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Woodland Trails: When times were simpler - and better

I guess I am kind of a throwback in time, lucky to be born when I was. I grew up wild and free. Kinda like a wild boy, alone and on my own. I had six siblings all too old to have any real use for a little kid. So I took Duke, my dog, and we took off heading out for the wilds and remote places where a kid could explore, wander and enjoy all the beauty nature provided. No computer or motorized toys to distract me and my imagination.

Today I took a walk that reminded me of my childhood. I let out all six dogs and we headed for the woods. Instead of the .22 or the old 410 single shot, I had the trail camera and some fresh batteries. Turkey hunting is just a week away and it's time to get ready. Josh and I had just gotten permission to hunt Turkey Mountain, as we named it. Today I was heading down to the woods to set up the trail camera that had been inside all winter. It's time to find turkeys!

The walk down to the woods was full of wild sights and sounds. Way up in the clouds I heard a hen mallard quacking loudly. Alongside her, a gaudy greenhead mirrored her every move. Diving, turning, flaring and putting the pedal to the medal, they rocketed overhead.

Buzzing the pond and the river I watched them fly with abandon. Slightly above and behind them I saw the reason for their hurried flight -- another drake was shadowing them. His plans, I am sure, was to take her away from her mate and replace him with a new love. I watched the scene unfold until they banked over the trees off downstream in a fast flurry of feathered flight.

As a kid I could walk forever. One day it would be north to the old dugout road. On another day it would be toward Buckner's Hill. The next day it would be toward Robey's Hill or maybe Cudd's pond. Just me and the dog, wandering and watching, flushing pheasants, chasing squirrels, avoiding cows, wandering through pastures and hay fields. The old farms were up and running back then.

But all of that has changed now and it's NOT for the better. The farms have been replaced with housing developments. The pastures of overgrown with box elders and weeds. The old gravel roads are paved and none of neighbors know each other anymore. Today people move in and then move on. The kids still ride school buses but they have changed. My bus driver, Old Bill used to carry a 12-gauge shotgun on the bus and take pheasants when he had the chance. Imagine that happening today? Two words -- lawsuit and jail-time!

But change is occurring for all of us, starting with the economy! About the only good thing I can see with the fall in the economy and financial pressure we all face is that the great building explosion on the farmlands has slowed. Built on poor credit deals, the glut and greed of development that has raped the land for so many years has been curtailed. Hopefully people will take a step back and look at what has happened because we have the time with the slowed economy. Maybe some will realize what we have already destroyed before we lose it all.

The reason we live here is the fresh water, clean air and free lands to walk. But the air is no longer clean. The waters are now unsafe to drink. We kill trout with run-off and we can't eat fish from many lakes and rivers. We accept it by simply burying our heads in the sand and avoiding the issues -- except for a few. The hunters and anglers often take stands but not enough have the courage to fight the fights we need to!

I look at the development that is taking place all around Hudson, south toward River Falls and Ellsworth, all around New Richmond, and it's even spreading north. It's above Hwy. 8 and seems to be devouring everything that I used to think was beautiful. I wonder if the children of today see it happening? I wonder if they can stop the out-of-control growth and save the remnants of what it is for them now and was like back when I was a kid wandering the hills and pastures.

I looked out the window the other morning at the snow before I headed off to church and smiled at the beauty. The whiteness of the fresh snow covered all of the scars on the land. It was like a newborn baby, clean and ready to grow. But when the snow had melted, the old scars were visible. The garbage that had blown in from the big chain stores was visible, and the dream was gone.

Every once in a while, I drive by the old farm where I grew up. Not much has changed. Pheasants Forever bought it up so it isn't all houses and mowed lawns. The old pond/gravel pit I stocked fish in and floated rafts in is long since buried. The farmhouse looks pretty much the same from the outside but I know it has to have changed on the inside so I don't want to go in and destroy the old memories with what is there now.

And that is how I want the land to be. We have to set ethical standards on the land. We don't have to pave, drain, build on, burn, clear cut and pollute the land, water and air we claim to love and hold so dear. Native Americans lived off the land and didn't abuse it like modern man continues to do. Picture in your mind's eyes the large herds of buffalo that roamed the prairie. Passenger pigeons flew overhead in flocks so large it took days for them and the buffalo to pass. Those are two things we will never see. I wonder what things I have seen, done or visited that will be gone or changed when my great-grandchildren read an old copy of something I wrote many years after I am just a memory?

There was once a deer trail that marked the land. It was enlarged by man who came in a covered wagon. His cows came and enlarged it more and replaced the buffalo that were wiped out. Fire was controlled that replenished the prairie and flooding was controlled that added nutrients to the land. Because man was dumb enough to build in flood zones we now build dikes and levees to further control nutrient-rich floods that are now looked upon as devastating. The things we have taken away from God's natural plan worries me.

As Aldo Leopold said in his great book, "Sand County Almanac," I hope everyone reads, "In human history, we have learned that the conqueror role is self defeating ... his conquests eventually defeat him." Napoleon and Hitler are prime examples as are we as civilized man destroys or tries to conquer nature and all that is natural, wild and free.

"In the biotic community, a parallel situation exists. Abraham knew exactly what the land was for: It was the land of milk and honey that was to be dripped into Abraham's mouth. At the present moment, the assurance with which we regard this assumption is adverse to the degree of our education."

"The ordinary citizen today assumes that science knows what makes the community clock ticks; the scientist is equally unsure that he does not. He knows that the biotic mechanism is so complex that its workings may never be fully understood."

For many years I have hoped that we realize there has to be a state of harmony between land and men. Science and conservation. But money, greed and pride often take over sound thought and ethical behavior. In the end we pay for our mistakes with increased cancers, polluted air and water not safe to drink and fish unsafe to eat.

As I write this a pair of swans fly right outside my window. I watch them fly off to greet the sunrise. They know nothing about why they were almost extinct not that many years ago. Watching them fly on wide white wings I have to have hope for future generations.