Friday, June 5, 2009

Seasons in Southwest Wisconsin

“If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant; if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.” -Anne Bradstreet

Growing up in southwest Wisconsin, we were surrounded by an electrifying spectrum of seasons. Four of them. One right after the other, each unique and making their full claim at existence, not to be slighted in the scuffle. They asserted themselves without shame and without hesitation, regardless of human comfort or pleasure. In fact, the weather itself seemed to bear a personality all its own. It became a family member. Perhaps this happened because the weather had such an important role to play in the life of the soybeans, corn, and alfalfa that grew in the rich soil all around us. Significant aspects of a growing season attached to farmers' recollections and colored conversation around reflective holiday dinner tables. Or perhaps the seasons became personified because the weather was the unfailing, inaugural topic of every morning conversation at the gas & sip coffee haunts.

These seasons, with all their sights, smells, and sensations, gave nature a kaleidoscopic aura that hovered over and inhabited our activity.

Spring surfaced from the ice crust in a muddy birth. As temperatures warmed, the ice cracked and melted. A day arrived when it was officially possible to leave your winter parka at home and wear a mere sweatshirt or T-shirt out of doors. This awakening eased muscles which had been tensed against the cold for months. Lungs expanded with the organic scent of soil as the sun unsheathed it from melting mounds of snow. Skin, warmed by the sunlight, somehow transfered its pleasure into the demeanor of its owner and for those first few days, life was absolutely grand.

Summer shut school doors. It sopped us in brilliant blue sky and pressed us with its heat. Added humidity made it hard to breathe, especially while working in dusty hay mows and pollen-packed cornfields. Roguing and detassling just outside of Livingston, we watched in awe as platoons of white cumulus clouds swept across the sky. Crowned by these skies, we walked endless miles in the heat, dust, and weeds. We passed the hours with small talk and swigged water from our coolers at the end of the corn rows. Gentle breezes leaned the cornstalks and tousled the tassels as we waded them. Our work days culminated in a drive to Blackhawk Lake or Governor Dodge State Park. We played football on the beaches and made wicked tackles into the lake water. A grill sizzled with steaks, dogs, brats, burgers, and butter-drenched potatoes. Inevitably, no matter how hard we worked, a day off would arrive. Without any formal declaration, this day was designated for fishing. A short, dark drive to the lake, a quick, slick sprint across the dew-glistening grass, and the canoes were in the water. They sliced the bobbing lake surface toward favorite spots where submerged logs or inlets reliably produced blue gill, trout, bass, crappie. Morning's first rays of light painted the surface of the water and lapped against the sides of the canoe, a welcome interruption to the 100 mph pace of our youth. I still smile when I recollect a friend whose favorite movie was Grumpy Old Men. Each cast of the line was a timeless action to be repeated throughout his life. He expected his twilight to be not all that dissimilar to the characters in his favorite film.

Autumn was a frequent favorite. Just as spring provided relief from the cold of winter, the cool air of autumn relieved us from the humid heat of summer. Geese filled the overcast skies like great arrows lofted across the heavens by an archetypal archer targeting warmer southern temperatures. While some took the exit of the geese as a bone-chilling warning of impending winter, others were chopping wood. Once stacked, it was time to rev and tune the snowmobiles, the snowblowers, and all kinds of other winter-fighting toys centered by a combustion engine. Besides, if we cowered and retreated then, we would've never experienced the bronzing of the woodland leaves that ranged the rolling hills. This breath-taking display of color change inevitably led to a mouth-watering apple season. We hiked trails to Point Lookout at Wyalusing State Park and scaled the observation towers at Blue Mound State Park before heading to Gays Mills to capture bags full of apple hybrids. We looked over the entire expanse of southwest Wisconsin from the heights of the towers, dreaming of the taste of warm apple donuts and caramel apples. Our tongues had been twinging for these tastes, triggered by the sound of crisp leaves crunching under our steps. Favorites ranged from Braeburn to Granny Smith to Honeycrisp. When we arrived at the orchards, we sipped cider and snapped photos. The trip was not complete until we wound down the enormous hill into Soldiers Grove for a quick purchase of gourds and pumpkins.

The harvest was in full swing. Moisture levels of corn and beans were tested. Fans in dryer bins whirred. Semi trailers brimming with kernels of corn raged down the road toward the best possible prices. Farmers slapped themselves awake in their combines, pushing on through the night. Timing was everything. Almanac entries were read and measured against experience. Coffee haunts chattered with rumors about what the expect from mother nature. Weather men were scorned and applauded, mostly scorned. Every farmer for miles was trying to choose the best possible time to pull the trigger on what was growing in their fields.

