Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #2, Spring & Summer 1998]

From The Land, Always the Land

Mel Ellis

[First planned as a coffee-table picture book of essays drawn from Ellis' finest writings, The Land was all but ready to go to the printer in fall 1977. But before it came to market, the publisher, Waukesha-based Country Beautiful, closed its doors. After that, the manuscript passed through a series of regional publishing houses, until it came to be known in publishing circles as "the lost Ellis manuscript."

The Land, Always the Land now appears some two decades after its intended release, built around the original manuscript, but also drawing from the best of "The Good Earth" and "Afield with Ellis" columns, which appeared in the Milwaukee Journal magazine section in the 1970s and 1980s.

This collection shows Ellis at his full maturity, both as a writer and as an observer of the natural world. Just as lovers of outdoor literature best remember Aldo Leopold for his A Sand County Almanac, so they will come to connect Mel Ellis with The Land, Always the Land.

-- editor Ted J. Rulseh, from the book's Foreward.]


During half a century, its quicksands have sucked me down to within a breath of death. Its trees, trembling to the insult of my insensitive saw, have split up the middle and exploded in my face. Its rivers have bounced me from boulder to boulder, spun me through their whirlpools like a sodden leaf, and spit me writhing and retching out on the beach. Its bogs and swamps have mired me almost beyond endurance. And a riptide once sucked me seaward, and that would have been the end of that, except for the hook of a rock-strewn peninsula.

Twisted ankles, broken bones, pulled ligament, dislocated joints, shin splints, Charley horses, swollen-shut eyes, and scratches, welts and cuts as unnumbered as the rashes and lumpy swellings -- marks of hornet, fly, tick and flea, of nettles and brambles and poisons of ivy and sumac.

On foot behind horse, behind plow. On knees weeding carrots. Breathless on sliding shale, one handgrasp from mountain top. Even twister-lifted like a wisp from a hay load to get spiked like some shrike's trophy in a thornapple tree. Frozen-careless tongue to axe head, lashes to lashes, fingers and feet from red to white to black. Burned crimson. Thirsty as a discarded snake skin. Hungry as a blind lion. Rendered weak as mist which my breath might part, though never enough to show the way to shore.

Then, as if all that were not enough, it has cheated me with prickly ash where I intended plum. Insulted me with burdock where I have planted trillium. Smothered my Kentucky bluegrass with crab and quack. Mocked me with a white-hot bolt to splinter my burr oak, once a peaceful place of shade-shattered, smoking fragments hissing at the rain.

More than a half century of callous deceit. Fifty years of fighting, of going to bed wondering what it will do while I sleep, and getting up every morning trying to anticipate the mood, the temper of its day.

Curling my shingles. Splitting my cellar walls. Flooding my road and turning my garden to dust. Whacking out windows. Rusting the troughs beneath the eaves, even the lock against unknowns of the night. Killing and maiming friends and, my God, drowning even little children.

So, why do I love the land? Because for every vice, ten thousand virtues; for every deceit, all the truths (if I can find them); for every ugly second, a million minutes of beauty; for every hurricane, a decade of quiet nights; and for every death, a multitude of births.

So it has flailed me unmercifully and sent me whimpering and blistered to bed. Yet, after everything, to whom do I go for comfort and strength when friends and even family fail me? And who has always, in manner mysterious, calmed my tortured spirit, strengthened my dwindling resolve, restored faith, and fostered such courage as not only brings me anxious but exulting right into the face of an unpredictable tomorrow?

It is the land, always the land.

I found a wild Arbutus in the dell,
The first-born blossom from the womb of Spring.
Lays hold of me, something I do not know
Unless among these blossoms once I knew
A little boy, oh, long ago.

-- Lew Sarett


Tomorrow is Easter, but I am witnessing the Resurrection today. It is a task as Herculean as breaching vaginal barriers, and the rebirth as miraculous as any Christly escape from the shroud. Again and again, a barren patch of soil, which last year provided a dusting place for birds, trembles and lifts. Particles of soil, still moist from melting frost, tumble into the tangle of dead winter grass, which hems a brown border around the old dusting dish.

Finally, a mound of earth, round as a baseball, has separated and lifted itself from the soil surface. For awhile it remains inert. Then it quivers, and through twin cracks in the mud ball a pair of eyes appear. A scudding cloud lets loose a sudden spate of rain, and there, in velvet browns of many shades, a washed toad blinks once, then hops from its wintry cemetery to break its long fast, breakfast on a pale slug, slimy gastropod, itself only seconds from somnolence. No matter what the scientists say, the toad's rebirth remains as much a mystery as the Biblical version of Christ's resurrection, because if I bury myself for the winter, soon there is ice in my veins and my heart turns to stone. There is a little snow mixed with the next brief gust of rain, and I cross the tension line, which is the top of the hill. The south side where I had been sitting is greening, and trees are budding. But on the north side of the hill, there are no green grass spears and the branches hold no leafy promise. But beside a scarf of gray snow close to a spruce skirt, already spearing from the ground to grow a pulpit for a priest, is the Indian turnip the colonists came to call Jack-in-the-pulpit. Pilgrim come to haste to preach-green his surplice, green his bands, erect and reverent beneath penciled canopy of black, brown and green. Once poultice for injured eyes of the Menominees, once starch for the ruffs of Queen Elizabeth's courtiers, once memory root for child fooled into biting its bitter bulb, today mostly red berries for pheasants during the waning days of summer. Eager pilgrim, anxious to be in vestments before the white trilliums crowd around to:
Come, hear what Reverence
Rises to say
On his low painted pulpit
This calm Sabbath day.

