Unpublished Essay
January 1994

Only the most fortunate of us grow up on a postcard landscape. I'll let those few tell us the wonders of living in the shadows of peaks covered with snow in July, or the rewards of living near a great canyon, or the solitude possible being the lone inhabitant on an island in a protected sound. T he current state of the world allows the rest of us only a chance to visit these places.  

That's not to mean that the rest of us are isolated from nature. For there are many more people who give of their talents and money to preserve these places than there are people who can live there. This desire to maintain wild lands finds its roots in a more accessible means than a visit to one of our great wilderness areas. 

It took me 30-odd years, but I've finally discovered that the most remote, feral and private places are not in one of our nation's parks, subservient to the onslaught of visitors and RV parking spaces, or our national forests threatened by timber and mineral hunters, but in the odd pieces of land here and there left undeveloped.

I hope everyone has a place they can think of as I remember the acreage on my grandfather's "farm." Your place may have been a small woodland or prairie creek that meandered close by a place you lived. It may have been a brackish or freshwater marsh that was endlessly fascinating to you as a pre-teen. Most likely, the place was one that you visited during all seasons and came to know the annual rhythms of nature in that place.

In addition to being a place to go, these odd pieces of wild nature nestled among farm fields and subdivisions became a place with a memory. You'd always look in the same place for the animal you once saw and thought might return. You'd remember when you and a friend ended up getting muddy, wet, or frozen. Bit by bit, the land became a place you knew and enjoyed.

In all likelihood, you moved away. The land may still be in the same state you remember it, or it may be "developed" in a way you could never imagine it being tamed. That kinship with the land, I believe, is one of the mainstays of the environmental movement. Once a place like that is lost, a desire to maintain such opportunities for others becomes important.

My story involves a piece of land and four generations--from my grandparents who "settled" the land after immigrating from Poland during WWI, to my daughter who will most likely see the final "unsettling" of the land. The farm never really had a chance. Further north than most of Lake Superior, the last frost of the spring frequently called after Memorial Day and the first frost in the fall could beat the kids back to school in the first part of September.

The place my mother grew up on was 92 acres--two 40 acre plots stacked on top of each other and an extra 12 acres at one end where the river curved around. Most of it was wooded. With a few acres of pasture, a small herd of dairy cows, and a job in town, my grandparents managed to raise a family.

Most would say the land lies fallow now and count the abandoned farmstead as another victim of the agricultural revolution. The land reveals few indications that anybody has lived there--the barn is the only building that remains, a house foundation and some collapsed out buildings and a path back to the river are all that endure. The pasture is cut for hay every year--more as a favor to keep the brush from encroaching on the field than for the value of the hay.

The forests on the farm fall into two main kinds--an ash lowland community on the western edge, virtually inaccessible in summer due to the standing water, hummocks, and root knobs. The ash are among nature's most reticent beings. In early summer while other trees are leafed and most are fruiting, the ash slowly activate the first buds. Until I knew their habits better, I was convinced that they had all been killed by the winter cold. Underneath the gloomy ash, the yellow marsh marigolds do their best to brighten up the forest floor.

On the eastern side an evergreen balsam-spruce forest grows in a tangled weave. This place, hard to tramp through and dark, didn't ever seem like a place to be. In the middle was a ridge.   Well, maybe ridge is too strong a word--a higher spot where birch and other trees not accustomed to growing in water flourish. This was the path to the river.

Where the path first comes to the river, a rapids begins. The river has become a favorite fishing spot for bald eagles and me. Like most rivers, fishing on the St. Louis is enlivened by the varieties of fish to catch--northern pike, walleye pike, smallmouth bass, and channel catfish.

In a normal year, the humps, grassy islands, and boulders of the rapids are submerged during the spring run-off, with only a vigorous boiling an indication of the submerged rapids. By midsummer, the tops of the islands and biggest boulders rise out of the river and by late summer, barring any rainstorms, the water slows and the sandy stretches below the fast water make a great swimming hole.

If an ecologist were to evaluate the land, none of it would qualify as "virgin." Near the turn of the century, the great Red and White Pine forests were felled. On the local horizon, a lonely white pine stands as a lone survivor for its generation. It's the only one of its size for miles. I have never been able to come to grips with why. Why wasn't it cut down like all the rest? Why hasn't lightning or wind leveled it to the height of the surrounding forest?

