Friday, 7 July 2017

Geekrant vs The Arboretum Attack

Greetings, Geekranters and thanks for reading. Welcome to another riveting edition of my soon to be inter-galactically popular blog. And another slice of my needlessly grandiose writing style. I hope you enjoy it.

So this week, as I mentioned in my last blog, was Independence Day, which along with the plethora of patriotic pomp and circumstance and flurries of fireworks is a pretty wonderful excuse for a day off from work.

My wife picked me up from work on the 3rd of July and she suggested that we celebrate the holiday by doing something in the great outdoors, which as we were supposed to be going to the gym sounded like a great idea. I just didn't know where we were going.
We did some errands, including posting my final paperwork to change my conditional Green Card into a permanent one (we're both very glad that's done), and then headed towards our destination which my wife now told me was the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Arboretum. My wife has always wanted to take me to the Arboretum but somehow we have never managed to find the time.

An Arboretum is, at its most basic level, a collection of trees kept, generally for some kind of scientific study. UW-Madison's Arboretum is like that only on some kind of arboreal steroids.
The Arboretum was created in the 1930s as a kind of experiment and scientific study in what is now known as “ecological restoration”. The idea being to use the land of the Arboretum to create the sort of landscapes that existed in Wisconsin before the Europeans turned up and started turning everything into farmland and timber woods and generally messing around with nature.

The Arboretum contains a large amount of different landscapes, mainly prairies of various types, (including Tallgrass Prairie) savannas, (including Oak Savannas) a lot of forest land, wetlands and horticultural gardens. It is very impressive to look at, as if opening a window on the past to see what the original inhabitants and early settlers must have seen on a daily basis. It also is a lot of land to cover.

Back in Britain, many a sunny afternoon in my youth was spent exploring the grounds of Normanby Hall, the onetime summer home of the family who built Buckingham Palace and sold it to the Royals a couple of hundred years ago. Those grounds were extensive enough but I have a feeling the Arboretum would easily have dwarfed them.

One thing Normanby Hall has to offer over the Arboretum in July, is that wearing shorts isn't a matter of severe discomfort. That day at the Arboretum they definitely were.

The truth is we barely saw any of the Arboretum aside from the area around the visitor's centre. We had forgotten one of the many fundamental rules of Wisconsin, rules such as Brett Favre never played for the Minnesota Vikings, it was all a mass hallucination, Governor Scott Walker is a walking advert for “Just for Men” and if you're going out in summer never forget bug spray... oh and wear something more than t-shirt and shorts.

We had barely made it 200 yards into the Arboretum before we had to retreat before attack wave upon attack wave of Wisconsin's unofficial state bird, “The Mosquito” caused us to beat a hasty and hopefully dignified retreat from the Arboretum's verdant environs. The actual state bird of Wisconsin, the American Robin, is definitely prettier and less harmful to humans than the insectoid dive bombers known as mosquitoes. Alas, it was the mosquito that we ran into that day, my short clad legs inundated by itchy red wounds and our desire to see Madison's ecological restoration experiment postponed to another day with more planning involved and possibly some form of armour plating.

Trudging back to the car and thankfully removed from most of the blood-thirsty swarms, we chanced upon two more of the residents of Wisconsin's animal kingdom.

The first of these was a chipmunk, who, in my 1990s cartoon addled mind at least, went by the name of Alvin Simon Theodore ChipnDale III, and appeared to be nibbling something on the path in front of us. He was apparently oblivious to our attention but as any person who has tracked the wily chipmunk before knows, this is merely a clever ruse to lull you into a false sense of security so that you look even more foolish when you creep up on the creature and it runs off at the last moment. Which the young Mr ChipnDale did, leaving me and the wife most flummoxed.

Alvin having headed off into some prairie type grass which I would struggle to identify, we next met something that before I moved here and when I first moved here would have been astounded by but now has become somewhat commonplace to me. Strolling, or should that be strutting?, along the path in front of us was a wild turkey whom I shall call Nigel. As I have just mentioned, this sight while still impressive, no longer amazes me as it may once have done. Turkeys are native to the continental United States and can be often seen within Madison's city limits, clumping together in groups that might be seen in parks and woodland. Nigel the turkey looked at us with complete disinterest and then waddled off into the undergrowth. We made it back to the car and headed for home.

Every day here seems to be full of moments like this. Not just because I now live in America generally but because I live in Madison in particular. This is the city that I now call home and its got a vibe and an ambiance all of its own.

