Tag Archives: Wisconsin

Wilderness Act Commemorated on Lake Superior

It’s Saturday, September 27, and we are boating from Bayfield.  I’ve never seen the Apostle Islands before, so I drove from Chicago to northern Wisconsin for this chance to have a cruise with fellow Sierra Club members and some knowledgeable speakers.  It is a beautiful day to see the fall colors and  the islands of Lake Superior.

Our ship, the Island Princess

Our ship, the Island Princess

The first speaker is Tia Nelson whose father Gaylord Nelson was a Wisconsin senator and governor.  Nelson established Earth Day and his daughter is a conservationist, too.  She explains how it wasn’t just her dad who created the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness Act fifty years ago.  Many people worked together to protect this natural area.  Now, with a colossal Gogebic Taconite (GTac) mine proposed for nearby Penokee Range that will pollute land, air, and water, Tia urges us to work together again to protect our resources that are not only aesthetically pleasing but vital to our existence.

Tia Nelson talks with Captain Sherman

Tia Nelson talks with Captain Sherman

There are about 136 passengers on board.  We visit the snack table and talk with each other during our two-hour cruise.  Devon Cupery tells me about the film she produced about the mine issue.  Neil Howk, a park ranger with the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, describes each of the islands we pass.  All but one (Madeline Island) of the 22 islands are part of our National Park system, so they are no longer clear-cut for timber or quarried for brownstone but are left for wildlife and people to enjoy.  The boat pauses by Raspberry Island so we can take pictures of its lighthouse.

Raspberry Island Lighthouse

Raspberry Island Lighthouse

The last speaker, Mike Wiggins, is a compelling storyteller, painting a broad, almost mythical picture of the issues at hand.  I stop taking photos out the window of the boat and listen to him talk about protecting this rich land of fresh water, forests, and wildlife.  Mike is Chair of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe whose 125,000 acres of reservation would be hugely impacted by the taconite mine.  Their wild rice beds and Lake Superior itself, the holder of 10% of the world’s surface fresh water, would be polluted by mercury and other run-off from the mining process.  Chris Cline of GTac and the governor of the state eliminated laws and rules regulating the disposal of toxic mine wastes, following Cline’s pattern of destruction in other states and countries.

Mike calls Cline a windigo, a ravenous giant from Ojibwe tales.  He always wants more.  “Chris Cline is so hungry, he ate the state of West Virgina!  After he ruined that place, he took bites out of Illinois and now he’s coming for Wisconsin,” Mike says, explaining that windigo is the spirit of excess and can be vanquished by the powers of love and cooperation for the greater good.  Both humans and Mother Earth, he says, are endowed with an energy from the Creator, and when we call on that, there will be no mine.  Mike and the other speakers are role models for challenging the motives of greed and profit.  We can do better, they tell us.

I remember the Gordon Lightfoot song about the SS Edmund Fitzgerald.  The 29 lives on board that Great Lakes ship were lost partly due to greed.  The Fitzgerald was carrying 4000 tons more taconite iron ore than it was designed to hold, making it hard to maneuver when pounded by waves in a storm.  It sank in Lake Superior in 1975.  As the lyrics go, “That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed/ When the gales of November came early.”

Will our natural resources be chewed to the bone by  storms of windigos?  As Tia Nelson said, it’s up to us to appreciate and protect what we have.  And on this September day, what we have is spectacular.

Apostle Island sandstone formation

Apostle Island sandstone formation

Cormorant on the pier

Cormorant on the pier

Mike Wiggins, Bad River Band of Ojibwe, and friend

Mike Wiggins, Bad River Band of Ojibwe, and friend

Wonder Walk: Hiking for Health

Hiking in Costa Rica

Hiking in Costa Rica

The first Wednesday of April is National Walking Day.  This is one way the American Heart Association promotes habits that keep our heart happy.  Whether you walk alone or with others, the idea is to get moving.  If you can connect with nature while you’re outside, so much the better.

Buddhist author Thich Nhat Hanh leads walking meditations at his retreat center among the sunflowers of Bordeaux, France.  In Peace Is Every Step he reminds us, “Be aware of the contact between your feet and the Earth.  Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.”

