There is something about High Cliff, the state of Wisconsin, monarch butterflies, and the passage of time that I cannot quite satisfactorily synthesize. The combination is obviously a larger metaphor for the seasons of life, but there is more to it than that.
I recently learned from Candice Gaukel Andrews’ book Travel Wild Wisconsin that monarch butterflies are born with crazy-sensitive circadian clocks to be able to know whether and where to mate or migrate. Or, as my father remarked upon watching one of the 40+ chrysalis’ hatch and fly out of my mother’s monarch caterpillar garage nursery, “it’s like they Google their route!”
There is something equally mystical and magical about how Wisconsin is home to so many effigy mounds and ancient peoples. Participating in the nurturing of monarch butterflies or walking along the Effigy Mound Trail at High Cliff is akin to the feeling I get when I am on the shore of a Great Lake. Power. Wildness. Some kind of osmotic explanation for life’s origins. I can feel it just by sitting with wilderness rather than wading through technical, scientific jargon.
I am typing and contemplating this while holding my giant, sleeping, almost-one-year-old daughter. That warm weight a sleeping child gives is soul-soothing. Somehow, holding her and listening to an impending thunderstorm blowing in is part of this same brand of inexplicable Wisconsin magic.
We hiked at High Cliff yesterday. High Cliff is so special to me. It is where I came of age. It is where, in summer, my sister and I would spend all afternoon reading on the hill at the beach, swimming, biking, and hiking. We climbed all over that cliff. It is where, as I got older, I could walk and walk and unpack my anxious mind. It is where, at Halloween, they would open the pavilion on the ledge, serve hot chocolate by the roaring fire in the limestone fireplace, have pumpkin-carving and costume contests, and light candles in paper lanterns for hikers along the Red Bird Trail. It’s where I had my senior pictures taken. It is where I had my maternity pictures taken. It is where Wisconsin’s seasons can be most keenly felt because of the sweeping vistas of the lake and valley.
Personally, the most peaceful place in the whole park is the Effigy Mound Trail. It sounds strange even to me, but it makes me feel so comforted to know that aeons ago, people picked such a beautiful place to bury and honor their loved ones. The trail is always quiet and dappled with sunlight. It is a few steps away from an extraordinary overlook of Lake Winnebago and the Fox Valley. It was especially beautiful yesterday; a perfect late September afternoon. For all my waxing poetic about the trail, I actually had not planned on stopping, but Rosie had dropped her wubbanub along the trail that skirts the campground, and I had to double back. That, too, is some kind of small dose of destiny that is part of this mythical narrative.
It is past 10:30 now. Rosie has been teething – for a baby born 6 weeks prematurely, she has been on time with her teeth – early, even. She will be up every hour through the couple nights when the pain peaks and the tooth slices through the gums. Sleeping on or closely next to me seems to be her cure-all, which sounds adorable in theory, but is so exhausting when the cycle of sleep, thrashing, waking, screaming is repeated hourly throughout the night.
Motherhood, too, is somehow part of this magical wheel of life. I am talking about something more than the cycle of reproduction. I am trying to descriptively pinpoint and define the instincts that power everything, from butterfly migrations to what feels true as a parent and human. The gravitational pull of a large body of water. The serenity of a forest with a dearth of other people. The religion that causes native people to travel hundreds of miles in spring to bury their dead in effigy mounds in the shapes of animals. The complete bliss of your sleeping baby’s soft skin on your chest, her small belly rising against yours with even, unconscious breath. The silent catharsis of a freshly-hatched monarch butterfly fanning its wings to dry.
I think a monarch sighting is lucky anytime I see it, sort of in the same way a cardinal sighting is meaningful. That brilliant orange and black flash! The way they pulse and rest on a plant, and then alight again in an instant. Their delicate appearance belies their hardiness, considering their annual migration to Mexico. Apparently they can even still fly with a quarter of a wing missing.
It was cathartic for me to return to High Cliff to hike at that specific time. We had maternity photos taken there approximately a year earlier, and I remember being so swollen and so terrified of new motherhood. It was hard for me, a year ago, to foresee the growth and joy that would occur in the forthcoming year because I had so much anxiety at that time about my delivery. This sporadic hike helped demarcate the endings and beginnings of one year. It was a lovely way to gauge how much I have grown as a person and mother, and how far I really came in my postpartum journey.
It is tempting to conclude this piece with a cliche analogy about butterflies or a quote from a famous conservationist that more succinctly articulates the relationship humanity has with wilderness. This contemplation of magic? science? both? inspires me to actually go and read some writings of people like John Muir, Aldo Leopoldo, or Teddy Roosevelt to get closer to that truth of the wild. I think that unanswered quality is part of the magical pull that leads most nature-lovers to return to the woods. The more I can sit with nature, the closer I can feel to some kind of origins story.
For now, I will just sit until my adorable mess of a teething child wakes up again.
(These are some favorite photos from our High Cliff maternity session by Shaunae Teske Photography).