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The Bark River Chronicles

Stories from a Wisconsin Watershed

by Milton J. Bates

Paperback, 293 pages, Wisconsin Historical Society, List Price: $18.95 |


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Stories from a Wisconsin Watershed
Milton J. Bates

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Milton Bates explores history, archeology, natural science and environmental issues from a canoe in a southeast Wisconsin river.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Bark River Chronicles

A quarter mile downstream from the bridge, we notice signs that claim the river bottom for the Muskego Rod and Gun Club. Here the shoreline fringe of willow and box elder grows an annual crop of deer-hunting platforms, awaiting use later in the fall. Presuming on the club's hospitality, we disembark near one of the larger ones on the left bank and carry our lunch up to the platform.

"Not a bad field of fire," I remark as we settle into our sandwiches. A previous occupant has trimmed away any branches that might deflect a bullet or an arrow. "It certainly provides a different view of the river."

"Speaking of perspective," Puck says, "has yours changed, do you think, since we launched our canoe in April? One more outing and the voyage will be done."

"I've discovered that the story of the Bark River is the story of Wisconsin."

"That's a big claim for a small river. And I suppose that the story of the state is the story of the whole country."

"Why stop there? Look at it closely enough, and the Bark becomes — how does William Blake put it? — 'a world in a grain of sand.'"

"Or a drop of water?"

"Exactly — though I have to admit that I'm ready to finish this drop and move on to another. Life is short and rivers are long. Not that I regret any of the time we've spent on the Bark, either this summer or in the past. It takes time to develop a sense of place."

"I hear that phrase all the time. I've even seen condo developments that promise a 'sense of place.' But what does it mean, really?"

"You've got to read an essay by Neil Evernden, who explains it better than I can. He compares our sense of place to an animal's territoriality. When an animal is in its territory it behaves as though its 'self ' is as large as the territory. Its skin seems to expand to include its surroundings. It becomes not merely an animal, but an animal-in-place."

"How does Evernden know what an animal feels?"

"No one really knows, of course. But his model explains behavior that biologists have observed, particularly in fish. People aren't so different. When we're in a place that we know well, a place that looks and sounds and smells just right, we lose some of our usual detachment from the world. The invisible membrane between inner and outer becomes permeable. We truly inhabit our location rather than passing through it as voyeurs or tourists. Most of us are tourists, even in our own country. That's especially true of urban professionals. We try to make a virtue of our rootlessness by calling it globalism."

Puck unscrews the cap of our water bottle and takes a sip. "Are you saying people should stay home rather than travel to foreign countries? Isn't it better to be rootless than provincial?"

"It depends on how you travel. It's hard not to get caught up in the checklist mode, like birders with their life lists. You read the travel guides, make a list of 'must-see' destinations, and then methodically tick off each item. When you return home, friends quiz you to see whether you touched all of the bases on their checklists."

"Sounds pretty dreary. What's the alternative?"

"To travel well, I think you have to be provincial. You have to bring a sense of your place to other places. Remember that time in Spain, when we were hiking from village to village in Las Alpujarras? Those mountain villages were on the checklists, but not the best part of the hike, that abandoned mill with the grinding stone still in place. If we hadn't spent so much time studying mills on the Bark River, making them part of our 'territory,' we would have walked right past it. During the hour we spent exploring the old ruin we felt right at home. At least we felt less like tourists and a bit more like the Spanish millers who once worked there.

Without a sense of place you see neither the same in the different nor the different in the same. Your globalism lacks meaningful content. You may as well stay home and watch the Rick Steves video. That'll give you the generic tour of everything on the checklist."

"I have to admit that I actually enjoy his videos. He has an eye for the offbeat. Do you think that we could get him to do a piece on the Bark River?"

"It's not exactly a checklist destination."

"But suppose that he came, and suppose that he hauled his camera up to this platform. Where should he point it?"

"At the river itself, of course. That border of cattail marsh and box elders. That field of dead cornstalks across the river. The farm buildings on the crest of the hill. He'd have to zoom in for a close-up of the elephant."

"The elephant?"

"I'm being historical, not delusional. That farm was the winter headquarters of the Wintermute circus for several decades during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Paddling the Bark back then, you might have glanced uphill and seen not cows and draft horses, but trick ponies. Maybe even an elephant."

"Your historic elephant will be a problem for the camera."

"Granted. Yet it's still 'there,' in a way. Our sense of place differs in that respect from animal territoriality. It includes not only what we know with our five senses but also what we know intellectually about a place — its history, geology, plant and animal life, cultural achievements, and so forth."

"I get the picture — like those biology textbooks we used in high school. You start with the picture of a skeleton on glossy paper. Then you add the acetate overlays with the vital organs, muscle, skin, and hair. Voila! The whole person."

"Yes, though my textbook had no overlays for thought or emotion. You asked whether my perspective on the Bark has changed this summer. It has. I'm more 'here' when I'm here, partly because I've learned more about the river. For the same reason, I expect to be more 'there' when I'm elsewhere."

"We'll be here overnight, Professor, unless we get back on the water. You climb down first, and I'll hand you our stuff."

Excerpted from The Bark River Chronicles: Stories from a Wisconsin Watershed by Milton Bates. Copyright 2012 by Milton Bates. Excerpt by permission of Wisconsin Historical Society Press.