Springtime is when the fur-bearing mammals of Wisconsin emerge from their lairs into the sunlight. Whether that lair is a leaf-lined den in the wilderness or a well-appointed finished basement equipped with a flatscreen TV and a recliner, it’s always a bit of a shock to the system to become reacquainted with a great outdoors that is suddenly lush, green and teeming with life. Even if you’ve lived in this neck of the woods for decades, there is still a lot to learn about the flora and fauna of Wisconsin, all of it fascinating and some of it chronicled in a quartet of outdoorsy books hitting the shelves this spring for your education and enjoyment.
If you live in the city limits of Madison, chances are you’ve never had to shoo a deer out of your own backyard. You’ll never take this fact for granted again after reading Al Cambronne’s “Deerland: America’s Hunt for Ecological Balance and the Essence of Wilderness” (Lyons). It’s a brisk, engaging read that ranges in unexpected directions as Cambronne explores every imaginable facet of the complex relationship between man and deer — with Wisconsin as its epicenter. From farmers whose crops are ravaged by browsing herds to suburban bowhunters to a body-shop owner who estimates some 60 percent of his business is attributable to car-on-deer collisions, the author delves into his subject with a curiosity that’s contagious. You’ll never look at a roaming deer — or eat a venison burger — in the same way again.
Anglers get their due in Baraboo author Kevin Searock’s “Troutsmith: An Angler’s Tales and Travels” (University of Wisconsin Press). It’s a collection of passionate essays chronicling a lifetime of fly fishing and its attendant joys and frustrations, both in the author’s native Midwestern creeks and rivers and in some of the sport’s classic and historic locales. Non-anglers reading “Troutsmith” will get a glimpse into what drives the desire to spend hours, days even, in pursuit of a fish, and anglers will surely recognize some of their own particular brand of pleasurable madness in Searock’s gentle prose — as well as hints about some less-traveled Wisconsin fishing holes.
Reading about the interplay between conservationists and sportsmen, whose interests are more often aligned than at odds with each other, is enough to make even a Madison city-dweller like myself interested in the often-invisible art and science of land- and species management. The depredations of decades and in some cases centuries of unregulated hunting, farming, lumbering and development have resulted in a Midwestern landscape that often needs more than a little help to recover. Often what seems “natural” is the result of intense and careful intervention by scientists and government agencies.
Nowhere is this more evident than in perusing Candice Gaukel Andrews’ essential guidebook, “Travel Wild Wisconsin: A Seasonal Guide to Wildlife Encounters in Natural Places” (University of Wisconsin Press). As someone who casts a bored eye over the squirrels, rabbits and crows that inhabit my sphere of daily movement, it was eye-opening to read Andrews’ informative essays on the saw-whet owls, grouse and prairie chickens that can be spotted if you know just where — and when — to look for them. Organized by season, “Travel Wild Wisconsin” contains specifics on reserving space in bird blinds to watch annual mating dances, visiting an owl-banding station and visiting monarch butterflies in their natural habitat. But Andrews also educates her readers on the organized efforts involved in fostering and maintaining the populations of these animals in the face of threats to their habitats, disruptions in their migration patterns and other man-made hazards.
Anyone interested in Wisconsin’s wildlife and landscape should start with Aldo Leopold, whose classic “Sand County Almanac” has been re-issued in a hardcover volume edited by Curt Meine and published by The Library of America. It's in a collection with a treasure trove of the author’s other writings on ecology and conservation. These extras include Leopold’s journals and selected correspondence that exhibit the author in a multiplicity of moods and degrees of formality, but with a consistent specificity of language and depth of commitment to his natural environment that is unwavering.
It’s fascinating to contrast Leopold’s words at the dawn of the conservation movement with the portrait painted by more contemporary books about Wisconsin’s natural environment. Dipping into Leopold's almanac alongside any one of these newer books will lend invaluable perspective on a movement — and a state — in a constant and ongoing process of change and growth. When you can’t be outdoors this summer, reading about it is the next best thing.
Terrorism and turmoil in historic Milwaukee
Milwaukee criminal defense lawyer Dean Strang’s first book, “Worse Than the Devil: Anarchists, Clarence Darrow, and Justice in a Time Of Terror” (University of Wisconsin Press) delves into an episode of Wisconsin history that’s nearly a century old but more relevant today than ever. In 1917, while 11 Italian immigrants alleged to be anarchists awaited trial on an unrelated charge, a bomb exploded in a Milwaukee police station, killing 10. The prejudice and unfairness of the trial that followed only days after the bombing and Clarence Darrow’s subsequent, successful appeal of the case are the subject of “Worse Than the Devil,” a story that resonates more than a little bit with current events. Strang will be reading from his book at the Sequoya Branch of the Madison Public Library on Thursday, June 27, at 7 p.m.
A natural place to hold a reading
A hike through the woods is not the customary accompaniment to an author event, but a stroll through the UW Arboretum would be the perfect follow-up to attending a reading from William Tishler’s “Jens Jensen: Writings Inspired by Nature” (Wisconsin Historical Society Press) Saturday, June 8, in the Arboretum Gift Shop. Jensen, a conservationist and landscape architect, worked for Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, among others, and left behind writings that elucidated his personal conservation philosophy. Tishler is a professor emeritus in landscape architecture at the UW-Madison and the award-winning author of more than 170 publications. The event will start at 1:30 p.m. — perfect timing for a post-reading wander through the Arb in the late-afternoon sun.