Walking with memories in the Arb

Doug Moe finds an abundance of turkeys, deer and inscriptions.

With the gyms closed, I’ve been walking a couple of hours first thing every morning through the University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum.

For several years now I’ve been an evangelist — I hope not too tiresome of one — for walking.

I walk the Southwest Bike Path every evening, even in winter. It delays my appointment with a glass of beer or wine by an hour, allows me to breathe fresh air and either think deep thoughts or think nothing at all.

I was encouraged in this by hips and knees that balked at running and by reading in Jim Harrison’s nonfiction collection “Just Before Dark” a quote from the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard on walking:

“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Everyday, I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.”

Yet despite living a 15-minute walk from the Seminole Highway entrance to the Arboretum, I seldom took advantage. The bike path is even closer — across the street from my house.

Lacking a gym for a morning workout amid the virus upheaval, I began walking over to the Arboretum and all the way through, to the North Wingra Drive entrance, then past the zoo and up Monroe Street back home.

What the Arboretum walks have done for me — in addition to providing the obvious benefit of time spent in a truly beautiful natural environ right in the city — is trigger memories. Part of that is being 64, I guess. I have a lot of memories.

The first time I ran into a flock of wild turkeys — and I’ve seen them nearly every day in the Arb — I thought of my late friend Brad Fuelle, a West High classmate and a Madison postal worker.

In 2008, on what may have been a slow news day in Chicago, John Kass wrote a Chicago Tribune column making fun of Madison mail carriers. A news story had reported them being “attacked” by wild turkeys on their routes during mating season.

Kass misguidedly questioned the “toughness” of Madison mail carriers.

I was able to relate the story of my friend Fuelle, who once delivered the mail, outdoors, in Madison for 34 consecutive months — while wearing shorts.

Brad did it for a year to win a bet — two cases of beer — and kept going because people on his route loved it. He only stopped when the manager of his postal station insisted. The bureaucratic manager had taken a phone call: “It’s 22-below zero and you have a guy outside gassing up his truck wearing shorts! What kind of people do you hire?”

The tough kind.

The commemorative benches throughout the Arb — they’re used to raise funds — have produced further memories. A decade or so ago a commemorative bench was installed near the McKay (now the Visitors) Center to honor Harold Tarkow, and sometime later I got to spend some time with the honoree.

What a delightful man. Tarkow was 98 then — this was 2011 — and he still subscribed to the New York Times and New Yorker and walked with his wife, Ethel, to the Central Library from their downtown apartment.

Tarkow’s love of the Arb dated to its opening — literally. He was there in 1934 when they cut the ribbon and Aldo Leopold gave a speech. Later, Harold, a Forest Products Laboratory scientist, was a prodigious volunteer for the Friends of the Arboretum. He knew it intimately.

I remember him asking me, “The deer is obviously the largest animal found in the Arboretum. What’s the smallest?”

“I give up.”

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

Tarkow died, at 99, just a few months after our interview. I’d asked him if there was anything he wanted to do that he hadn’t already done.

“Oh, to be 95 again,” he said.

In the Arboretum’s Longenecker Horticultural Gardens, which offers a splendid view to the south, I recently came across a bench with this inscription: “In loving memory of James A. Graaskamp, “The Chief.”

I’ve lately been assisting with a manuscript about the disability rights movement in Wisconsin in the second half of the 20th Century, and Graaskamp — paralyzed by polio at 17 — created a real estate program at UW–Madison and became a legend. He’s one of the heroes of the book.

Further east, near the Wingra Drive entrance, there is a boardwalk in Gardner Marsh, that says this: “In Memory of Louis Gardner, 1887-1979, made possible by a gift from Ruth and Bernard Reese, 1996.”

When I saw that for the first time recently, I knew I knew the name, Bernard Reese. But how? It came to me. I’d written about him. Reese, a former president of Gardner Baking, was in his backyard facing Lake Monona when Otis Redding’s plane went down in December 1967.

Small town.

One disappointment: In all my morning walking through the Arboretum, I had yet to see a deer. I had heard they come out at dusk. Then one morning last week, just past the Grasskamp bench and across the narrow road that winds through the Arb, I spotted one out of the corner of my eye.

It was in the woods, maybe 20 yards off the road. I stared. It regarded me, unimpressed. I kept walking but facing backward so I could watch. After a few seconds the deer walked across the road, followed by two others.

A perfectly ordinary moment, I suppose.

It made my day.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.