Librarian Ann Vogl and English teacher Cheryl Gorsuch decided to hike the Ice Age Trail–all 1000 miles of it.  It took them five years, getting together on weekends to do a bit at a time.  They often talked while they walked and got to know each other very well.  They also got to know thirty counties of Wisconsin as they followed the edge of the last glacier!  Upon achieving their goal this month, Gorsuch commented, “I think you see so much of Wisconsin at a personal level, foot by foot, step by step.”

Mark Hirsch is another inspired Wisconsinite.  Every day for a year, he walked to a 163-year-old Bur Oak, took a picture of it, and got to know it very well.  It became “That Tree” project, completed just two weeks ago.  (See www.facebook.com/photosofthattree.)  People who saw his photos posted online got to know the oak, too, and shared their stories of special trees.   So whether we hike a thousand miles or walk to the same place every day, there are benefits from the physical exercise and the connections we make.

Though I like taking sociable walks with friends, I pay more attention to flora and fauna if I go quietly by myself.  I can pause and watch birds to my heart’s content or lean against a tree until I have set down roots alongside it.  For heart health, a rapid pace is best, and I do like race-walking.  But for peace of mind, I like to pause and appreciate my surroundings.

Kathleen Dean Moore of Oregon writes in Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature of walking along a river by the Cascade Mountains.  She couldn’t help but take her stress with her.  “Already,” she says, “just a few hours into the weekend, time feels short.  I hurry to relax before I have to go back to my complicated life.”  She pauses to watch the river, a tortoiseshell butterfly lands on her arm, and her awareness shifts.

“Lucky.  If I hadn’t stopped to watch the river, if I hadn’t worked up a sweat in this unlikely sun, if I hadn’t pushed my sleeves up past my elbows, I might never have discovered how to drink in the peace of this time and place, every warm drop.”  Moore continues, “This is what a human brings to the world–the ability to take notice, to be grateful and glad, glad for the river swinging by, for the sun warming my shoulders, for the breeze lifting the hairs on a butterfly’s back.”

May you get lucky on April 3 and every day.  Don’t hurry to relax.  Take your time and have a heartfelt walk.



Skiing in Beauty

Cross-country skiing in Marquette County

Cross-country skiing in Marquette County

It was a good day to be out skiing.  Imagine yourself so small you could play on a cottonball.  That’s what the snow was like in central Wisconsin last weekend.  Not the best conditions for speed-gliding, but perfect for playing in a cushy wonderland of fluff.

Access to the trail near our cabin was through the snow-draped limbs of White Pines–their needles soft, too, as I brushed by them and entered their domain.  A hush lay all around me.  All I had to do was slide along on my skis and look around.  I saw tracks of deer and rabbits.  The sky was blue and frost sparkled and everything was fresh.  With every little breeze, snow from the branches above sifted down on me and I was refreshed.

The magic of the winter woods put me in mind of the Navajo prayer, asking “in harmony may I walk”:

With beauty before me may I walk.

With beauty behind me may I walk.

With beauty below me may I walk.

With beauty above me may I walk.

With beauty all around me may I walk.

I am restored in beauty.


Muir and Me in Marquette County

A new version of my blog post about John Muir Memorial Park appeared in Orion Magazine’s “Place Where I Live.”  I like visiting the park to appreciate John Muir and his hard work preserving beautiful places in America.  Drive north of Madison, Wisconsin to the little town of Montello and you will find the park nearby.

The Middle of Somewhere

When people find out that my husband and I plan to move to the middle of rural Wisconsin, we get a lot of questions.  Right now we live in Evanston, population 74,486, which is right next to Chicago with a population over two million.

Where are we going?  To Wautoma, population 2100.  That is a big change.  And we won’t be living in town, such as it is, but in the woods by a lake.  That description of our location may be sufficient explanation of our move for some people.  But many of our friends and family want to know how we will adjust to the lack of cultural institutions, ethnic diversity, restaurants, health food stores, and other amenities.  Some worry about us enduring long, cold winters.

I have the same questions and they led me to read books about people who survived such a move.  One memoir I’ve read so far is We Took to the Woods by Louise Rich, first published in 1942 but still quite useful.  I will summarize a couple points of reassurance from her book here.

Louise was raised in a Massachusetts town and then moved to the deep woods of Maine when she married her husband, Ralph.  They were 20 miles from the nearest store, which is a long way, especially in the winter when they pulled their groceries home on a sled.  When hunters and fishermen visited their river and woods, they tended to ask the same questions, so Louise started each chapter with a typical question that she heard from visitors.

