apparently, of Canadian National Railway’s schedule for that track. I was pretty sure the Velcro camera cover would have ruined his day, but I did want a picture. It’s not every day you see a porcupine. Especially since they’re nocturnal. By the time I decided to give it a try, he waddled down off the tracks back into the woods.
Town Line Road was also warm in the late afternoon sun and a small, uncharacteristically trusting Dekay’s brown snake paused to pose for a picture or two. He was the color of powdered hot chocolate. Another creature I have never seen before.
My return trip across the Sedge Meadow was uneventful, though a few bees had ventured out to harvest what they could among the last lavender aster blooms.
One week later, making almost the same trip, I saw a few birds, flocking in small groups, flying up in front of me, flying low to hide immediately in the bushes. They said nothing. Nor did the cicadas or the crickets. I walked for eight hours and saw one grasshopper and one fluttering white butterfly at the asters. The blood of turtles and snakes was curdled and cold. Porcupines do not hibernate, and again, mostly work the night shift. Why the one I had seen had been snoozing in the sun on the railway bed the week before I wish I knew.
When there was sound at all this past Friday, it was the sound of the wind: rattling the dry leaves, hissing through dry grasses, tearing at the white feathery seeds that had been flowers and firm brown cattail tubes and the split pods of milkweeds, preparing the world for singing again in the spring.