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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

John Koch
The stick: A messenger from the past.

© John Koch

December 2006

A stick in time

Up from the depths, a malodorous, mud-covered piece of wood reveals a sliver of Wisconsin's natural history.

John Koch

It's not much to look at: A bit too big to call a stick, but not quite big enough to call a log, the piece of wood is more or less straight, eight inches long by about an inch in diameter. Black on one end, fading to gray on the other, it's splotched here and there with ocher-colored mud.

It smells funny, too.

I pulled it out of the bank of a small stream close to my home. This stream runs through an open field, a former pasture where a herd of cattle once grazed. Now the cattle and clover are gone; all that's left is the creek.

I was at the creek with my seven-year-old daughter. We had met a couple of friends there, one a habitat biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the other his seasonal assistant. We were waiting for more people to show up, and together we would help out with a restoration project that still another friend from Trout Unlimited had organized. The project centered on restoring the stream to a point where its wild brook trout could not only survive, but reproduce as well.

A century of neglected land management practices had sapped the stream's vitality. High stream banks regularly collapsed, dumping soil that made the waters warm and murky. The silt blanketed gravel spawning beds and provided the barest minimum of underbank fish cover. Sloughing stream banks kept any overhead cover from setting root. Woody debris and constantly shifting loads of soil made the stream shallower and shallower after every rainfall. Shocking surveys indicated only a few small char lived here.

While we were waiting, my friend from the DNR caught me up on the details of the project. He showed me where the wooden "lunkers" had been placed a few hours earlier. Tucked along the stream's edge under the water, a lunker – basically a large wooden pallet – would serve as the base of a new bank. We'd pile rock on top of the pallet, and later bulldoze dirt over that. Once seeded with grass, a lunker eventually looks like a natural cut bank, accomplishing a number of things all at once. The horizontal space between the slats of the wooden structure becomes home to many types of fish, both trout and other species. The turf-covered rock stabilizes collapsing banks, narrows the stream channel and attracts insects that eventually become fish food. In a narrower channel a stream runs swifter and colder than before, and is better able to scour away accumulated sediment smothering the gravel beds so vital for spawning fish.

Lunkers create artificial streambanks when backfilled and covered with vegetation. © John Koch
Lunkers create artificial streambanks when backfilled and covered with vegetation.

© John Koch

My friend the biologist mentioned that he had pulled a very interesting piece of wood out of the sediment making up the river banks down underneath the water.

"I've sent it in to be Carbon-14 dated, but I'm pretty sure it's between four and eight thousand years old," he said.

Come again?

"There is a bunch of it down here. Let me show you."

We walked over to the bank, and he pointed down to the edge of the stream. Sticking out of the bank under the water was a snag of wood. I stumbled down to it and pointed a questioning finger at it.

"Yeah, that's one of them," he replied. "They're all over down through there." My friend went on to explain how you could tell the ancient timber's approximate age by the angle and depth of the wood deposition. Below the agricultural runoff of the previous century lay the former stream bank. Below this lay gravel and fine-grained, wind-blown loess clay beds deposited by the glaciers. Sticking out of this was an ugly piece of wood, a bit too big to call a stick, but not quite big enough to call a log.

I grabbed hold and pulled the stinking, mud-covered branch out of the bank.

By its appearance, it was one of the primary branches from a large evergreen, perhaps a hemlock or a spruce. The tree provided shade and cover to a wide range of animal life: 1,000 years ago bears, large cats, rodents and ungulates such as deer, elk, moose and woodland caribou roamed the Wisconsin woods. If the piece of wood turns out to be truly ancient – 6,000 to 8,000 years old – then it's quite possible that a wooly rhinoceros or a mammoth had browsed along its branches.

The tree might have shaded this same creek, and while it's almost certain this little river was running then as it is now in this general area, it is anybody's guess exactly where the stream bed lay long ago. It would take a major excavation of the entire area to figure that out, and that isn't the point of this project. If this was the stream's original bed, brook trout were here. It would be something like a poem to say the fish flashing beneath our feet were descendants of Pleistocene brookies, but that is probably not the case: most of Wisconsin's brookie broodstock, except in a few rare cases, came decades ago from Maine, brought here after logging, overfishing and agricultural runoff choked out the original stocks.

If the branch turns out to be not quite as old as we had hoped, amazing possibilities still remain. Perhaps this branch came from a tree that sheltered some of the earliest Wisconsinites. I watched my dark-haired daughter playing in the creek; I could imagine a similar daughter 2,000 years ago, playing under the majestic evergreen my stick came from. Kneeling at the base of the tree among its gnarled roots, she would have laughed into the shady gloom as the babbling brook splashed her. Or maybe she gazed at an approaching thunderstorm from the tree, clinging to my branch as she worriedly watched purple clouds build in the west, lightning walking the path of the primitive gods towards her and her family's camp.

It's not much to look at. A bit too big to call a stick, but not quite big enough to call a log. It smells funny, too. But this branch has a history as vast as the centuries, and the story it tells is as old as wonder itself.

John Koch is a printmaker, photographer and essayist whose Trout Lily Studio is in Spring Valley. Carbon dating revealed the stick was 1,800 years old.