Biking home along the campus Lakeshore Path I have had many of these special experiences, although they usually involve wildlife of view of the lake instead of other humans. I have seen migrating tundra swans, otters (or some large, weasel-shaped animal that ran in front of me), and nesting great-horned owls. I've been dive-bombed by angry redwing blackbirds, heard those owls calling to their young in the dark, watched the willows sway and bend as a storm rolls in, and laughed at the gulls lined up in rows on the deck of a boat moored in University Bay. The color of the lake and sky just after sunset as I bike west is an entrancing mix of blue, pink, purple, and indigo that paint could never capture. That color draws me in every time, and seems impossibly rich.
But last night my joyous moment happened a bit away from the lake. As I headed south on Walnut, past the greenhouses, I noticed a couple of visitors headed east on Observatory. They strolled along the grass and then peered into the greenhouse windows, walking between the low brick wall and the glass building. One stayed on the grass, and was harassed by a pair of redwing blackbirds that were likely nesting nearby. They seemed much more bothered by the other birds than by me, as I followed them on my bike at a discreet distance.
Aldo Leopold, while a professor here in Madison, on seeing a sandhill crane flying overhead once told a graduate student, "Take a good look at that crane, because you may never see one again." He wrote about the dwindling crane population in Marshland Elegy:
Someday, perhaps in the very process of our benefactions, perhaps in the fullness of geologic time, the last crane will trumpet his farewell and spiral skyward from the great marsh. High out of the clouds will fall the sound of hunting horns, the bang of the phantom pack, the tinkle of little bells, and then a silence never to be broken - unless perchance in some far pasture of the Milky Way.
Fortunately, we stopped many of the practices that were dooming the cranes, and now they are so common that they wander our urban parks and even mowed lawns on the UW campus. We stopped draining the wetlands and marshes, became more careful about the chemicals we put into the environment, and stopped hunting threatened species. But we are still harming the natural world in ways that will doom more species.
Finally, the visitors left the greenhouses and paused on the grass near the parking lot for a bit. The light was fading, and they seemed perfectly at home wandering the campus, so I went on my way with another memory of the little moments made possible by quiet, clean, healthy, human-powered transportation.