But if the earth is restless with white, yellow and purple violets, brightening the entrance to the den from which the woodchuck emerges after its long sleep, and if the turtle, frog and salamander are up from the mud to see that water lilies are already lifting to spread green pads on the water, and if the garter snakes untangle in their common cave to go separately and silently among the great masses of anemones, which have whitened the brown earth, then the airways also are alive, vibrant with whistling and wing. It all started weak as a whisper in March. Then, during these warming days of April, came the sounds of insects. Survivors and the newly hatched swarm from ground and water, from beneath the bark of trees and cracks in houses, until the air hums. And dragonflies slowly climb last year's dead brown reeds to dry iridescent wings in the sun. All are food for the feathered millions.

Then, while crow, raven and buzzard still count the winter toll of carcasses, up from the ice to rot even before they can be eaten, or before the burial beetle has done with its macabre job, the incredible millions that spent winter in the south crowd north in what is likely an unparalleled phenomenon. At least one, the arctic tern, flies from the bottom to the top of the world, form an Antarctic winter resort to a summer nesting home on the edge of the Arctic circle. The jeweled thimble of a hummingbird crosses the ocean from Cuba. The robin heads from Louisiana to the very same apple tree that last year held its Wisconsin nest. They come singly and in gangs, nonstop or loafing along the way. They move forward only to sometimes retreat again in the face of a boisterous blizzard. Some fly by night and, if there is a full moon, I lie on the damp grass to watch their shadows cross its gleaming face.

Heron, grebe, duck, swallow, oriole, wren, thrasher, flicker, eagle, tanager-some early, some late, but always pushing winter a foot, a mile, a thousand miles northward. The restlessness becomes an eruption. Screaming robin chases robin. Blackbird power dives another blackbird. Territory is the name of the game, and survival of a species the goal. Flamboyant drake ducks corral drab hens and fight off any tempted to cuckold them. Above it all, the hawks, seemingly serene, ride the thermal updrafts, dipping in occasional sizzling swoops to select a victim from the blizzard of birds below.

Working their way north, too, are the storms, the tornadoes. For every gentle April rain, storm clouds gather, and there may be a deluge goaded by thunder, lashed by lightning. Rivers turn brown, batter angrily at boulders, crest and spill from their basins back into the fields. But the fish are not dismayed, and trout and salmon, leaping waterfalls, torpedo upstream; bronze carp turn from the current to swim in pastures among last year's cow pies; pike thread their way among last year's cattails to thrash a back bay into a frenzy of foam. They will honeymoon come high water, even if the river is Styx, waterway to whatever hell.

And now the fox kills two cottontails instead of one, because already there are denned kids to be fed. And the coyote, cousin to the wolf, forages days as well as nights, and if her udders swell and are splendidly fat, her winter coat, scraggly now and patching out for a summery suit, there are only winter-lean sinews, rubber bands that keep her running like a marionette.

April is not always kind. Sometimes crusted snow still lacerates the slender forelegs of a deer, and it goes down, a hapless bundle of bones within sight and scent of fresh forage, its strength left behind on the packed snow of an ancestral wintering yard. But the deer did not die in vain, because come another April and a bush will have taken enough sustenance from the pale marrow of the dead one's bones to rise higher, and some other refugee from the death camp, finding strength in this meager browse, may make it across the tension line over to where there are buds and branch tips to gorge on.

Even the horned owl has troubles, because hares turning from winter white to summer brown are mottled and less distinct in spotty camouflage, at precisely the time owlets, already hatched and having shed their down for feathers, are ravenous. But there is no stopping April, even if winter plans one more assault, and swallows die on the wing because there are no insects in the air. Within days, the snow turns to tears on tree branches, and rising mists put ethereal halos on the hills until the sun burns through. Then birds sing again and even the two-legged ones smile, because spring is a thing of the heart, instinctive just as it was so long ago, when any who survived winter knew they were among the favored few upon whom fate and fortune had smiled.


©1998 The Cabin Bookshelf

[The Land, Always the Land and the companion volume, Notes from Little Lakes (1996), both posthumous books by Mel Ellis (1912-1984), are published by The Cabin Bookshelf, 109 Riverwood Drive, Mishicot, Wisconsin, 54228. E-mail: Further on-line excerpts from the books can be found at -- B.W.]


Mel Ellis (1912-1984) began a second career as a novelist in 1967, after years of successful work as an Associated Press syndicated columnist. He also wrote regularly for The Milwaukee Journal and many national magazines, including Field & Stream. He published over 20 books.

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