I was riding on a late Summer evening in September and this is a meditation upon a few minutes in that ride.
If you are not familiar with the hills and valleys of Southwestern Wisconsin, let me describe them. These are old mountains, the Driftless, worn down over the aeons by rain and snow. These lands have the soft folds and rolling landscape of a glacial moraine. They are soft and round. They are not miles broad like the Williamette Valley in Oregon nor are they ringed with rocky peaks like the Snake River Valley in Idaho. They are gentle valleys with corn, soybean and dairy cows in their soft bellies. Their tops are fringed with mixed hardwood forests: sugar maple, paper birch, ash with evergreen pines and firs mixed in to form dense canopies above a thicket of lower story growth of ferns, berries, wild rose and wildflowers.
The farmlands are broken with prairie and marshlands, hedges and woodlands. Prairie grasses grow as a tall as your shoulders in places. Prairie flowers; asters, milkweed, sunflowers; sway with dense heads of yellow or purple blooms, snowy white masses, delicate pink miniatures or blooms the size of your head. The prairie plants have deep roots below ground that nourish their rich and dense lives above. The marshes are fringed with willow, dogwoods and cattails. Lilly pads float on their surface and irises sink their roots in the muddy shores. Tri-Color Blackbirds cling to the tops of the reeds and grasses and call out for their mates.
You must imagine these hills with woods on their tops and shoulders and corn, soy, cows, meadows and marshes flowing down their valley floors. Picture them clearly in your mind. Row upon row of rectilinear corn where the land is flat or arcing along the lines of the geography where the land rises up the slopes. Small, upright soy beans turning yellow in late Summer. Alfalfa forming a dense green field between tall yellowing corn stalks. Milk cows, mostly, chewing and lazing in grassy fields. A farm house and its corn crib, barn and silo gather under a stand of trees every once in a while.
Form these images in your head. They are the backdrop for these few minutes that I’m about to describe.
It was a beautiful late Summer/early Fall day. It was still shorts and short sleeve weather but not by much. Warm Sun on my back, cool early Fall air on my arms and face.
I rode out, first north-west, across the country side that I described above – out to Fish Lake and Mud Lake. I turned and started running back East along the southern shore of Crystal Lake back towards Lodi. The sun was low in the West, three fingers off the horizon if you hold your arm out straight.
Now imagine: The road side is thick with willows, sage, prairie rose that is thick with bright hips, late Summer prairie flowers and all of it buzzing and chirping and humming with insects that are making their last pitch for a mate before the frost comes. The left side of the road rises up in woods and understory plants. The first Fall colors are coming on in the wild grape vines that climb the trunks of the old oaks and ash to weave through the canopy in search of Sun. The low dense stands of sumacs, huddled along the edge of the woods, are turning rust and cranberry and burnt umber. I spin along these colors and sounds with the Sun on my back and cool air in my face and on my arms.
The valley runs along my right side with open fields of prairie grass and late flowers. A river turns and dives, back and forth, through the flat land forming marshes with reeds and willows. Below, in the valley grass, I hear the call of Ringed Neck Pheasants then the thrumming beat of their wings. I spin with their thrum.
The sun is flashing low up through the valley, glinting on the river and then tumbling up through the prairie plants and into corn and soy. I’m spinning my way along the road. A flight of Sandhill Cranes rise up out of the marshes down below with their squawking coo. First one crane… then three… five… eight… soon twelve cranes are on the wing in the valley beside me. They rise up eye level and match my speed running East. They coo and squawk. The Sun, three fingers above the horizon, glints off the marshes and tumbles through the prairie. The bushes are buzzing and humming and chirping with insects. I’m spinning my way East in this late Summer afternoon and cranes are the wing to my right and the Sun is on our backs and cool air in our faces. And I spin and they soar and call. And we move together for a minute, two, then three before the cranes turn on wing to the South and head out towards the corn and soy. And the Sun, three fingers off the horizon, glints off wings and water and tumbles through prairie and corn and warms my back as I spin on and away to the East.
I spin and smile at the wings beating South and the river turning and diving and the Sun glinting off the marshes, and humming and buzzing and chirping.
I spin and smile at these few minutes when I was traveling with the cranes through this late Summer/early Fall evening.