; Cwyn's Death By Tea: On the Lake ;

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

On the Lake

On Pike Lake in northern Wisconsin where I grew up, nearly all of the houses were built high above the water. To reach the lake, you had to get down thirty or more feet of embankment covered with oak and birch trees, and numerous plants including poison ivy. Homeowners put in long flights of stairs made of wood or brick, or carved out winding dirt paths. A neighbor’s house, however, was the only home built right on the water, on a small peninsula that I can only describe as a bit of fairy land.

In this house dwelt a reclusive old timer somewhere in his seventies or eighties. Although the neighborhood, while still forest-y in most places, was largely residential, at one point this old timer small-farmed his property. To reach the road, he had to go up a quarter mile or so, and on the way he had forest on the right hand, and bits of open field on the left and up near his square brick garage which held an old car he drove once in awhile to the store. I surmised he must have farmed a bit because he sold part of his property to my father which included a “boathouse,” in actuality a small animal barn.

In the back of the barn was a dried out old chicken coop with tiered wood nesting areas, ancient brown straw and rusty chicken wire. The barn’s attic must have served as a hay mow, because the ceiling inside had a square opening with no ladder and the front of the attic had a large door into which farmers usually pitchfork up hay or straw. My guess is the farmer grew straw for his chickens and pitched it up into the mow, because although he had enough room for a cow or two, he would not have had sufficient pasture to support these. He must have stopped farming sometime in the 1940s or 1950s. My father used the small barn alternatively as a boathouse, tentatively as a party spot with an old wood bar, and a garden house when he put in a vegetable garden for a few years. Later on we made a playhouse there.

But the old man’s property is still with me now, because we played there so often. His very plain old farmhouse looked a bit like this.

Many an early 20th century farmhouse looked like this.
photo of Dane County 1910 house
by Joann M. Ringelstetter
Imagine this house on a small peninsula jutting out on the water surrounded by lake and forest. He had a small, rickety red dock on one side over the lily pads and another larger boat dock at the end of the peninsula where the water had a sandy bottom instead of muddy weeds. The grass around his house was a soft sort of grass that didn’t need mowing. And a small patch of what I can only call fairy grass always grew down by the water, with a moss edging at the start of the forest. This grass felt lovely on bare feet.

I don’t remember much about the old timer, except he used to visit the apple tree that he had put in, or my father did, right on the edge of the property. One day he brought up a stool and picked up fallen apples from the ground. My brother and I spotted him sitting under the apple tree. I was four or five years old and my brother three, perhaps. The old man cracked acorns from the red oak trees on my father’s property just below. He beckoned us over.

“These are good to eat,” he said, cracking open a few acorns.

We tried the acorns which were so bitter we ran, spitting them out and laughing. The old man laughed too, but continued to eat them himself. Later on when I broke open green acorns and pinched the nuts sometimes they broke apart into powder. I read about how people made flour from acorns back in the old days, and that idea made sense to me when remembering the old man eating from the oak trees.

“Oh that never happened,” my father said years later, when I told him about the old man feeding us acorns.

“It did too happen,” I insisted. He shook his head.

After all, I had tried nearly every plant possible that grew in the forest, right down to the stems of the water lilies. I even tried some poisonous plants, like the sumac, though I wasn’t stupid enough to eat the berries or the leaves. But sumac branches can be peeled and split open, the spongy core inside is pleasant to chew like gum. I know the acorn story is true because I could just as easily have tried eating the acorns on my own, and surely I would remember learning for myself how they taste. I didn’t need to make up a story about the old timer living in the house below us, feeding acorns to me and my brother.

But the real lure of his property was the truly fairy quality of the water, the grass and the forest. I imagine he worked out a rural living during the Depression and war years on his chickens, maybe a goat, acorns and berries. Ducks laid eggs in the woods near the water, and fish were easy to catch right from the shore, or on the ice in winter. With a bit of coffee, salt, flour and butter I bet that old man got by just fine with his eggs, some squirrels, duck, fish and maybe a deer or two. I remember water and sewer lines were put in all down his driveway when I was about seven or so, after the old timer died and a wealthy family from Madison bought his property to use as a summer house. I shudder to think what the old man did for sewer before that.

In winter, my brother and I used the long dirt ruts of the driveway as a sledding track. When the snow packed just right, we could sled all way down and around to the water, so fast we ended up well out onto the lake ice. A long walk back up and down again we flew. One magical winter the Madison family children visited their summer home, they were young adults and joined in on the sledding at night, turning on the outdoor lights, grabbing one of us little kids and jumping onto the sled. The family didn’t visit often.

So in summer time, the rest of the property was our playground. We found beds of moss covered with canopies of bushes that became imaginary houses. We found an old tree house in the woods, not much left except the sturdy platform and a few beams, maybe a deer stand rather than a playhouse. We went into the old man’s garage and looked at his car, and later the boat kept there by the Madison family. I don't remember what kind of car the old man had, but it was big and old, not like my dad's blue Chevy.