The chapter titled “Don’t You Get Awfully Out of Touch?” takes pains to explain “that we aren’t out of touch with anybody that we want to stay in touch with.  After all, the U.S. Mail still operates.”  She doesn’t mention in this chapter that if they want their mail in the winter, they have to snowshoe quite a ways to get it!  We actually have roads going by our Wisconsin home, passable–most days–even in the winter, and mail delivery to the end of our driveway.  Plus, we’ll even have internet up there to help us stay in touch.

I sat up and took notice when Louise addressed the seasons.  “What people really mean when they ask us if we live here the year ’round is ‘But good Lord!  Certainly you don’t stay in here during the winter?  You must be crazy!'”  Louise admitted, “I would have thought so myself before I tried it.”  I take great comfort in the fact that she tried it and she liked it.  She found there was a lot to like in the snowy woods of Maine.

She herself thought winters would be miserable.  “It’s the time you expected to drag intolerably, and once in a while you stop and wonder when the drag is going to begin.  Next week, you warn yourself, after we’ve finished doing this job on hand, we’d better be prepared for a siege of boredom.  But somehow next week never comes.”  And pretty soon the ice broke up and the loons came back…

Louise Rich didn’t miss urban life and culture very often, because she had plenty to do in her own neck of the woods, what with writing, raising children, and endless chores like cooking on the wood stove.  As she put it, “All we have are sun and wind and rain, and space in which to move and breathe.  All we have are the forests, and the calm expanses of the lakes, and time to call our own.”

By some measures, our cabin is in the middle of nowhere.  But when I’m up there, there’s nowhere I’d rather be.  But check with me come February.

It all depends where you want to be.


Back to the Shack

Looking out from the Shack

The final section of A Sand County Almanac (1949) is called “The Outlook.”  In it Aldo Leopold considered various attitudes, from “the farmer for whom the land is still an adversary” to the urban dweller who “is separated from the land by many middlemen, and by innumerable physical gadgets.”  He worried in the 1940s that land had become, for some, merely “the space between cities on which crops grow,” though most people still lived in those rural spaces.  In our time, for the first time, more people in the world live in cities than in the country.

He also worried about the habit of viewing the land as a commodity.  For Leopold–outdoorsman, ecologist, professor of game management–it boiled down to valuing our natural environment for so much more than its economic value.  “It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, admiration,” he wrote.  He saw himself as part of a community, integrally connected to the plants, animals, water, air, and the soil itself.

It was about a year ago that I biked to the Shack where Leopold wrote about the land ethic and practiced its principles.  The building was not open at the time.  (See my September 18, 2010 post.)  I went back last week for two days of Land Ethic Leadership training, with plentiful role models of the love and respect of which Leopold spoke.  We learned in large groups, small groups, and out on the land.  We hiked in silence to a prairie remnant at the top of a Baraboo bluff.  I lay on a slab of ancient red stone and watched the grass and sky.   We also removed invasive plant species around the Leopold Center buildings.  Mostly, we talked about how to talk about conservation and the health of the land.

A highlight for many of us was to go inside the famous Shack at the very end of our training.  It is hard to believe that Aldo, Estella, and their five children stayed inside the tiny, dim space that was once a chicken coop.  Well, they slept on the bunks there, but mostly, I suppose, they were outside–planting the trees and wildflowers I admired from the window of the Shack and generally enjoying their time together in nature.

Leopold knew that our attitudes toward nature are always shifting, as his certainly did.  The land ethic is not a static thing that he could capture in words, because it is evolving.  Being in the woods and prairies, feeling the presence of Aldo’s daughter, Nina Leopold Bradley who died just a few months ago at the age of 93, and warmed by the light of the people at the Center, I was changed. Somehow my outlook from the window of the Shack took me beyond the pines, beyond the Wisconsin River, and back up to the top of that bluff.  I could see for miles.

Gathering at the Shack

Land Ethic

How did a hard-boiled forester, hunter, professor, and fisherman become one of our most eloquent spokesmen for loving and caring for the land? Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) was a pioneer conservationist who is well known for his book of essays, A Sand County Almanac.  He credits a wolf in Arizona and a shack in Wisconsin for his personal transformation and the evolution of his ideas.

As a young forester in Arizona, Leopold killed a wolf.  In a section of his book called “Thinking Like a Mountain,” he remembered, “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.  I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes–something known only to her and to the mountain.  I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise.  But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”  Part of his transformation in the Southwest was that he ceased to merely act on his environment and began to act with it, listening to wolf and mountain, tree and stream.

