Rural Ramblings – Fall 1979
Ralph C. Miller
There’s a TV program whose trademark I’m sure you know – the whole world knows. While the announcer drones unctuously, “and the agony of defeat,” that poor unfortunate in a welter of arms, legs, poles and broken skis slides off the edge of the jump into oblivion.
After that for me it’s usually ‘all downhill,’ if you’ll forgive the feeble jest. However, at least once a year they offer a taped replay from the World Lumberjack Championship at Hayward, Wisconsin and I watch religiously. Not so much for the thrill of seeing men risk life and limb climbing hundred foot poles or even because I sometimes know some of the participants in the log rolling events but because, like me, they originate in Hayward where I began my rambling.
I was born about two whoops and a holler off the cameraman’s right shoulder and when the crane draws the camera up and back to show the whole panorama I get goose bumps. Down the road past ‘Wiggly’ Smith’s place was a small inlet where farmers watered their horses on the way to town. Now through the miracle of some unheard-of invention called television, that spot of water is regularly the site of a portion of Wide World of Sports.
Lake Hayward I guess they call it now; when I was a boy it was just ‘the river.’ The Namakagan river. Kagan is a different spelling of the Algonkin root word for river. In New England they spell it coggin. Nama is the Indian word for sturgeon but there is another Sturgeon River so ours was Namakagan. Of course, at that point it is a lake (manmade if you will), about?3/4 of a mile wide and backed up nearly three miles above the dam.
As a boy I spent a great many summer hours on it or in it. And sometimes I went up above the lake to where it was in truth just the river. A half mile to the right of the Lumberjack Arena is a tiny tree-bound pocket where we kept our boat. If you went North from there under the shinglemill bridge, past ‘Crazy George’s’ abandoned cabin, around the bend where the old Madigan place stood, you came to a long narrow reach where the river met the calm bulk of the lake.
Boiling right from the river bottom a hundred yards above that backwater was a spring. To me, or to the boy I was then, this was a marvelous example of the lavishness and prodigality of nature. An important river draining hundreds of miles of the Northland, flowing clear into the ocean by way of the St. Croix and the Mississippi, and right in the middle of it inexhaustibly more water; clear, pure and icy cold springing from the very earth.
Although I knew how cold the water was, it was my delight to lower myself four or five feet and drink from the mouth of that spring. Not an easy feat to hold your breath and drink at the same time but all the more delicious for the risk of it.
In that land of heavy winter snow, frequent rains and the countless lakes and streams, any idea of arid desert or wholesale droughts were generally meaningless abstracts. I’ve learned since what a blessing ample water is and how terrible can be the lack of it.
We lament the gasoline and energy shortage, we rue the lack of many minerals and chemicals; certain fertilizers and even some building materials are in short supply. About the only thing we seem to have too much of is us – People. With energy and materials it is possible to look for alternatives. The one thing we have no substitute for is water. What we have is what we get and it has to be a concern of every human being. Even those who appear to have too much water will ultimately suffer if other parts of the world don’t have enough.
It isn’t a new problem and usually we turn to old solutions. We farm the river bottoms and the flood plains, relying on years we don’t get washed out to carry us over the years when we do. If we’re smart enough we practice limited grazing with few animals on vast acreages so the sparse vegetation has time (we hope) to survive and replenish itself.
Someone somewhere, possibly in ‘the land between the rivers,’ Mesopotamia, first discovered that with dams and ditches water could make the arid lands productive and man has played variations on that theme to the present. Over the centuries, too, he has sought mechanical means to water his parched crops. Waterwheels in endless forms, treadmills and long sweeps to dip from streams and wells. In primitive necessity he has carried water, by hand, by neckyoke and in bucket brigades. Under the terrrible importunities of thirst and hunger man schemes to put water where he can use it.
In this century that has increasingly meant a reliance on mechanical devices. The push toward farming larger and larger acreages has inevitably lead to more and bigger irrigation undertakings. I don’t want to get too involved in the current legal hassle about the 160 acre limit where federally funded water projects are concerned. I would like to make the comment that this does seem to be one more example where the Government and Agribusiness have combined to chop down the small farmer in something that was originally intended to protect him.
