Commentary by Ward Degler
Something happens every spring that surprises me. It’s a smell that I associate with the forest; a pungent, earthy smell, the dank aroma of awakening vegetation.
I grew up with this smell in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. Dad was a forester with the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of the government’s effort to bring the nation out of the Great Depression.
The CCC performed double duty. It provided work for a virtual army of men who otherwise would be idle, znd it provided the manpower to restore one of nature’s great gifts – the Chequamegon National Forest.
The forest comprised a million-and-a-half acres of virgin timber in Northern Wisconsin. Untouched stands of spruce, pine, balsam and hardwoods. Early lumber interests had swept in around the turn of the 20th century and clear-cut giant sections of it. The government recognized the forest was in danger of being obliterated. In 1933, it established the CCC to replant the forest.
From 1933 through 1941, Dad’s CCC boys planted an estimated 10 million trees. They also fought forest fires and built rudimentary roads through the forest.
The Chequamegon is the home of black bear, wolverines, badgers and whitetail deer. It also is plush with glacial lakes, swampland and bogs. Dad charged waist-deep through a bog to escape an angry female bear with cubs he had surprised while cruising timber. He hoped she wouldn’t leave her cubs to pursue him through the water. He was right.
On another occasion, he shinnied up a tree to get away from a disagreeable badger. It was dark by the time the badger left the scene and he had to rely on his cigarette lighter to help him find the compass he dropped on his way up the tree.
Wild cranberry bogs dot the landscape, and one Sunday in late fall Dad waded into the freezing water to collect berries for Thanksgiving dinner. Mom had to rub his legs with a towel to restore his circulation. We also strung cranberries and popcorn into garlands for our Christmas tree that year.
There is a silence in those woods that gives you the feeling you are being watched. Once, when Dad took me with him to work, he put me in the care of an old Chippewa Indian gentleman who did odd jobs at the camp. He showed me that we were indeed being watched. He had me sit motionless at the edge of a stream so I could see the deer, skunk, wolves and lynx that came to the stream to drink.
I’ve been back to the Chequamegon a couple times. It’s different now. More grown up, I guess.
But there is still that smell. And the silence.