IT’S A WISCONSIN THING
There’s a big party in Wisconsin this year. A roll-out-the-barrel, slice-the-cheese, strike-up-the-polka-band wing-ding that promises to roust every last badger out of state burrows and into the streets to dance with guests.
On May 29, Wisconsin will officially be 150 years old, which is not old for its rocks and rivers, but is old for its trees and trails. For the state itself, however, it is just right. Prime, you might say. Like a 3-year-old cow called Bucolic, or a 28-year-old quarterback called Brett, or properly aged cheese called Brick.
Now you don’t celebrate such a significant birthday on just one day. That would be like blowing out only one of the birthday candles. Instead you set up committees and commissions, and you make more plans than the mother of the bride.
From Cornucopia to Kenosha and LaCrosse to Sheboygan, some part of the party will be going on almost every day this year.
“We want to involve everyone,” says Gov. Tommy Thompson, who plans to jump on his Milwaukee-made Harley and ride to Washington, D.C., to make sure the entire country is invited to the party.
Almost every community has some special event planned, and there are so many reunions scheduled that if you don’t have a rich, long-lost uncle you can probably find one by dropping in on someone else’s get-together. So it’s going to be a bash! And if there are Wisconsin residents who do not want to join in, they had better head for the hills, of which there are lots.
Not to put a party-pooper spin on things, but there are actually a few people in the state who say that although celebrations are fine, they like Wisconsin for its peace and quiet, and to please turn down the music a little and don’t slam the door when you leave.
They are the same people who think that wearing “Green Bay Packer” underwear is excessive. They do, however, have a point: Wisconsin’s character, for those who live there and for those who are drawn to visit, may be defined as somewhat doe-eyed and buck-solitary. The Badgers may love their beer and brats, but they also demand a certain amount of down time, which means that you can find thousands of places where the only sound is the wind in the trees or the gentle lap of blue water on a birch-trimmed lake shore.
Those of us who have spent most of our lives in Wisconsin have a special feeling for it, and we understand how people who live in the sun zoos or the soybean deserts like to come and visit. We welcome you, of course. Especially this year. And if we cannot communicate our special feeling for our state, it is probably because we don’t quite understand it ourselves.
My own sense of Wisconsin is rooted, literally, on a small dairy farm in the northwestern part of the state where the cows stood more or less in the shadow of the big North Woods. My boyhood was like the growing season for a stalk of corn–close to the earth and the elements; and on rainy days I could feel the State of Wisconsin squishing up between my bare toes. Somehow that kind of experience encourages the perception that although you may be different from the stalk of corn, some of that is only in your mind.
There were remnants of huge old pine stumps in the pasture where I went to “get the cows” for the twice-daily milking, and they were like the splinters of family and community history that you could pick up to feel and smell. A gnarled old Norwegian grandfather talked about the days when the big trees were sawed down and floated away by a combination of rich eastern opportunists and dirt-poor reckless lumberjacks. It was only much later, obviously, that you could regret that your predecessors belonged to the latter group. For a farm boy growing up on the sprawling grave of the big woods, Grandpa’s best story was about the panther high up in the limbs of a giant, shadowy white pine, its tail hanging down “like a big fishhook.”
Those are the kinds of natural Wisconsin “hooks” that go deep. And although it may be possible to live in Wisconsin and not have an appreciation of the natural scheme of things, it seems unlikely. Aldo Leopold finally put some of that into a little book called “Sand County Almanac.” It talks about natural harmony, which many Wisconsin people may not know by name, but which they inherently use to style their lives.
The lifestyle of a real badger is rodentlike, of course. They are among the largest members of the weasel family, they live in burrows and they smell bad. And because they are relatively sparsely distributed and nocturnal, few Wisconsin residents have ever seen one. The residents call themselves badgers for the first white settlers who dug “burrows” to mine lead down in the southwestern corner of the state.
Before the arrival of those first human Badgers, the area that became Wisconsin had a long history of Native Americans. They lived in hundreds of places along the rivers and lakes, and their earliest records are written in the stone tools they left behind and in some of the caves they used for shelter.
In one of those caves recently, an anthropologist found the remnants of rare rock painting dating back thousands of years. Within months, someone sneaked in and used a stone saw to try to remove the paintings, apparently to sell them. The attempt failed, but it did incalculable damage to the art work. That angered a lot of Wisconsin people who value not only the history of their own people but of the Native Americans’ as well.
The history of the relationship of Native Americans and the rest of the Wisconsin citizens and visitors is now being written in the 17 casinos that the tribes operate across the state. If you drive from Madison, where I live, to the Ho-chunk casino near Wisconsin Dells, you pass the historical marker that describes the massacre of Chief Black Hawk’s people as they fled across Wisconsin from Illinois in 1832. It was a shameful episode, and if you think about it at a blackjack table you will probably lose your concentration and go “bust.” Some of the casino contracts between the state and the tribes are up for renewal this year, and although the contention obviously will not reach the Black Hawk level, there is plenty of disagreement to go around.
There was great consternation several years ago when some of the Native Americans exercised treaty rights that allowed them to spear walleyes. Walleyes are almost sacred to some Wisconsin residents, among them the operators of northern resorts. The walleye issue has settled down somewhat, but like the casino issue, it is fraught with politics and emotion, and of great concern to the state’s tourism industry.
