Northwoods (copy)

Five-year-old Summer Allen follows her grandpa to Bluegill Lake.

Today, election day, we unite with our fellow Americans in answering this primary question: Who best represents my interests? And secondarily we ask: What are our shared values, what do we have in common?

What better describes a “commons" than a small lake in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, surrounded by mostly pine trees and piers coming out from nearby cabins? It is on such a lake that I am a small woodlot, wetland and shoreline taxpayer. In late August, having driven up north, I took a scenic, slow drive on a back road that winds through tall stands of Norwegian pine trees interrupted by the occasional driveway with mailbox. Many of these mailboxes were decked out with American flags, some large and some small, the kind you see people waving during parades on the Fourth of July. The Fourth was long past.

I wondered if it was some kind of code that says, ‘We're in.’” (Just then, on our lakeside beach where I was writing, rifle fire rang out from a distance.). But what are they in it for? I wondered.

Like many of the 15,600 lakes in Wisconsin (take that Minnesota, “Land of Ten-Thousand Lakes”) our small lake is fragile, as many are now. Such is the impaired condition of my larger hometown lakes: Mendota and Monona in Madison, where, sadly, in summer, fossil fuel-powered vessels go out regularly to harvest more than 2,000 tons of oxygen-depleting and smelly lake weed. Lake weed sourced by phosphorous-loaded fertilizing of surrounding landscape and lawns. Our “commons" is in trouble.

Surely the lakeside property owners in the Northwoods, our neighbors putting flags out, are aware of what it would cost them, and all of us in Wisconsin, if we allow our Northwoods lakes to become choked by weeds, algae bloom, fish kills, to fester, to stink. Discourage tourists? Drive billions of Milwaukee and Chicago spending at resorts, cabin and camper rentals, restaurants, shops and grocery stores elsewhere? No way!

Even so, I wondered what all those flags, the symbol of our great nation has come for some, stand for? For my parents, both World War II veterans, it stood for the freedom they had enjoyed throughout their young lives, which they, by enlisting, put on the line. My mother, a first lieutenant who witnessed the human cost of warfare firsthand nursing wounded U.S. soldiers in a French field hospital, voted for peace and social justice candidates every time she could, including 2020, when at 98 she told the person assisting her, “I am so happy to be able to vote; I’ve done it all my life.” Thanks to my parents, Mom, a lifelong Democrat and Dad, a clean air and water Republican, and others like them, our democracy has flourished, has withstood.

Even after the war, while they would never characterize themselves this way, my parents were warriors still. They enlisted Rep. Tom Barrett (later mayor of Milwaukee and now U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg) and the bipartisan Legislature, to defend Wisconsin’s small lakes of 50 acres or less by enacting protective “no-wake speed.” Thanks to this, I and others can swim across our small lake and back again without fear of being mowed down. What’s more, with slower-moving boats, canoes, kayaks and sailboats on our lake, for years a pair of nesting loons have hatched and raised their chicks in a quiet, uninhabited, marshy shoreline bay. These summertime, migrating residents of our “commons” with their haunting loon call, images on a million sweatshirts and other tourist souvenirs are the emblem of Wisconsin’s North.

As I drove the backroad, I noticed yet another flag-decorated driveway with a large, mowed lawn sloping down to water’s edge, where rainfall would send what’s on the lawn into the lake. This lawn showed streaks of grass growing brightly green, as though a layer of phosphorus-loaded fertilizer had recently been applied.

Loaded. “Locked and loaded,” is the future into which environmental scientists and leaders at this year’s international COP27 climate conference now say we, in Wisconsin, our country, our earth are already sadly, regrettably, tragically headed. Every day from around the world we get reports: flooding, drought, heat waves, wildfires. What will it take for those of us who treasure our Wisconsin, our country, to become flag-waving, patriotic lake, water, air and earth guardians, to become “long termers” so these places where we temporarily reside can be enjoyed by our families and others into the next decade, the next century, the next hundred, the next thousand years?

At this moment of seasonal transition from a very hot summer into fall, we must ask ourselves as we vote: Which of the candidates on offer will do the best job to protect our personal and shared values, our commons? For me, it is Attorney General Josh Kaul for attorney general, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes for state senator and Gov. Tony Evers for governor. 

Ellen (“Elena”) Rulseh is a Madison-based writer and sustainability advocate.

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