For those who you don't know, Madison is Wisconsin's state capital, home of the various sections of its state government and its headquarters, the visually impressive Capitol building. For a man who grew up in a nondescript industrial town, where not a whole lot ever really changed, in the North of England, one far removed from the sophistication and influence of a large city like London. (albeit a home town that I love)Coming from a town like that being in a city like Madison is a little different.

Not that Madison ever really feels like a hustling and bustling metropolis, its inhabitants would never allow it to become that. Located roughly in the centre of the southern third of Wisconsin and surrounded by farming country on nearly every side, Madison is a city of over 200,000 people but one that still mirrors, in some ways, the small town feel of much of rural Wisconsin while retaining a uniquely cosmopolitan, innovative and liberal viewpoint on most of life's great issues.

The city was founded by James Duane Doty, who started the whole city on a piece of swampy forestland located on a isthmus between two of the four lakes of the Yahara river chain, Lake Mendota and Lake Monona, Lake Waubesa and Lake Kegonsa being the other two. Doty was a former federal judge who lobbied extensively even before the city was built for it to become the capital of the newly created state of Wisconsin. As such, from its very beginning, Madison has been at the heart of every aspect of Wisconsin, an influence that the city takes seriously. From its world famous university to its liberal stance on political issues, to its environmentally friendly miles and miles of bike trails, this is a city determined to show a different way of living to the rest of the world.

Aside from the lakes, the city is full of green spaces, as if the urban planners couldn't bear to keep Wisconsin's countryside in the country and bought it right into the town. Cycle lanes are everywhere, with people regularly using this quick and easy route to get around.

This is the city of Frank Lloyd Wright, of course, the American architect who sought to marry architecture to the nature in which it must sit. This is also an American city with no skyscrapers, a consequence of a city rule that states that no building can be taller than the Capitol on its perch at the very top of the isthmus.

It is lovely place to spend a warm afternoon by the lakes, especially if you happen to make it to the University's Memorial Union Terrace, which sits right on Lake Mendota, with the boats on the lake and the sun high in the sky, it can be difficult to remember that this is a city in the middle of the continental U.S., not a seaside town on a sun drenched bay.

Unique culture is everywhere, from the intriguing signs that signify the entry into each neighbourhood from another to the student fed quaint chaos of State Street's shops and bars, this is every place you've been too and no place you could ever imagine. This is a place where plastic flamingos randomly appear on a hill in the centre of the university and summer evenings lead to concerts in the Capitol Square.

Madison is a city that feels welcoming, that feels laid-back. Even on the busiest, most stressful day in the middle of a brutal Wisconsin winter, it feels like the whole city is still one step away from going out on the lake, cracking open a cold beer and fishing with friends. That's because they all go ice fishing, of course.

Madison is full of music, bars and restaurants. Nirvana's breakthrough album, Nevermind was recorded here and Otis Redding's plane came down in the cool waters of Lake Monona. It is a place that at one point is full of high culture and dreams and on the other hand still manages to deal with the daily grind of work and more work that so many people find themselves in. In the end, I think we all need a place like Madison sometimes.

So this blog is my introduction to Madison for you, if you've never been here. It is by no means complete. Ever since I moved here, this place has welcomed me into its slightly off kilter embrace and I'm glad I ended up here, of all places. If the waves of love and romance are going to sweep you across an entire ocean, you couldn't do much better than finding yourself here. It is a wonderful place to live, even if I don't know even a tiny amount about it yet.

So there will be more blogs on this subject, the subject of Madison that is, not insane mosquito attacks and mad dashes back to the car.

Frank Lloyd Wright deserves many blog posts, the city's love of sports does, a whole series could centre on what can be found on State Street alone. I could write for months and still not tell you everything there is to know about Madison and even then my friend Ralph, a native Madisonian, would still tell me more that I didn't know. But it doesn't matter, I'll keep writing about this place because its home now and that's no bad thing.

So keep an eye out for another blog from me and if you want me to blog about anything you think it would be interesting to read my perspective on, just let me know. Till next time.

Good Bye Geekranters!


  1. Great post, Stephen, and thanks for the shout out!

    1. Always willing to give a shout out for a good cause or a great city or good friends. Thanks for the comment.

    2. Always willing to give a shout out for a good cause or a great city or good friends. Thanks for the comment.