My 75-year-old eyes viewed the landscape, the people scape, the buildings that were part of my years in northwestern Wisconsin, with an almost placid demeanor. The ghosts I saw through those eyes hadn’t aged and neither had I. However, as you look and as you see the ghosts through a fog-like haze of memory, the haze soon lifts and you see the buildings as they are, some shuttered and most aging, with some peeling paint, and some no longer there. There is also a profound absence of the people you once knew. Most now housed in the Union Cemetery that is right across the street from the family home that has since gone the way of the bulldozer.
One of the thoughts that raced through my mind as I gazed on my hometown was that, at age 75, many of the people who knew the sins of my youth are no longer alive. There is some comfort in the fact that many of those people with whom I sinned are no longer able to confront and tell their side of the story. But there are still the things I love the most about the land I call northwestern Wisconsin. There are the 40 acres of land, with three freshwater springs, just ten minutes from where I stand gazing on the plot of land where my family home was once the center of my life.
I left the family plot, the two remaining maple trees where once six stood, and drive to the forty. Here there are more ghosts, mostly my father’s parents, my father, and the people who once, with buzzsaw, cut winter’s wood for five or more families. I walk to where my grandfather’s shack stood, nearby is one of three springs. I take a drink. There is still an old plastic cup, and the water is as sweet as my memory.
I walk the forty, looking and seeing memories, many of my father, for whom this place served as sanctuary, place of meditation, his style, and a way for hm to reconnect with the nature he loved.
I walk and come to what I always thought of as my father’s sacred spot, the basswood is brilliantly dressed in yellow and the nearby maple dressed in red and autumn light streams through the leaves and, in my mind’s eye, my father stands smoking a cigarette, gazing into the light that surrounds him with hues of yellow and red. There are many memories floating like cobwebs through the air. Sometimes I’m tempted to reach out and attempt to capture one of those moments of a bygone time, but I know that will be futile. So I stand and enter the circle of light which is the present. My thoughts wander and I hear the sound of a chainsaw, a Homelite Ez-6 I think, and I can almost feel it in my hand. We cut lots of trees for winter’s wood in just this place with just that saw.
I walk back out to the gravel road that runs east and west past the forty. Popko Road it’s called. I look first east and then west and my eyes lock on the Ross Watson farm, or what once was the Ross Watson farm. My father’s best friend. The farm is only a memory and like many memories is vividly etched in my life. The Watson boys and me, running across the field, running to see if there is any water in the old swimming hole on the little creek that ran through a small stand of poplar trees. When we get to the place where the water pools, without hesitation we jump in. We splash each other, we laugh, we are so full of life, so full of the sunshine and we are almost bursting it is so precious.
It seems that when the gentle breeze blows, I can hear the laughter of those days, even when I see the falling down buildings of the present, I can still see my boyhood friends. Some of them have died, some killed by war, some killed by their own hand as they abused their bodies with hard work and hard living. The string of boys running across the field has empty spaces in it, and I amble, no longer running, and see that the pool of water is almost dry. The drought has made its mark; only a trickle remains. But still, I see us, clad in cut off jeans, bare chested, splashing and laughing. The essence of summer.
There are other memories associated with this field, picking rocks, making hay, sitting with the men, two or three of us boys, drinking our first beer. Always Blatz, in Wisconsin it was the farmers beer. The other memories will have to wait. Wait first of all for my muse and secondly for my memory, as I filter through the ghosts and the haze to see what I can see and what I remember.