I dressed up in long dresses and ran barefoot over the soft grass, imagining I was a princess. The house faced the lake to the northwest, and only in summer could the sun reach the house. In the late summer afternoon, the sun shone golden on the peninsula and shimmered along the dock.


My brother pulled out fish after fish off the old man’s dock every time it rained. We lost our lures in the pine trees on the shore. Huge bull frogs lived in the lily pads around the peninsula, until we fished them all out for the legs my dad enjoyed frying up. Bullhead fish with stingers nested near shore and we caught them, for dad knew how to cook those too. Big sunfish and northern pike roamed the shoreline and huge snapping turtles, all of which we caught, cleaned and ate, sometimes in huge neighborhood turtle roast parties. I found wintergreen berries in winter and chewed the leaves. Yes, I am certain the old man got along just fine, back when he was the only one living on that land.

One early summer when I was a young teenager, I walked around the mossy woods above the old man’s house and saw asparagus, a huge patch of stalks eighteen inches tall and some even taller. I never saw asparagus there before. I know that asparagus can return year after year, but who planted it, and when? I ran back to the house and coaxed my father to come look. After some convincing, he walked out there and sure enough, we cut down a lot of asparagus that day. The stalks looked like magic staves coming up from the weedy green forest floor, wielded by the wizardly tall birch trees. I peeled their paper and cut plaque fungus for carving, wondering what else I could make from birch bark. I knew about Chippewa canoes, but only later seeing Russian birch bark basket art did I understand fully possibilities I could only intuit as a child.

The old man never invited us into his house, and we didn’t dare go close when we saw him about. But later on when playing near his house, long after it became a summer home, we noticed two small doors at ground level. We opened these, and they clearly held yard tools in a space under the house. But we were small enough to play in there, under the trellis-covered open spots beneath the house. One day, while playing under the house we found an old iron key. Indeed it was a key to the house. Finally we could see the inside of the house we only imagined before, the house on the fairy peninsula. The key opened one of the doors, and in we went.

To our surprise, the inside of the house had yellow, pine wood paneled walls, and plain tweed furniture, like maybe early 1960s small couches, chairs, lots of very basic places to sit. We saw a tiny kitchen and even tinier bedrooms. At this point the house was just an ordinary summer cabin, like so many others on lakes in Wisconsin at that time. The fancy new owners clearly hadn’t done much of anything to improve the place. It looked like the old man still lived there with an old coffee can and not much else. We didn’t take or touch anything, but we kept the key to the fairy house, which was just an ordinary wood farm house after all.

Yet the fairy peninsula was everything, still is everything, all of my religious vocation, the spiritual pursuits, the soft grasses and mosses and herbs, the chicken coop, the trees and the asparagus. Thinking of it brings me a timeless peace, for the land there never flooded and the house still stands even after more than a century. In my mind’s eye I still stand on the grass beneath the trees there in the summer sun during the moments of greatest duress, in moments of violence and human horror, bare feet on damp moss in a place of no fear. Often I have wondered what people do without this, though I suppose in a city children may find secret places of repose. I know people speak of Central Park this way, even in the middle of New York City.


In a moment’s flash of memory, I may stand near the two doors where the yard tools were, where we found the key and now I have a fresh, new puerh cake in my hand, still in the wrapper, still yet to be opened and known. I buy my tea with the same fairy promise, in the moment before using the key. I can hold the cake now open in the wrapper, me in my long dress, the old man up above with his acorns. The acorns and the house look like magic, but inside they are plain and bitter. The tea itself chids me for believing the wrapper, for getting lost in the trees and the white lilies. “Use the key,” it says, because now the chicken coop helps me more than the lake does.

I should find a photo of the place, I think to myself, for all that it meant to me, still my mind’s spot to lose myself. Looking around on the net, oh, I find one! The property was sold not long ago.

photo WoodburyRealtors property listing
The house has gained many sections, owners adding onto the original house, obscuring it. Now the house is huge, I suppose as large as most people want today. But it takes over the peninsula, dominates it, rather than merely sitting upon it, letting the bit of land be the nature’s miracle it is. Yet, vestiges of what I recall remain. I see the soft patch of ever green grass on the far left, as it always was, and the lily pads still growing on the lake. The trees still jut from the shore, and the forest is actually denser. Despite the haphazard additions to the house, obviously the owners see something of the magic by their choice of adding cathedral windows to better enjoy the lake views. The style doesn’t fit the plain old farm house, but a bit of church and castle in their choices reassures me that they feel what I felt. The previous inhabitants honor the forest magic in their own way, even if the overly large house tries to suck all of it out from the peninsula.

I feel certain now the wood paneling inside is long gone, and the interior matches the promises outdoors. The house probably has an amazing bath and fancy kitchen. Surely this is so, for the photo is from a real estate listing which says the property sold for $399,000. The old man probably never imagined this kind of money. Or maybe he knew all along, as we did, that what he held onto for so many years, so plain and ordinary for him, is someday worth so much more.





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