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Editor's note: Mel Ellis was a prolific, venerable writer and observer of the Wisconsin landscape. He crafted outdoor columns for The Milwaukee Journal for 15 years, wrote short stories, edited a field column for Field & Streeam for 12 years, penned magazine pieces for national media and three of his 18 books became Disney TV movies.
Ellis was Wisconsin born and bred. His "Notes From Little Lakes" columns from the Milwaukee Journal (1957-73) and the Wisconsin Sportsman (1976-82) chronicle nature observations and family life at an old frame house on 15 acres in Waukesha County. Ellis's columns and essays have been collected, edited and reissued in a new book you can savor in 10-minute respites and on long, winter nights. "Notes from Little Lakes" was published by The Cabin Bookshelf, Waukesha, late last year and should be available at bookstores statewide.
People sometimes ask us, "What is this Little Lakes?" And they have an idea that it is in the North Country among towering pines where sometimes the coyote howls or an otter comes to play. So then we tell them it is so close to Milwaukee that we can see the haze from the city's smoke. Southwest, we say, southwest of Milwaukee, and though it is not in the glacial kettles, it is just on the edge. It is where the Fox River, the one that flows through Waukesha, makes two fishhook bends before straightening a little to run through lush pasturage on its way to Waterford.
It is a white house on a hill and a long slope of grass that runs down to a welter of springs feeding five ponds, three of which belong to us and two to neighbors. It is giant elm trees more than a hundred years old. It is spruce groves and Norway and white pine and practically every tree native to Wisconsin, along with wild and tame flowers of many colors.
Then they say, "But how can you have such beautiful things so close to the city?"
We tell them there are many, many places within sight of Milwaukee that have blue waters and tall trees where even deer come to visit. And though we have no deer at Little Lakes, we are privileged to be host to all the smaller wild things that come to hide in the cedar and spruce groves, to dig in the gravel knolls, to hide in the tall grass that surrounds the spring-fed ponds.
And we tell them there are many, many places just outside Milwaukee where the wildflowers grow. They grow at Little Lakes, too, and we help them by keeping ahead of the bulldozers where a new road is going through and bringing the plants to our place. If ninety percent of the flowers cannot stand the shock of being rooted up from their native places, then ten percent can, so we are gradually surrounding ourselves with as much of a variety as soil and terrain will accommodate.
They ask about the ponds, and we say they were dug. Machines gouged out pockets where the springs were. We stood and saw the water bubble up and, when each pond had filled, we watched the silt settle.
About the fish, they ask, "How did they come?" Well, we bought them and put them in the ponds.
"Well, it sounds sort of like heaven," they say. "Is it?"
No, it is not. It is a place of small successes and some monumental failures. It is a place of sweat and calluses, some profanities, some accidents and sometimes so much love it overflows in tears.
It is surely a little like your back yard, like the city park you visit, only perhaps there is more of it and it is somewhat wilder. It is a place like your home, with all the good things and all the sad things and all the little everyday happenings which, added up, accumulate into living. It is a place where children live, and where children live life necessarily renews itself, and every day seems to have at least one warm smile, no matter how badly the day otherwise went.
The Rebels know it is not necessary to go to jail to work on the rock pile. At the far south end of the place, there is a mound of forty-eight tons of stone that must be moved this winter, rock by rock, down to the shore of Fish Pond. But the job has just started. One by one, the rocks, some only as big as a fist and some weighing as much as five hundred pounds, are being rolled, lifted, tossed, levered and inched onto the tiny tractor cart for the trip. Where the bank needs riprapping, we roll the rocks onto the ice and skid them into position against the shore.
It is hard work, and the Rebels can find all manner of excuses to avoid an afternoon on the rock pile. But now and again they run out of excuses, and then the rock pile diminishes. It is a tedious way to earn spending money, but sometimes they find bones among the rocks and then they begin speculating, and pretty soon they are seeing elk and coyotes, sometimes even dinosaurs.
Fossils or unusually beautiful stones sometimes slow them down, and then, unless this slave driver is right there to keep them moving, they may sit too long in contemplation. Maybe they are getting something out of this slave labor. I do not know. Certainly they must understand that beautiful things come with considerable creative effort, even if the creation is only a multicolored stone wall for the wavelets to wear themselves to froth upon.
After two days of hard work, the mound of stone still looks as huge as it did before the first rock was moved. To the Rebels, the task seems insurmountable and interminable. They refuse to believe it will ever be finished. Given reasonably good weather, however, it will be completed by spring. Even a woodpecker, pecking away forever at the world, might in time whittle it down to size. At least that is the lesson I hope they will learn. But it is more likely they will look at their calluses, remember their aching muscles and decide that the best way to deal with a rock pile is to walk around it and keep going.
All creatures are prisoners of habitat. Never has this been illustrated more dramatically than during the recent sub-zero weather that strangled the ponds, leaving only two tiny pools of open water. One goldeneye and a pair of mallard hens, fugitives from the pen on the hill, were driven by the ice off their usual rather extensive watery domain into the little pools. Here they must remain or perish.
Most people are prisoners of habitat, too, mostly because we wish it to be that way. We stay where the food is best, the chair is the most comfortable, the bed is the warmest. Lines of least resistance are always most comfortable to follow. Fortunately for us, some people have believed that some things were more important than a comfortable cave. So they left the cave and eventually lived in houses. They left comfortable houses and came to this country to live in huts. They left the huts to cross the country in wagons. Lesser animals than man leave their homes only when these homes are too cold, the food is all gone or a threat to their lives is ever present.