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us.  When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”  To enter the community Leopold made his own, at least on weekends when he could get away from his work at the University of Wisconsin, I drove to the Aldo Leopold Center near Baraboo, Wisconsin (www.aldoleopold.org).  At the Center, a gorgeous pine and stone building with two kinds of geothermal systems, I talked with an intern named Anna and she gave me directions to the secluded Shack and loaned me a bicycle to get there.  Following a paved road and then a grassy path, I arrived at the place that inspired so many of the essays in A Sand County Almanac.

When Aldo, his wife Estella, and their five children bought their property in 1935, it was a sandy, over-farmed field near the Wisconsin River, with only an old chicken coop left on it.  The family shoveled out the dirt and manure and made that coop livable for their many visits from Madison.  (One son built an outhouse they called the Parthenon.)  For Aldo, it was an experiment in renewing the land.  He and his family planted thousands of trees and wildflowers, making it a lush, green place.  A place to listen to the land.

“A land ethic,” Leopold wrote, “reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land.  Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal.  Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.”  He did that with his own hands, and died trying to extinguish a brush fire on his neighbor’s land.  His daughter, Nina, still lives near the Shack and has kept the green fire burning.

In 2012, look for the documentary on PBS, “Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and the Land Ethic in the 21st Century.”

I biked to the shack where Leopold wrote Sand County Almanac

Muir Musings in Marquette County

At John Muir Park 2009

Barb at Ennis Lake, John Muir Park

Sun is breaking through the morning mist as I arrive at John Muir Park on October 27.  I walk down the hill to what the Muirs called Fountain Lake, now known as Ennis Lake, and see streams of holy light raking the fog-shrouded waters.

Though no structure remains, I know the Muirs’ farmhouse, built in 1850, was somewhere nearby.  I picture young John getting up on a day like today with the inside of the house about the same temperature as the outside: 34 degrees.  The one stove in the house was only for cooking, according to John’s father, Daniel.

The Scottish family made a farm here in central Wisconsin, their first home in America, when John was 11.  He and his brother attended school in Scotland, but in Wisconsin they were too busy doing farm chores and building a house.  Later, when the land wore out, the family moved to nearby Hickory Hills and John dug a well by hand through 90 feet of soil and stone.  He was almost worked to death, but the land and trees always revived him, as he wrote, remembering, “Young hearts, young leaves, flowers, animals, the winds and the streams and the sparkly lake, all wildly, gladly rejoicing together!”

As the mists lift, so do flocks of small birds, moving from shore grass to lofty treetops all gold and red with autumn leaves.  A marsh hawk flies by and I hear Sand Hill Cranes calling from the Fox River across Highway F.  I’ve come to commune with nature–and the spirit of John Muir.  As offerings, I have two of his favorite foods: bread and apple slices.

Moving away from the lake, I follow a mowed path.  A section of the Ice Age Trail goes around Ennis Lake, kept up by volunteers in order to highlight the history of the glaciers in Wisconsin.  I go over a hill and down to two spreading oak trees, still hanging onto their leaves.  As the sun brightens the sky, the tan leaves glow as if fresh-baked and buttered.  The trees are so big, surely they were around when young Johnnie Muir was here.  I offer chunks of spelt bread and Fuji apple.  I throw in an almond for good measure.

Driving home, north along Tenth Road, I finally see some Sand Hill Cranes.  There are dozens of them milling about in an open field bordered by corn.  Usually the cranes pair off in separate fields, but at this time of year they gather to prepare for their migrations to Texas or points further south.  They call to each other, a deep chortle like rusty hinges on a creaky door.

With almost no traffic I am free to linger along the side of the road, watching.  Three cranes glide by my car window, sailing along just to stretch their wings.  In the field, two elegant, gray cranes face each other and bow.  One flaps its wings, then the other.  Then there is bobbing all around followed by a minute’s rest.  Then more bobbing and flapping.  It is quite a dance.

I drive home to the cabin, munching the remains of the apple I shared with John Muir and the oak trees.  During his lifetime, Muir helped create national parks such as Yosemite, but he was unable to preserve this patch of land that had been so dear to him as a boy.  He tried, but it wasn’t until 1957 that it became John Muir Memorial Park, where anyone can visit and make their own connections with the natural beauty that helped form a passionate conservationist.