Rediscovering the UW Arboretum and its rich history

After miles spent walking its wooded trails every day, Doug Moe continues to dig deeper into the history of the 1,260-acre urban wonder.
Lost City Woods Uw Arboretum
Photo by Chris Kregel/UW–Madison Arboretum.
Lost City forest inside the UW Arboretum, where invasive species are being removed from the understory as part of the routine regeneration work to restore oak and woodland savanna.

It’s humbling for me to admit that, last fall, I realized I’d been going to the University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum for decades without really seeing it.

I’d walked through many times, of course. There’s a paved road connecting the two entrances of the UW Arboretum: one on Seminole Highway, the other on Wingra Drive.

I’d traveled it in its entirety as part of a two-hour morning walk I make nearly every day in decent weather. It’s nice: even from the road, the trees and vegetation are beautiful and you are almost certain to encounter wild turkeys.

After I began assisting two authors on their book about the history of the disability rights movement in Wisconsin, I made a point of getting off the road briefly and sitting for a moment on a bench in the Longenecker Horticultural Gardens that honors one of the movement’s heroes, the late UW–Madison real estate professor James Graaskamp. It rests atop a lovely vista.

I’d also written about the Arboretum before. A favorite among the thousands of newspaper columns I wrote came after spending an afternoon with a man named Harold Tarkow, who may have loved the Arboretum more than anyone. He was 98 when we spoke in 2011, and still walking regularly from his downtown apartment to the public library.

On a hot June day in 1934, Tarkow, poised to graduate in chemistry from UW–Madison and looking for some air, walked from Mills Street west toward some undistinguished farmland. He noticed a group of perhaps 60 people gathered near a barn. Someone was speaking and Tarkow stopped to listen.

It was Aldo Leopold, future author of “The Sand County Almanac,” and the occasion was the dedication ceremony of the UW Arboretum.

“He spoke,” Tarkow recalled, “of how he hoped it might become a specimen of what this area would have looked like before settlement.”

Tarkow spent his career at Madison’s Forest Products Laboratory and became a passionate volunteer with the Friends of the Arboretum, writing often for its newsletter, including contributing a regular trivia quiz.

“The deer is obviously the largest animal found in the Arboretum,” he said that day we spoke. “What’s the smallest?”

“I give up.”

“The masked shrew! You could fit four of them in the palm of your hand.”

There’s a bench that honors Tarkow — who died five months after we spoke — near the Arboretum’s visitors center.

He’d mentioned deer. I knew there were deer in the Arboretum. I’d seen a few while walking over the years, as they darted across the road from woods to woods.

But last fall — why I am not certain — I picked up a trail map and began hiking through the various sections of Arboretum woods. There are at least five, depending on how you count.

It may have been rereading Jim Harrison that got me into the woods. I’d picked up his books in anticipation of a new volume of his complete poems that was published in December. Harrison loved walking in the woods more than anything except maybe magnificent meals and French wine.

The Arboretum woods were a revelation. The fall colors in the Wingra Woods were stunning, a cascade of various shades of yellow.

And the deer! Just about every day, in either the Noe Woods or Lost City Forest, or both, I saw deer. (I saw them in every woods, but mostly in Noe and Lost City.) Sometimes they were as close as 10 feet away. I always tried to stand absolutely still. This might work for a few moments — then they’d scamper away. From a distance I could watch longer.

I’m not sure why I found it so — is thrilling the word? — to be regularly interacting with deer two miles from my front door. But I did. And I was taken aback last fall when signs began appearing in the Arboretum that a “deer management program” was in effect. I called the number provided for more information and was told they employ sharpshooters at night — away from trails — to thin the deer herd to protect vegetation.

I trust that the people in charge of this wonderful space are doing the right thing, but I also recall a line of Harrison’s poetry: “In deer season, walking in the woods, I sing like Pavarotti.”

At various points on the trails in the woods the Arboretum has erected freestanding plaques that give a brief history of that particular area. They are interesting and helpful, but what they really did was get me to seek out the history of the Arboretum, and I’m pleased to say there is one — and it’s excellent.

This is the 10-year anniversary of the original publication of “Pioneers of Ecological Restoration: The People and Legacy of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum” by Franklin E. Court.

Among the stories you’ll find is a fascinating tale of a doomed early 20th century attempt to build what Court called “a grandiose suburb on the south shore of Lake Wingra.” Lots were arranged and sold, streets were mapped — but the developers went bankrupt. The location is now the Lost City Forest.

There’s also an account of a profoundly misguided 1961 WISM radio treasure hunt contest that hinted $1,000 was buried in a capsule in the Arboretum.

“They came by the carload armed with picks and shovels,” Court noted. “Plants were trampled; rocks were overturned; holes were dug; sheds and garages were broken into. The stone shelter in Gallistel Woods was assaulted — shingles torn off the roof, the door forced open.”

I passed that shelter almost every morning last fall. The setting is now serene. Some mornings I took the opportunity to practice what Harrison called — in the title of a poem — “the Sacred Art of Log Sitting.”

“Empty your mind of everything except what is in front of you,” he wrote. And later: “Stay put for 45 minutes to an hour. When you get up bow nine times to the log.”

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