My first experience with irrigation came back there in that Wisconsin waterland beside the Namakagan. Most years the rainfall is ample but one time nearly 50 years ago we had a taste of it when the whole midwest was dry. And up there nobody is equipped for it.
Although there were a handful of windmills about, they pumped water for stock and were not set up for watering fields or gardens. About all most farmers could do was to cultivate, keep the soil loose and so preserve what moisture was still in the subsoil until the rains came back. On our place the soil was so sandy that water ran right through to the water table. Where there was hay and pasture the grass roots retained some moisture but the garden truck patch was suffering.
My dad decided irrigation was worth a try. He strengthened the loft in the well house and installed a 400 gallon stock tank above the big old hand pump. He removed the handle and hooked on an eccentric pump jack powered by the one cylinder Wisconsin motor that ran our buzz saw every winter. A gravity feed piped out to the garden completed the system.
The pump lifted more water than gravity would carry off but we could fill and empty the tank twice in an hour. With what ran out during the pumping that figured out to at least 1000 gallons an hour. In the light of today’s ‘big guns’ and mile long rolling pipe lines it was miniscule but for the time and place the sight of all that water flooding the beans, corn and tomatoes right in the driest time was little less than a marvel. It was so unusual that the local Extension Service made it a stop on the Summer 4-H Club tour.
We used it a bit for a year or two after that but when the rains were back to normal we didn’t need it. Another unusual factor about that situation was that we could have pumped all we wanted and never made a dent in the water table. A Water Witcher would have starved to death around there. All you needed was a well point, a sledge hammer and ten or twelve feet of pipe. Drive it down anywhere and hit water.
The water table rose and fell with the river. When we replaced the house that burned in ’29 we had to raise the floor so we could fill in the basement a couple of feet. Mother got tired of wading to the apple barrel, the sauerkraut jar and the potato bin every Spring. Six feet then and eight to ten the rest of the year – that was the water table.
Around here the lucky ones hit water at 60 to 100 feet. One of my neighbors is down over 600 feet but that’s not unusual. In some parts of the country I guess that would be considered a shallow well. Except for those who don’t garden, never bathe and believe water will rust the lining of your stomach I guess pure water is worth whatever it takes to get it.
Talking about hot Summers (it has been quite hot here the last few weeks), and about the lengths one will go for water, brings to mind a frequent phenomenon of our locality so long ago. A sort of human version of the march of the Lemmings.
Of course we did have the telephone and it may have figured in at times, but I think more often it was just some kind of primeval urge that seemed to trigger spontaneously and simultaneously with the heat and the dust in the long evenings of late July and August.
The furtherest away would probably have been the Savas and the Jalowitz – cousins with large families. I did not know all their names even in those days. After evening chores any number of them would start the 2-1/2 mile trek in our direction. Tommy and Wilbur Piggott would have been next and sometimes the two younger Wightman boys would swell the number to 12 or 15. Next Joe Olker, then from Amidons, son Clifford and grandsons Harry and Frank.
If it was really hot and Mildred Piggott or Dorothy Olker was along when they came by my Grandpa Holcomb’s Aunt Juanita might join. At the Vallems next below us there were 7 children and three of us. That last quarter mile from our place to the river must have resembled the flight of refugees or maybe a buffalo stampede.
I have to confess that I was often in the water when the thundering herd poured over the bank generally in the clothes they had worn that hot and dusty day. Oh, well, water pollution hadn’t been invented yet. I don’t know if I would have walked that far to water or not but I’m glad I didn’t have to find out.
If you think I am much preoccupied with water at this time there is a personal reason. Perhaps it was a punishment for my bragging. In last Summer’s column I guess I was smugly complacent about living here behind my pond. I’m still here but the pond almost didn’t make it. Some work by the phone company laying cable across the dam nearly undid us. Apparently when the dam was built some fifty years ago material was dumped in the bottom which was not too permanent and the vibrating of the machinery uncovered weaknesses.
Water dropped almost 30 inches cutting off most of my irrigation water. I hacked away at trees and brush clearing the dam and the space below it. Finally after a month we succeeded in getting the recommended expert with the necessary dragline and power bucket. He removed more than 200 yards of muck and rubbish from the front of the dam and replaced it with some 350 yards of good fill, packing it in well. Now the dam is holding again and the pond has risen 6 inches.