I can't remember ever touching the tree. Somehow it hasn't seemed right even to feel its furrowed bark or see if my arms could reach even halfway around it. Maybe it's a penance for the forests of mighty pines felled by my kind of animal a century or so ago.

When I was a kid, the farm was just the place to go--explore in the woods, fish, play with kittens in the hayloft, and pick wild berries. Not until I was older did I realize that not everyone had a "farm" to go to. I thought every kid had grandparents with a farm to spend summers and holidays.

In college, I looked at that place with economic eyes. A dying rural town, no natural resources like the stunning Great Lake 40 miles to the east, the iron-rich ore of the Iron Range 40 miles north, or the encroaching prairie farmland 150 miles to the west and south. It was a place without a visible means of economic support and I wondered why people didn't move off to Duluth, Hibbing, or even Minneapolis to find viable work.

After graduation, I saw it through different eyes--eyes enamored with the rich social network of friends and family that sustained the community. Finally, after having a child of my own and living in a 75' x 100' rectangular lot, I see the wild land that was so instrumental in my upbringing and that Claire will have to work to protect as wild places disappear, become overcrowded, and degraded. I wonder what difference it will make to Claire that her grandparents live on a 100' x 150' rectangle instead of a sprawling farmstead, to this day still completely undiscovered.

She won't always have the option to venture forth in solitude out the back door to pick wild strawberries in June, raspberries in July, or August blueberries with a guarantee not to meet anyone except mosquitoes and those shield-shaped bugs that seem to like wild berries. She won't learn to watch the river and look forward to a time when the water drops low enough to skinny dip with her cousins in the sandy pools below the rapids on the river.

She may not learn that big ugly Prescott Spinners tipped with fathead minnows are the best bait to fish for walleyes and bass on the river. She may not learn that clean water comes from some place other than a household tap or grocery store. She may not learn to spot agates on a gravel road or to plead with an uncle to drop her off at an abandoned gravel pit with a chance to augment the rock collection.

I for one, am convinced that she will do these things, but it won't be without a conscious desire on the part of her parents. I wonder about her friends in school. What seeds will be planted in them to savor and protect the world around them?

I think back to the one place that has remained accessible and unspoiled throughout my life. I've lived in at least 15 different places over the past 32 years. Throughout that time, the farm has always been there. In each place I've lived, there have been wild places to visit nearby--boreal forests, mountain parks, prairie remnants and greenbelts. These places have provided necessary wild places to refresh and enjoy.

However, all these places, beautiful and large as they may have been, still have not managed to match the solitude of a walk or ski around the farm. 

Finally, besides the lure of solitude and wealth of diversity, the farm is claimed by memory. These memories are just as much of the people and events as the place itself. I consider myself rich for having them. There's not much to be told about them. If you came I'd show you where the old farmhouse was. Where I fell off the stairs and needed my head stitched up. I'd show you where the big swing sat--broad enough to hold 4 people to a side. I'd show you where the garden was and tell you how well I weeded the peas and picked the green beans.

I'd take you up to the hay loft and try to listen for any lost kittens and tell you about the polka dances that were held up there. I'd show you the creek where I'd always look for spawning pike that had swum up from the river in the spring. Then we'd head back to the river. If we weren't in a hurry, we'd follow the creek and jump over it from time to time as we traveled. Otherwise we'd go on the path and I'd tell you about the spooky walks late at night heading back to the river. I'd show you the rapids on the river and where to fish and if it was warm enough, where to swim. I'd show you where to build a fire on the bank at night to keep the monsters away while fishing.

Now that many of the farms in that area have followed the same course as the one I talk about, changes are occurring. The most noticeable is the re-appearance of the canis lupus--the timber wolf. The wolves have moved back in. Although I haven't seen one face to face, I have seen scat and tracks adorn the cross-country ski trail--something I've yet to see in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Yellowstone, or any other of the great designated "Wilderness" areas I enjoy visiting.  

We're teaching Claire to howl like a wolf along with her repertoire of barks, meows, and moos. I trust that some winter evening as we're slicing through a trail we only broke the day before, or on a cool summer evening sitting around a fire on the river bank she'll be able to answer the nearby wolves without hesitation.