Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Cherokee Marsh: an impressionistic hike

Cherokee Marsh Conservation Park is a short drive from downtown Madison. Just beyond Cherokee Apartments, Cherokee Country Club, and Cherokee Shooting Range, the curb-less road goes low and flat. Water nears the pavement on both sides; brown marsh grasses have been flattened by winter.

As I approach the park sign I see the complicated roof gables of two new McMansions rising above their protective berm. Brick pillars flanking the entry drive bear a large “Private – No Trespassing” sign.

The park is more inviting. The road turns to dirt, then mud. It veers left toward woodland as the marsh opens out on the right. I park in the nearly empty lot, exchange my shoes for boots, and set off towards a lake visible through the trees. My ear catches the distinctive warbling of Sandhill Cranes and I feel an immediate thrill of excitement even though the sound is faint and the direction unclear.

A shiny new aluminum boardwalk leads to a rickety-looking wooden viewing platform that has been etched with names and epithets. I climb to survey the long narrow lake (which may be the Yahara River, though my map doesn’t name it.) A few geese dot the glistening water. Large houses dot the opposite shore. Squares of lawn have been carved from the shag of woodlands.

Angelic streaks of sunlight break through the fitful sky, blaze across the water, and – almost theatrically – illuminate the white trunks of Aspens crowding the shoreline. Then it darkens. Suddenly, light fluffy snow appears, floating as much as falling. It thickens, swirling around me; then, just as suddenly, it disappears. The clouds thin, angels beckon once again. This common place, with its subtle triumphs and ordinary tragedies, reminds me that astonishment is a normal reaction to the world when I take the time to be outdoors in it.

A large hill is spiked with twisted oaks; gray trunks brandishing black limbs, still clutch last year’s brown leaves. Beyond, back in the lowlands, a badly warped wooden boardwalk leads into a tiny wetland pond that remains icebound. But tiny specks of Duckweed, with its biological heat, penetrate the ice, signaling the changing season. 

The clouds break, revealing a deep, brilliant blue. Rivers of dead grass shimmer; the cold light awakens their inner warmth. The capricious sky, never resting, covers itself once more and again throws snow down upon the land. My fingers are numb from the cold, but I turn my face up into the magical gale, knowing its transient beauty and the inevitability of spring.

My boots clank incongruously atop another aluminum boardwalk. The harsh sound is an affront, alien to the marsh. I am grateful to reach its temporary terminus, to see the gray timbers of the old boardwalk snaking off over the dead grass. My gratitude multiplies when, as I turn to leave, two cranes soar over the tree line, sweep the marsh, and descend, their bodies aligned, wings outspread in perfect harmony.

Thus fortified, I make my way back. As I near the McMansions I have to stop the car for a skunk that trundles blithely across the road and into the brush. I pick up speed again as I pass Cherokee this and Cherokee that, thankful not just for Cherokee Marsh (a less egregious use of the appellation, but no less patronizing), but for the nameless oaks, grasses, cranes – and for the effervescent sky.

For more images from Cherokee Marsh, go to my flickr page

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