Deer hunting followed. A ritual not to be under-estimated, this time honored rite of passage had time-off requests burning through the hands of bosses everywhere. The General Motors plant in Janesville actually closed down operations on opening day. Hunters gave a quick lick of their lips upon sighting their prey. Venison sausage, jerky, and steaks were within reach. Hunter orange speckled the woods. Drivers dodged deer as they bounded roadways in pursuit of safety.

Of course, the brisk temperatures also triggered the excitement of football season and decreed that local fields become fields of battle. The crack of pads could be heard on Friday nights as high school teams sought to conquer one another with farm work-hewn muscle and grim determination. Blanketed parents huddled in the stands and shared thermoses of coffee and cocoa. Mothers prayed their sons wouldn't be injured. Fathers beamed when their son caught a pass, made an open-field tackle, or scored a touchdown. After all, this was a land whose Green Bay Packers still lived in the shadow of the great Vince Lombardi.

Then it would happen. Flurries formed in the stratosphere and descended in whirling howls of wind—the first snow of the year. Teeth began their chatter, scrapers were yanked from trunks to clear covered windshields, snow plows hit their routes, spitting sand and salt. The most notorious season of the region had come. School children itched for recess. At the sound of the bell, they geared up in parkas, stocking hats, gloves, scarves, and mittens and burst from the school doors into the powder in unprecedented glee. Snow balls smocked against the school walls as they ducked and fired at one another. The skirmish would transition into snowman or fort building once a teacher shut down the snowball battle. Snow angels peppered the snowscape with linking trails of boot steps. The largest hill in town was the after-school spot. A quick exchange of backpack for sled, and we hit the slopes for some high-speed action. You really were doing well if you found yourself dumped into the tiny creek at the bottom of hill. It wasn't the most comfortable afterward but getting there was a blast.

The adults had just as much fun as the kids. High schoolers tested the e-brake on ice covered parking lots. Couples got out the cross-country skis and hit the Military Ridge Trail or the Ice Age Trail. Snow mobiles whizzed through harvested fields or down trails stopping at local taverns along the way. I remember getting a ride on a snowmobile for the first time as a kid. I gripped the waist of a cousin who revved it up. The wind whipped past, caught an opening in one of my boots, and sucked it right off my leg. The engine was too loud to say anything, so when we arrived at our destination I stepped off of the snowmobile with one boot and one sock. Later recovered, the family had a good laugh as I slid it back on my cold foot.

Trail trips were often highlighted by a stop in New Glarus. The New Glarus Bakery and the Glarner Stube excelled at filling starved stomachs. A trip to Monroe was not complete without a stop at Baumgartners for soup and cheese sandwich. A friend would order the stinkiest cheese he could find, so we all could enjoy the smell. He always said, “The limburger please.” Our groaning only made his smile larger.

Geniuses that we were, we came up with what we called “The Snowman Challenge.” We each built a snowman in our front yard. Everyone who built a snowman had both the responsibility of protecting it as well as the responsibility of annihilating the other participants' snowmen. One participant who will remain anonymous, attempted to demolish a snowman in play via open field tackle at a full sprint. The said participant discovered very quickly that the proud creator of the snowman had hosed it down with water the night before until a thick layer of ice encrusted and protected his frosty. Needless to say, he remained the champion that winter and to this day.

Ice fishing rounded out the year. Scampering for tip-ups after cutting a holes in the ice with an auger was Wisconsinite heaven. Ice shanties were as unique as their creators.

Winter weekends included trips to Cascade Mountain, Devil's Head, or Tyrol Basin in pursuit of downhill skiing. Those drives home were serene. We piled into our cars, covered in sweaty and soaked winter gear, exhausted, the most conscious among us designated as the lone ranger at the wheel, listening to the radio, volume low while everyone else drifted off to sleep.

These memories color my conception of growing up in southwest Wisconsin. Whenever you began to tire of one season, you knew that a change was not far off. In many ways, the array of seasons prepared us for the seasons of life with all of its pleasures, excitements, stagnancies, and sufferings. Historians don't know exactly what the Native American word “Wisconsin” means, but many Wisconsinites have conjectured that it has something to do with phrases like big mosquito, turdy point buck, sharp cheddar, or simply, brrrrr. Historians say that it is a Chippewa word that most likely has to do with the Mississippi River. For me, the word “Wisconsin” is not complete without mention of the seasons that carry its children through an odyssey of birth, growth, extension, reproduction, and death, infusing reality with an eternal stream of memory and reverie.

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