Thoughts from the North Woods

June 28, 2009

Just letting  my readers know that I’ve returned from a three-week hiatus in the north woods of Wisconsin and will resume posting on current events. 

Since my concern for overpopulation and the eventual development of my economic theory relating it to deepening unemployment and poverty was inspired, at least in part, by my fear of the consequences of overpopulation for my little retreat in the woods, you may be interested in an update on what I see going on up there.  Since this was my first visit back to my cabin since the fall, at which time the collapse of our financial system and the stock market were just gathering steam, I was curious to see what effects there might be on the pace of development up there. 

I’m sad to say that, to the naked eye, there appears to be no effect whatsoever.  While I’m sure that developers and home-buyers are in more of a scramble to obtain financing, there’s no let-up in the rate at which forest is being cleared to accommodate new subdivisions and business sites.  There seems to be an endless supply of retirees from Chicago and Milwaukee looking to build a summer home “up north” to escape the heat of their other new digs in Florida. 

And among them all, carved from the forest,  is a huge new church with a sprawling asphalt parking lot.  It was a weekday when we drove past and it was completely empty, as it is for probably 166 hours out of every 168 every week.  During those two hours of services on Sunday every week, I’m sure that God is pleased by the gathering of voices raised in prayer, joyful song and praise.  But you have to wonder:  what about the rest of the time?  Does God miss the songs of the birds, the beauty of the wildflowers and all of the flora and fauna now displaced by two acres of asphalt?  Or does He think to Himself, “Aaah, good riddance!  They weren’t my best work anyway?”  It doesn’t seem likely.  That’s not the God that I think I know.  If He saw as little value in them as we seem to, why would He have bothered to create them in the first place?  Or, instead, does He think to Himself, “Thanks for all the songs and prayer, but couldn’t you find a way to give thanks and praise without leveling two acres of my forest just so that you have a place to park your cars while you park your butts in air-conditioned comfort?”  “Do you not see that I created all of this for a purpose, to enhance the quality of your lives, and not just so much rubble to be bull-dozed out of the way for your convenience?”  I wonder.

Which brings us to the logging.  There’s been no let-up in the pace, and the air is punctuated by the sound of chain saws and machinery rumbling through the forest, Monday through Friday, dawn to dusk.  Of course, it’s nothing like what took place in this area in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, when the whole northern forest was clear-cut to provide lumber for the construction of Chicago.  Forestry practices have come a long way since then.  Nevertheless, it seems that, as the economy worsens, land owners more and more turn to  the forest as a stream of income.  An acre of trees that are more than a foot in diameter doesn’t stand a chance. 

Anyway, there’s lots in the news to comment on – cap and trade legislation, the June unemployment report, trade news – so watch for a flood of new posts this week, including my 2nd quarter update of my 2009 Predictions.  So stay tuned.

Hope you’re all enjoying the summer!

Musings from the North Woods

June 23, 2008

You may have noticed that I haven’t posted as much for the past week. That’s because my wife and I are back at our cabin on the lake in northern Wisconsin, the place that provided much of the inspiration for Five Short Blasts. Our only internet access here is dial-up and the only numbers available for such access incur long distance charges. Thus, the drop-off in my posting activity. It’ll be this way for a couple more weeks. I thought it might be a good time to share some thoughts from our north woods retreat.

It’s not entirely certain when this little cabin was built, but 1923 appears to be a good estimate. I found bits of newspaper in the wall many years ago, when we were renovating the bathroom. They were dated 1935, but I’m told that that was the year that indoor plumbing was added. The cabin remains much the same as it was built in 1923. The windows are single-pane, wavy glass. The original wood siding remains, now bearing many, many coats of paint. The kitchen sink is porcelain-coated cast iron – probably original. The stove is an old Roper, fired by propane gas and the refrigerator is a Philco, probably dating back to the ’50s or ’60s. The cabin is heated by a Coleman wall furnace. Upon arrival, you’re immediately transported eighty years back in time to a much simpler world, a time when the population of the U.S. stood at about 100 million (one third of today’s population), when travelers arrived here by Model A Ford over dirt roads, a time when the cool north breezes were the only respite from the summer heat in Chicago, since air conditioning had yet to be invented.

But it was also a time of transition for the north woods. The forest was regenerating after decades of heavy logging and clear-cutting in the late 1800’s. Much of the lumber taken in the early 1890s provided lumber for construction of the Chicago World’s Fair. The oppression of the native Ojibwe Indians went on relentlessly as the federal government employed a new tactic to assimilate them into the white man’s world – encouraging them to sell off parcels of their reservation, usually to logging companies who, after clearing the land, would lease it back to the Indians for farming. But it was poor land for farming and God never intended for the Ojibwe to be farmers. This practice was finally halted in 1934 with the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act, which forbid any further selling of Indian land.

Today, my wife and I hiked the same trails that I described in the Epilogue of the book. Much of the land, about eight hundred acres, is owned by a trust which operates a camp for underprivileged kids from Chicago. It’s mission is to provide them a retreat from their urban jungle into near-pristine wilderness, a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most of them. The camp used to be operated by men who cared deeply for the pristine nature of the place. But the newer generation of caretakers doesn’t seem to share the same values and relies upon logging revenue to help support operation of the camp. So, sadly, the stand of old growth forest described in the Epilogue was logged a few years ago. It wasn’t clear cut, and part of it was left untouched (so far), but it really ruined the nature of the place.

This year the logging operations have moved to another section of the forest, along the same path that we hike, spoiling this section as well. I know that it will recover with time, and I’m grateful that the area isn’t sold to developers. But it’s still a shame to see it happen. I suppose that there isn’t any place outside of state and national parks that is immune to such harvest.

On a different note, the fishing has been pretty good this year. I have one of those “peel and stick” yardsticks attached to the boat, making it easy to determine if a fish meets the DNR (Department of Natural Resources) requirements that define a “keeper.” It’s hard to imagine that there was a time when such requirements didn’t exist. You didn’t need a license to fish. You could catch and keep as many as you wanted, judging the size by whether or not it was worth the effort to clean the fish. Many people put food on the table this way without over-fishing being a problem. I wonder: could this have been the “canary in the mineshaft” to warn us of overpopulation, when state governments found it necessary to place restrictions on fishing to prevent the collapse of fish populations? Were it not for the fact that many now practice “catch and release” fishing, our lakes and streams might be nearly devoid of game fish. If it wasn’t for the fact that this particular lake on which I’m located is very lightly fished (due to very limited public access), I’d probably be releasing my catch as well.

Up here, I’m hyper-sensitive to the effects of overpopulation and development. Perhaps other people would be more sensitive too if they could experience what it’s like to live amid (mostly) unspoiled wilderness like this – if they could sit in a little row boat at sunset and watch a beaver glide through the water while the mournful cry of a loon echoes in the distance, without another human or sign of civilization in sight for miles; or if they could watch bald eagles soar above the tree tops or watch otters splashing and playing in a quiet lagoon. It can’t be experienced by an afternoon visit to a park. You have to live it. Only then can you realize that no man-made creation can come close to matching the ability of nature to refresh the soul. The world would be a much better place if there was a lot more of this kind of place and a lot less urban jungle.