It has been an apparent success but it will take a long time before the scars heal. A lot of trees and vegetation are gone; there is the sad looking borrow pit across the pond and all that muck below the dam will take time before it will grow anything.
On top of that blow we returned from a brief trip to Southern California to find that the main water line from the spring had sprung. Gone out completely and we had no water in the house until I could repair it. It only proves one shouldn’t get too content with the joys of country living.
On the previous trip last January we went down to Los Angeles then East all the way to Jacksonville, Florida on Amtrak (I recommend it). When you’re running out you get the feeling there is no such thing as too much water, but it happens. We passed through the Southwest not too long after those devastating floods of last Winter.
There was evidence to be seen in Southern California but the worst was in Arizona and New Mexico – Phoenix to Tucson then over to Lordsburg and beyond. That’s generally very dry country and of late there have been attempts to bring in water and ‘make the desert bloom like a rose’ to belabor the old cliche. It looks like fairly rich soil but little or none of that country is used to large amounts of water. For miles and miles there were newly created streams, ponds and lakes. The water itself would surely be welcome, but it was brown and viscid with tons of topsoil and silt washed from fields newly turned.
Wendell Berry, in his book ‘The Unsettling of America,’ speaks of the advisability of using our marginal lands for low budget agriculture. I agree with that basic premise but anyone planning to follow that advice would do well to read it thoroughly and be guided by his further admonition that marginal lands be ONLY farmed marginally and only for appropriate uses. Intensive cultivation where soil is thin and the terrain is steep is very poor judgement unless extreme precautions are taken. Orchards, tree farming, grasses, terrace farming maybe, but if you have once seen what can happen in flood time you’ll probably hesitate to open up that kind of marginal land.
I can think of only two ways to handle Texas in a treatise like this: spend a whole column on it or skip it altogether. For this time we obviously don’t have room so we’ll pass over it with a respectful nod and a promise to do more another time.
Louisiana was wet and flooded but that’s a perennial condition down there. We lived in New Orleans before the SFJ Editor was born but the flood I remember best happened nearly 2 years before that. I got on a ship at Chalmette just South of the City and went down river to the gulf. At least that’s where they said we were – I kept looking for Mt. Ararat. Except for an occasional small hill or a grove there was nothing but water as far as you could see.
I don’t remember any farmhouses but now and then on one of those distant hillocks stood a lonesome horse or cow. I can’t imagine farming under the threat but possibly one year in three they raised a crop that was monstrous. That delta has to be the deepest, richest soil in America. IT IS the topsoil of a good part of it. I know the best part of the Namakagan Valley started down there right after the glacier retreated.
We crossed Lake Pontchartrain on a trestle bridge on our way to Birmingham. I only mention it because there have been some southern bridges collapsing recently and if I have my ‘druthers’ I prefer to cross ten miles of open water in something that floats better than a railroad car.
In regard to what I was saying about appropriate crops for marginal soils, I have to give the South a great deal of credit for planting so much land back to pine and other marketable timber. Paper pulp, turpentine and other forest products are a cash crop but I think by their nature they are less drain on the soil – topsoil at least. Sentimentally, I could wish there were more mules, but the diversity in what was once mainly cotton country is encouraging.
Speaking of nostalgia for mules, I met one gentleman on the train who was ready to argue the subject. He was older than I am and he told me one of his boyhood recollections on the farm in Georgia was getting up at 3:30am on Summer mornings to water and feed 16 mules so they could get in the fields at first light. I guess nostalgia is all in the point of view.
All I will say of Florida here is that I like the Northern part first rate, especially in Winter, but if it were up to me I’d build a fence across it just above Orlando. Wall-to-wall people make me nervous. Condominiums and orange groves are not mutually compatible and I’m afraid agriculture will eventually lose the fight.
From Florida we took a plane to Puerto Rico as mentioned in our last column. From there we flew home; I support Amtrak but I’m not fanatic about it. One advantage to the plane aside from the time factor is that from 35000 feet, cities, houses and cars appear in their proper perspective: tiny anthills in a vast land and the ants do seem to cluster around water. I’ll drink to that – water, of course.