March: Lion or Lamb?
March 9, 2022 | Topics: Stories
The best of times, the worst of times: A tale of two scenes
By Eddee Daniel
Scene 1: One warm day in early March: Little Menomonee River Parkway
Clever little chickadees suddenly appear in the bushes all around me, then just as quickly vanish, with such alacrity it feels like a cosmic card trick. Now you see them, now you don’t. The stripped branches even more barren for the birds having graced the scene so briefly.
I considered fording the creek before I reached its bank and saw water flowing overtop the sagging ice. Except in the shadows the snow is largely gone from the land, sluiced into the bulging stream. There will be no short cuts this day.
I trod through tall riparian grasses in one of the rarest of places: a trackless wilderness within sight—due to the leafless trees—of the near edge of the city. The signature warning calls of the now invisible chick-a-dee-dee-dees audible above the constant soft buzz of traffic on the Interstate. Am I the source of their distress?
Neither mourn nor cheer the death of winter. I’ve lived in Wisconsin too long to consider this thaw to be more than a respite. March, in contrast to its proverbial reputation, has come in like a lamb—as it so often does, I say to my wife in our now ritualistic annual argument, she deferring to the proverb and sense of righteousness. We’ll just have to wait and see if it goes out like a lion once again this year.
I am brought up short, my musings muted, by a masked visage, peering a bit theatrically, so it seems, from a hole in a tree not twenty feet away. Like Juliet, the raccoon gazes wistfully out from her balcony—such is my fantasy. As I cautiously approach, however, she is transformed into the equally tragic character of Ophelia. I am witnessing not a vigorous, inquisitive wild animal … but a corpse. Quite literally frozen in place. Nature morte. Our thaw will not extend to this sad beast.
Just when I feel as though I can’t get any deeper in the wilderness, I spy a fellow human likewise threading his way laboriously along the river. He is as startled as I am, each of us believing for a moment in the solitude of the wild place we are experiencing—or imagining. Now you see it, now you don’t.
Is urban nature less enjoyable for being a shared dominion? I suppose it depends on how many one must share with. Downstream, below the confluence of the Little Menomonee with the mainstem of the Menomonee River, where the trackless tract gives way to the well-traveled Oak Leaf Trail, I find myself in a veritable parade of people—trying to avoid puddles and mud, but otherwise enjoying an “unseasonably” warm day in early March. In like a lamb.
Scene 2: Another warm day in early March: Warnimont Park
Another stretch of the Oak Leaf Trail, a narrow ribbon weaving its way through a succession of landscapes, from a pine plantation, to a wide-open meadow with Lake Michigan views, to a hardwood forest that plunges down a deep ravine. Less crowded here; less like a parade than a steady trickle of cyclists, joggers, strollers, and today even a roller-blader. An extended family of twelve, solitary souls, and every combination in between. Never mind the drab late winter colors or the dreary pallor of the sky; in multitudes we choose this park to celebrate the unexpected gift: a mild day in March.
It is the best of times. We have been released, fortuitously, from the prison of winter. A soothing image of Spring beckons and we answer the call by streaming outdoors. The specter of covid has also drawn back, releasing pent up anxiety, like floodwaters from a dam. But it is also the worst of times. With apologies to T.S. Eliot, April is not the cruelest month—at least not in Wisconsin. Not when March promises lambs and delivers lions. The snow may be gone, but in its place lies boot-sucking mud. The landscape is not quite colorless, but so far lacking the slightest hint of relief from the funereal hues that precede the emergence of buds. A nature photographer’s most challenging season.
Stepping away from the pavement, I am arrested in my tracks by the intense stare of a red fox, which has snapped to attention as it ponders my presence in its domain. On its turf. In its home. … And ours. Whatever you think you believe about your life, one inescapable truth is that nature is home. Not just for wildlife—the red foxes, raccoons, chickadees, and so many less visible creatures—but for all of us, humans too. On some, perhaps subconscious, level, we know we must return home to the earth. It is one of the reasons so many of us are here in the park today, an unheralded homecoming. The fox trots warily away, blending with a thicket of red-osier dogwood and then simply disappearing, as if melting into it. Now you see it, now you don’t.
High above the lake, with a vertiginous view to infinity, the land ends precipitously, in violence. The naked earth here where the bluff drops to the water feels exposed and raw, like sinew torn from bone. The steep slope is littered with dislodged boulders and toppled trees. And, ominously, a torn and stained patio chair. I stay well back from the verge. But I watch, incredulous, as an elderly couple walk blithely up to the cusp of the bluff—past unmistakable signs warning of its instability—then turn their backs to the abyss and raise a cell phone to make a selfie. As if they are exempt from the impending apocalypse. But, vindicated I suppose by surviving their unrecognized folly, they continue on, walking perilously close to the edge. Unwittingly engaged in a kind of Russian roulette with the steadily eroding cliff. Now you see them….
But I digress. We were discussing the weather, weren’t we? The conundrum of March.
You know how the story ends, don’t you? Two days later the lion comes roaring back. To be honest, until the buds begin to green up about a month from now, I prefer seeing snow drape the nude and somber earth. Just as long as there’s not too much to shovel. And as for that, the four inches on my driveway mostly melt before I get around to shoveling, while the grass remains cloaked in picturesque white lace. Perfect!
Eddee Daniel is the author of Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed and The Milwaukee River Greenway: A Wealth of Nature in the Heart of the City, among other books. The Little Menomonee River Parkway and Warnimont Park are Milwaukee County Parks, which is a project partner of A Wealth of Nature. The featured image at the top is from Warnimont Park.