We are reluctant to let the dogs out after a fresh snow. It is much the same as turning a herd of cattle onto a newly landscaped lawn. In minutes, the beautiful white carpet is as messed up with tracks as the kitchen linoleum is when the Rebels come home from school.
Two hen pheasants behind wire on the hill squatted in the slush during a recent thaw. When they tried to move out, they discovered their tails were frozen fast. They managed to extricate themselves without losing any tail feathers, but are waiting for another thaw to loosen the lumps of ice they are dragging around.
Gussie the woodchuck and Ossie the white-footed mouse are central figures in the most recent controversies between the Rebels and the lady who is fighting a losing battle to keep them from turning our home into a zoo.
Gussie, recently out of hibernation, has a ravenous appetite. Greens are at a premium, so rosy red apples, carrots, endive and lettuce have been disappearing from the kitchen. Now, the Rebel Queen works on a food budget, which she takes pride in keeping balanced, and it does not include expensive, out-of-season greens for a woodchuck. Luckily for Gussie, the local grocery store supplied a big box of lettuce leaves. Perhaps it will last until there is clover on the hill.
The problem of Ossie being in the kitchen has not been solved. The mouse escaped its cage last fall; it was content to spend the winter in the basement and only recently moved upstairs. The lady says the mouse must go. The Rebels would settle for the mouse's freedom, but are up in arms when the talk turns to murder. Mesh on live traps is too large to contain Ossie, so the lady wants to set the standard mousetrap. Of course, Ossie and the entire controversy could go up in smoke if the mouse chews on the electric stove wires.
Mice and muskrats are number one and number two on the list of the ten most wanted creatures at Little Lakes. Never have they created so much havoc as during this last winter of the Big Snow. Mice have been especially destructive. Operating under cover all winter, they have entirely devoured the roots of some hybrid poplars nearly fifteen feet tall, and now that there is no snow to support the trees, most of them have fallen over. Those trees represent a considerable investment, especially in work.
Now that the mice can find forage, the muskrats are leaving the water to girdle those few remaining poplars. We took every precaution to protect the poplars. We were even tempted to spread poisoned wheat near the root systems, but did not because we were afraid many birds might die.
We had to make a similar decision in dealing with elm tree disease, since the beetle is surely the number three nuisance at Little Lakes. Our elms are being sprayed with DDT. We were reluctant about spraying, but after thinking it through we decided that whatever birds died from the poison could shortly be replaced, but it would take a hundred years to grow those stately elms.
Nuisance number four are the chipmunks. We do not want them to disappear any more than we'd like to get rid of all the muskrats or even all the mice. But when their colonies get so large that they undermine garden walls, house foundations and sidewalks and steal everything that hasn't been nailed down, it seems something should be done.
It seems every animal or bird does some damage. The duck flock so fertilizes the ponds that they become choked with vegetation. Sparrow nests clog eaves and spouts. Crayfish stray in subterranean tunnels, then pop up and clutter the lawn with little clay steeples. Cardinals and robins, battling their own images, crack windows. Hundreds of grackles stunt spruce growth by breaking off the leaders.
In short, to believe that nature can maintain a balance is sheer nonsense. We are aware that we have created such desirable habitat that nature cannot possibly maintain equilibrium. Still, even in a wilderness, nature rarely strikes a balance. The history of almost every wilderness is one of the lack of balance. It is feast or famine. Trees take over and deer disappear. Then a fire comes along, the trees go, and deer populations skyrocket. Ruffed grouse sometimes reach fantastic populations, then drop off to nothing. There are many or there are few snowshoe hares. In burned areas where nature's match, the lightning bolt, has started fires, weed plants and trees very often dominate.
There is no balance in nature. If anything, nature is continually off balance. There are some, of course, who claim overproductive creatures should not be discouraged. They argue other creatures and disease will keep them in bounds, eventually. Meanwhile, I wonder what Little Lakes would look like. The elms would surely be dead. The dikes would be ruptured and the ponds dry and the fish dead. Maybe even the house would fall over where woodchucks or chipmunks finally created a crater big enough to topple it.
Most beautiful sight of the week: A cardinal scarlet against a green bough of spruce decorated with a white patch of snow.
Hardest job of the week: Thirty bales of hay dumped in the drive and dragged by toboggan a hundred and fifty yards to the stable.
Most disconcerting event: Five squirrels emptying the bird feeders before the birds can lunch.
Most discouraging: The continued grip of winter.
Life is sometimes hard at Little Lakes, especially for the Rebels. For every sunny, warm day of swimming and riding it seems they must put in two dreary, cold days of shoveling manure, carrying water, feeding animals and birds. Sometimes I think it is too much for them, and that I have made a mistake by encouraging such a rigid routine.
But fathers are always worrying. If they are not worrying about making things too difficult for their Rebels, then they are worrying because they think they are making life too easy. Meanwhile, the Rebels survive and radiate joy no matter what the circumstances. Only real hunger and cold, it seems, can pinch the spirits of youth enough to keep them from bubbling over.
I think it must be age that makes us lose our enthusiasm for winter. It wasn't too many years ago when winter seemed as pleasurable as summer. But now, by mid-January, I have had enough snow and cold and can think only of the warm, sunny days still so many weeks away.