As important as tourism is to Wisconsin’s economy, it is a mixed bag for the citizenry. In fact, there are those who view it as a curse, and an infringement on their God-given Badger rights to tranquillity. On the highways, the acronym for the frequent expression of this sentiment is GDID. The last two words are “Illinois Driver” and the first two are a blasphemy.
The situation cuts both ways, of course, and big-city drivers — conditioned as they are to competing for the victory lap — are not taken too seriously by Wisconsin drivers if they overreact to a load of hay or a manure spreader holding up traffic on the road to the “best Friday night fish fry,” or the loudest roadhouse rock music.
The value of time is viewed with a certain democracy in Wisconsin: You are going there, and I’m going here, and who is to say that your mission is more important than mine? Some of this harks back to the days when it was common to see official traffic signs that read, “CATTLE CROSSING.”
Now what you commonly see in Wisconsin are signs that say, “Deer Crossing.” These signs display a leaping buck deer, and so far, nobody, not even the Madison feminists has complained about this roadside sexism. People in Wisconsin love deer. They drive country roads on spring and autumn evenings to admire them, and then they also use bows and arrows and guns to kill about a half million of them every fall. Deer are a crop, like the cute little baby chicks that end up as Sunday chicken dinners.
Visitors to Wisconsin may also notice that killing deer is not confined to the woods and the weapons. It occurs daily on the roads when deer fail to concede that drivers have the right-of-way. More than 40,000 deer are killed each year in traffic accidents.
But that conjures up an unjustly bloody image for a state of shy creatures and gentle people. What you have in Wisconsin is a kind of straight-ahead pragmatism that acknowledges that if you are going to eat a hamburger, someone has to kill a cow. In today’s society, that fact is increasingly obscured by a city and suburban population that does not recognize that “hunting and gathering” goes beyond the supermarket. Perhaps in some subtle ways, a visit to Wisconsin serves to correct that. You cannot drive the rolling green hills or the winding wooded roads and not be constantly reminded of “nature,” and of its all-encompassing character and therefore its inevitable embrace. There is therapy in that.
Much of Wisconsin was appropriately designed by a glacier some 10,000 years ago, and each winter there are periods of weather that cause residents to suspect that the glacier is returning. It may be, but in the meantime, winter is really the king season in the state, and people survive it with a blend of brawn, bravado and appreciation for snow-decked beauty. Of course, a little brandy also helps.
Liquid stimulants — brandy and beer, for example — may be part of the Wisconsin fabric, but what really defines the state is water. Except for the border it shares with Illinois, Wisconsin abuts water, and its interior is dotted and laced with so many lakes and rivers that if it were a boat it would sink. All of this was the work of the Wisconsin glacier, and although it deemed winter as king, it also set a watery and wooded stage on which the seasonal progression is as colorful and dramatic as the circus show at Baraboo.
Spring in Wisconsin comes tiptoeing up the river valleys in a pale green prom dress, flinging plum-blossom corsages at the hills and yodeling like a sandhill crane. It is usually late but worth the wait, and then it matures into a summer that is so lush and green you would think the cows might give green milk. These summers are often hot and humid, punctuated by booming thunderstorms and overlain with days of brilliant sunshine. They sizzle like that for a couple of months — until the last Badger has finally taken off his winter underwear — and then they explode into an autumnal brilliance that takes your breath away, especially in places where yellow birch and red maple rim the blue water. Then it is winter’s turn again.
So, as this cycle occurs in 1998, Wisconsin is having its 150th birthday, and the party has already started. It will, for obvious reasons, build to a crescendo during the summer when mosquitoes will preside over thousands of ritualistic blood-lettings and ants will hold court on the picnic tables.
You are invited. Try Door County with the Lake Michigan breeze kissing your cheeks. Put on a light jacket up in Cornucopia and watch a sunset across Lake Superior. Wallow in the big North Woods and listen for the whispers of lumberjack ghosts. Ride down a river in a canoe. Spend an afternoon fishing for bluegills. Go to a reunion and listen one more time to Uncle Louis’s war stories. Have a brat, a beer, a piece of apple pie at the church social. Hike a trail — the Ice Age Trail, maybe, where the glacier left behind its richest treasure of moraines and lakes.
Well, this has now degenerated into something the Wisconsin Tourism Bureau might put out. That cannot be helped. When you spend a lifetime in Wisconsin, your blatant boosterism must be excused. Of course, if you, as a target of this excess, decide not to come to the party, that is OK too. That would be your loss, because the rest of us will be out there doing our Wisconsin thing, which in my case is floundering around in the trout streams. I don’t catch a lot of fish, but I do divert a lot of mosquitoes, and for that the other Wisconsin party creatures should thank me.
It is noteworthy that because of the success of its football team, Wisconsin has become nationally known as the land of cheeseheads. We can handle that. We’ve been called worse; and we are confident that we can hold our own with any of the city slickers. History shows that we always have, and even when Chicago had its big fire, we had a bigger one up in Peshtigo. Some 1,500 casualties instead of a measly 300 or so for Chicago.
We can party better too. Come and see. Bring a dish to pass.