Stories by ELIZABETH H. McGOWAN Journal Times
Photos by Jim Kneiszel
PIX of Ellis
QUOTE: It started when one of the Rebels asked if she could catch a bottle of wind and keep it. Without thinking, I said: No. But, of course she could catch a bottle of wind or the sigh of a pine, the splash of water, the pink of dawn, just about anything she put her mind to. And theres no magic to it, only the need to really feel, see and hear. Really seeing is simple. It takes only such humility as can get the eyes to look past ones own nose.
Mel Ellis, Notes From Little Lakes
CUTLINE: The Ellises reshaped 15 acres of worn pasture land inWaukesha County into a wildlife haven with five spring-fed ponds. In the center photo, Gwen Ellis walks down the leaf-covered lane leading to her driveway.
Before the Great Depression enveloped America, Paula Ellis had designs on her son becoming a concert violinist.
Instead, Mel Ellis picked up a pencil and chose to make his music with words. And what a symphony it was.
Some of his most treasured prose were inspired by his decision in the 1950s to transform 15 muddy and scarred acres near the village of Big Bend into a wildlife sanctuary with spring-fed ponds, bounties of trees and galaxies of wildflowers.
On Feb. 3, 1957, sharp-eyed readers thumbing through The Milwaukee Journal found a three-paragraph entry from Ellis called Notes From Little Lakes tucked in a corner of the Mens and Recreation section.
Eventually, it became a full-length column chronicling the joys and travails of his ambitious partnership with nature in southern Waukesha County. With an inviting, down-home style neither sickeningly sweet nor sentimental he deftly relayed the antics of his daughters, lovingly referred to as the Rebels, and shared letters to his wife, the Rebel Queen.
Critics praised the Little Lakes columns as marking Ellis graduation from rod-and-gun writer to observer and narrator of the natural world. His writing captured the sense of wonder and appreciation his backyard experiences allowed him.
The native Wisconsinite who described himself as a simple man of endless inquiry died in 1984 at age 72.
Ellis enthusiasts as well as those with an urge to be introduced to this poet of the land will be champing at the bit to delve into the soon-to-be-published book, Notes From Little Lakes. This melding of Ellis newspaper writing and contributions to Wisconsin Sportsman, a bimonthly magazine, traces three decades of his familys land-nurturing efforts.
Kick up the dazzling maple leaves blanketing the pond-side trails at Little Lakes on a snappy October day, and Ellis autumn insights still dance through your head.
Now smell autumn, he wrote. Taste it. Feel it. Dry and light and heady. Sharp on the wind. Invigorating right up to the last days when moldering brings a heavy odor of ripeness before the sharp freeze again clears the air. Walk your country lane or city street at night. Look up from your dark earth at the sparkling universe. Believe then that your finite mind is no more capable of grappling with the infinite than a just-born babe can fathom physics. So, forget your conceit and let the reasons be. Just see the crisp moon and brittle stars. Hear how a leaf sounds scraping, and how the wind is like water washing, and how the air is sharp to taste and clean to breathe. Just walk with autumn fresh on your face.
Ellis married his second wife, Gwen, in 1964. That was two years after Bernice, his first wife, had died. Both women carried the revered title Rebel Queen in his writings.
Gwens introduction to Ellis came via his newspaper columns. One of her Milwaukee relatives mailed them to her in Sun Prairie. Gwen wrote him an appreciative letter. He sensed a soul mate and responded.
Then the relationship blossomed, says Gwen, 68, still caretaker of Little Lakes. Why did I like him? First of all, he didnt dress up. The second thing, we fell into conversation. We didnt have to worry about empty spaces.
Taped to a framed photo of the couple is this sentence from one of his columns: Our meeting might have been no more than a marvelous moment, a lovely memory with no risks attached that would in any way have modified the course of our lives.
Ellis was an early-riser. His 5 a.m. saunterings around the property served as pre-writing therapy. Once inside, hed barricade himself in his coal bin-cum-office in the basement of their two-story country home. A curtain covered the lone window. A bare bulb hanging from the ceiling was the sole source of light for a hunched-over writer pounding out his thoughts on an Army surplus Smith & Corona typewriter.
Mel valued his privacy, Gwen says about her husbands disciplined writing schedule. He didnt like to be bothered.
