Director’s Note, June 2020

Photo of Karen Oberhauser, UW–Madison Arboretum director

Karen Oberhauser, UW–Madison Arboretum director (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW–Madison)

To the UW–Madison Arboretum Community,

I hope that you are safe and healthy, and that the rhythms of the natural world are a source of amazement and reassurance. For me, nothing embodies those rhythms more than the return of monarchs to the Upper Midwest. The first Wisconsin monarch sighting reported to Journey North was on May 3 (in Milwaukee), but they poured into the state starting on May 23 (see Journey North map of monarch adult first sightings). I saw my first monarch adult and egg of the year at a friend’s restored prairie in Verona on May 24.

While the rhythms of the natural world continue, many of our human rhythms are profoundly affected by the coronavirus pandemic. At the Arboretum, our land care crew could not carry out their normal spring activities until mid-May. They are now following a carefully devised work plan that involves working individually, driving to work sites alone, and accessing buildings one at a time. But they are back and working hard to catch up as well as possible.

We have carried on with some research activities since late March using an approval process that ensures safe practices. Many of the approved studies involve long-term outdoor monitoring projects, for which losing a year of data would compromise our understanding of the rhythms of the natural world and the impacts of our management practices. For example, we’re collecting data on phenology, bumble bees, and monarchs, and conducting vegetation surveys as part of research into prescribed fire timing at Overlook Prairie. We’re also monitoring stream and spring water quality and continuing long-term hardiness trials for trees and shrubs. And as the UW–Madison moves into Phase 1 of Return to Research, we are developing new processes to gradually add more on-site research.

On March 19, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Tomas Pueyo published an interesting article called The Hammer and the Dance about how societies need to respond to the coronavirus. “The Hammer” refers to an aggressive initial response meant to slow the spread of the virus. Our response at the Arboretum—following guidance of the UW–Madison, the State of Wisconsin, and Dane County—was to vacate the building and work from home. Staff who couldn’t work at home were on leave until we devised safe ways to return to work, guided by expert knowledge and UW policies. We are now in “the Dance,” the period between the hammer and a vaccine or treatment. This is a time of small steps toward getting human rhythms back on track, knowing that we will probably take steps backward and forward depending on how infection distribution and magnitude evolve.

Arb staff have done an amazing job adapting to very different and often trying work conditions as we experienced first the hammer and now the dance. Through this period, we’ve been proud to provide a safe place for others to experience nature’s rhythms while navigating this uncertain time.

—Karen Oberhauser, Arboretum director