March in Wisconsin is about icy mud and piles of gray-granite snow, compressed and unyielding to the strengthening sun. Two kinds of people stay through late winter here: those who can't afford to go south and those who actually like it.
For me, it's some of both. Technically, I could afford a trip to Florida, but I'd rather save my money and invest it in dark beer and moldy cheese.
To ward off late winter fatigue, I fill late February and March with Wisconsin rituals. Last Saturday I had my deer and duck hunting buddies over for what has become a traditional venison roast with morel sauce around a candle-lit table with buck head candle-holders that my wife found in some little store just for the occasion (actually, it's the only occasion in which they're allowed on the table).
And this last weekend, it was a double-header of late winter rituals. Saturday night was the annual bleu cheese party at Becky Abel and John Coleman's house on the east side.
Nobody is ambivalent about bleu cheese. You really love it or you really don't. Those of us who love the stuff are okay with those who don't and their less sophisticated palates. But we're a misunderstood minority, so we huddle together with our table full of bleu dishes and some red wine and dark beer. I recommend "Satin Solstice" from the Central Waters brewery in Amherst.
Saturday morning was the annual "Madison Reads Leopold" event at the Arboretum Visitor Center. From 9:30 in the morning until three in the afternoon, 41 readers read selections from Aldo Leopold, mostly from A Sand County Almanac.
Speeches aren't allowed. Each reader simply waits on deck on a "Leopold bench" next to the podium. When it's your turn, you step up, simply introduce yourself ("I'm Dave Cieslewicz and I used to work for the government") and start reading your selection.
My assignment this year (as it has been for three of the last four years) was "Come High Water," an essay about the joys of being stuck on Leopold's farm during the April floods that surrounded his shack. I like that reading because it describes the quietness of these weeks. The bustle of the holidays is long gone, yet it's way too early to think about all those spring chores, and winter sports are impossible in the mud. So it's a good time to read, reflect, write, play Scrabble and maybe doze a little here and there. It's like spending weeks at a virtual retreat house.
At the Arboretum, about 50 people sat and listened quietly. It was very much like being in church, and the readings were like a prayer. Some followed along in their own worn copies of his books. Before you go all Santorum on me, this is not nature worship with Aldo as God. It's just a simple, elegant remembrance for a brilliant man, his beautiful writing and ideas that remain fresh after more than six decades.
This weekend's snow made the Wisconsin landscape uncharacteristically beautiful for this time of year, but the forecast promises to turn it to gray slush in a matter of days, and then frozen gray slush later in the week.
That's just the way March is here. Like a good dark beer or a slice of bleu, this time of year in the Upper Midwest isn't for everybody. But it's possible to find ways to make it through and, like a weekend retreat, come out of it better, more thoughtful and in tune with yourself than before.