His never-fail plan to escape unexpected company was to exit the house through the back door, bolt to Fish Pond and row to its center in the family boat.
Once in a while somebody would ask, Whos that man on the pond? Gwen recalls, laughing. Id tell them it was just some old man, a friend of ours, who asked if he could fish here.
Ellis was aware some visitors didnt have the ability to appreciate the beauty of Little Lakes in the moment. All they could see was the backbreaking days, weeks and months of labor to come. To them, it wan an unfinished and therefore not valuable piece of real estate.
He chose to describe his home as a place of small successes, some monumental failures, sweat and calluses, some profanities, some accidents and sometimes so much love it overflows in tears.
Ellis deep link with the land often proved painful. Early on, he anguished over spraying DDT on the property to protect the 150 elms from the beetle that spread the Dutch elm disease fungus. Later, he mourned not only the loss of the trees, but the birds and other wildlife killed by the then commonly used chemical.
However, he was aware that even without human intervention, the natural world seemed brutal and gruesome to some. Trees and plants battled one another for life-giving sunlight. Hungry predators were forever on the lookout for a living meal.
Nature is not a kindly old lady but a tough old hag with poison ivy in her hair, was the way Ellis phrased it.
Madison artist Suzanne Ellis, 49, one of the writers five daughters, works in the graphics department at The Capital Times. She illustrated Notes From Little Lakes.
It was nice because I felt like I was working with Dad again, says Suzanne, known as Rebel No. 2, about the sketches and cover art she provided for the book. The earth was everything to him. He passed his love and respect for the earth on to us. I wouldnt have traded him for anyone. He was my best friend.
As a child, Suzanne knew every square inch of the property: where the Indian skeleton was unearthed, where each cherished family pet was buried, where the most choice largemouth bass lurked, where a 48-ton pile of rock once rested that was eventually hauled to the shore of Fish Pond for riprap work, and which swimming hole Blue Pool was most refreshing.
She fondly remembers the elation she experienced when her father brought home Joker, the familys first horse. And she laughs at her innocence in thinking a prayer to St. Francis, the patron saint of animals, spared the life of a grouchy snapping turtle named Ralph.
It seems Ralph had so snarled a bullhead setline that his demise was near. Suzanne reluctantly fetched her fathers gun. She figured her hurried prayer is what jammed the gun after her father loaded it with shells.
Everything at Little Lakes even Bumpy the pickup truck was blessed with a name. Suzanne and her four sisters christened a menagerie of mallards, geese, hawks, pheasants, crows, seagulls, pigeons, chickens, woodchucks, chipmunks, mice, raccoons, horses, squirrels, rabbits, turtles, bullfrogs and dogs. And they knew each critters life story.
I would never have traded my growing up for any other world. No way, Suzanne says. Our father had a deal. If we wanted this lifestyle, we had to work. We had to earn what we wanted and be responsible.
Bernice, Gwen, and Suzanne and her sisters Sharon, Debbie, Dianne and Mary all played significant roles in softening Ellis attitude toward animals he usually targeted as prey. A hunter since childhood, he eventually put down his gun for good.
It was a metamorphosis, Gwen says. He really came around on that.
Today, surging development around Big Bend means Little Lakes daily becomes less and less remote.
But Gwen intends to protect and preserve its essence. She knows open space is no swatch of cloth to be priced by the yard. Its a living, growing entity to be savored.
This place will go on and stay here as Little Lakes, she says. Its not going to be destroyed. Its not going to be a subdivision.
For those of you scanning the skies for signs of another fierce Wisconsin winter, perhaps you should tuck Ellis musings about spring in a readily accessible spot:
Spring is a vagrant, he wrote. It comes and goes, visiting some, but passing others by. There is no special day set aside for its arrival, nor does it come at the same time for all of us. Spring can come even in the middle of winter. Usually it comes suddenly, without preliminaries, on a sun shaft through an office window, on a soft south wind through bare trees at night.
I may hear it in the honking of geese. You may hear it in the trickle of water. Spring is not necessarily gentle. Sometimes it cuts banked snow with a ragged edge and the sound of it is in the roaring water. Spring is not really a season. It is a feeling. It is a quickening of the pulse, a lifting of the head, a flaring of the nostrils. It is a laugh and a skip and a jump. It is gratitude for being alive and an overwhelming desire to live. When it comes, you will know.