My grandfather used to own land in Northern Wisconsin. “Our” cottage was on the North side of one of the many Sand Lakes Up North. Soaking up double the sun all winter, from reflection off the lake, we enjoyed many things about the place. Two or three events that happened there, shaped my experience of humankind and our relationship with Mother Earth profoundly. Without the steady internalized relationship that I had with nature, I could not have seen things in quite the same light. Experiences that took place in this refuge took on a sacred quality because a great pilgrimage was needed just to be able to enjoy the stillness, the many moods of the seasons and the rather spartan accommodations.
The first lesson that I learned is that humans have the power within their own minds to overlook true reality if they so choose. Physics, logic, mathematics and rigorous thought can be easily eclipsed by what might be characterized as intellectual expedience or in some cases stupidity or outright ignorance. It came about because I was with Grandpa, while he dug a new hole under the outhouse. Like the old one, it had to be dug into pure sand. As the sand dried, it would collapse down into the hole and grandpa swore repeatedly as he fought the hole down to where the sand was more evenly damp. His goal was to have a two tier affair, where one side would be for the peein’ and the other for “your business” as he liked to refer to it. He was able, remarkably, to get down to about five feet deep. His head was just about even with the leaf litter when I asked, how long will this take to fill up? I was young, maybe seven and thought I had stated some kind of swear word or verbally assaulted the value of all his hard work. Something got turned on in his brain and he swore that it would never fill up. For the years I was around, I saw him throw nearly everything he had to get rid of down that hole. I repeatedly asked him how long he though it would be before that hole filled up. Several times, I peered down the hole to make mental notes about how things were going. My concrete operational mind took note of every bucket of sand that came out of the hole and realized that though they were many, they were also finite in number. When we left for Denver, grandpa had remarried, put in a septic tank and hosted our new relatives several weeks and many week ends each summer. Those folks were from Milwaukee and were overly citified. Their idea of fun was to torture the tiny lake with their speed boats. So big were they that there was no way to get them in from our end of the lake. They would drive all the way around to the southeast end to launch their powerboats. Grandpa never tired of the old two-holer. He liked to take his morning constitutional out there with the spiders. he had installed a small window so you could see down to the lake while you were there. I think that in some ways, surveying his kingdom from atop that hill was sheer joy. As long as he didn’t consider how long it would be until that sucker filled up. He even had a coffee can of lime and threw some down after each use to discourage flies. When folks came up for Deercamp, everyone had to use the privy. He would use the excuse, “The plumbing isn’t meant to handle so many people.” No showers were allowed either, because the smell of soap would scare away the big bucks.
But I stray…When I came home from college, grandpa was much older. I had only been to the place once in twenty years and used the opportunity to ask again, how long he figured it would take to fill the hole I had watched him dig so many years ago. I think I asked when some chili had gone bad and he asked me to throw it in there, along with a tuna can or aspirin bottle. I had returned from college, itching for a visit to the old place. Grandpa had gotten, or borrowed a four-wheeler, thrown a logging chain around the outhouse and was dragging it a dozen yards away where he had dug another, much smaller hole. I guess he thought that one would never fill up either.
The other lesson was a bit scarier and happened all at once. When we had come back from Denver, I was in my mid-teens. I was swimming off to the left of the dock. This area was deeper than where we usually swam and had charred bark and leaves on the bottom that made a sort of spooky spot, the feeling of putting your foot down if you went to the bottom was unpleasant. I had gotten a swim mask and found that I could float across the surface and see clearly to the bottom, a dozen, maybe fifteen feet away. An area as long as the dock, say twenty feet by at least that in length was littered with hundreds of bars of soap. All my life We had been told and overseen to make sure to use nothing but Ivory soap in the lake, because it floats. That meant that each and every one of those bars had come from our in-laws or reckless bathers who came in while we were away. I remember Grandpa, who would take things a bit further. He would dive in from the dock, climb out, soap up and take a 5-gallon bucket of water from the lake, run up the hill a-ways and douse himself off with a deluge from the bucket. The stark and barren landscape pock marked with soap made me sick and heartbroken. I have often wondered whether any of the same people had been responsible for more than one bar of soap escaping to the bottom of the lake and why no one had told them to only use Ivory, or do what grandpa did.
What I took away from this was the knowledge that if we do not all take responsibility for setting limits and taking care to educate one another about how to be responsible care takers of this planet, the despoiling ways will continue to kill off not only the relatively tiny lake that I loved as a child, but the rest of our planet as well. I believe that a wise person once said that for evil to exist in the world, all it takes is for good people to do nothing. As the famous song says, “How many times must a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see?” I for one have turned my head enough, asking when will it end got tiring after a while, so now I’m going to stay on task and keep asking how long ’til the hole fills up and reminding folks, guess what? The soap gets slippery when you get it wet!