A good number of Wisconsinites, it is fair to assume, are unfamiliar with the Bark River in southeast Wisconsin. Starting in Richfield (not far from Milwaukee) and ending in Fort Atkinson, the Bark River is a tributary of the Rock River, which is itself a tributary of the Mississippi River.
Passing south over the bridge on Highway 164, a Sunday driver might not even notice this small waterway as it snakes its way west. But author Milton J. Bates sees the history of Wisconsin in the water’s reflection—and a vision of the future for this and other waterways. In his new book The Bark River Chronicles: Stories from a Wisconsin Watershed
, Bates uses his extensive knowledge of the river and its surrounding communities to paint a vivid and complex portrait of our contemporary life at odds with the natural world.
This is the third major book from Bates, a professor emeritus of English at Marquette University. His 1985 book Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self was lauded by critics for the connections it drew between the poet’s private life and work; and a decade later his The Wars We Took to Vietnam: Cultural Conflict and Storytelling examined the cultural influences that shaped—and continue to shape—our interpretations of the Vietnam War.
Like Bates’ book on the Vietnam War, The Bark River Chronicles is a cultural commentary of sorts. But this time the vehicle for the discussion is a canoe as Bates chronicles the trip he and his wife take down the Bark River, utilizing passing landmarks as launch pads for explorations of the surrounding environment and history alike. Chapter titles reflect discrete segments of the Bark—“Merton to Hartland,” “Cushman Road to Hebron”—and form nice geographic markers for his wide-ranging observations. In reality, this canoe trip is an amalgamation of many excursions the couple has taken over the past three decades. But it helps the narrative construct for the reader to consider their “journey” as a singular expedition.
In the first chapter on the shores of Bark Lake, Bates takes readers into a well researched history of nineteenth-century ice harvesting in Wisconsin and the country at large. An extended rumination on the “battle” on the Milwaukee River over ice rights—one ice company looking to harvest ice from the river and the other looking to prevent the harvest in retaliation for a land grab at a nearby lake—is a fine example of how in Bark River Chronicles Bates successfully illustrates the long-term effects of industry on our waterways.
Throughout the book, Bates deftly describes the landforms and points of natural interest while picking apart the tangle of commercial interests and legislative arrangements that have changed the surrounding communities in important—and often environmentally significant—ways. As Bates paddles downriver near Dousman, he brings the reader back in time to when native marshlands like the “great Scuppernong Marsh ... teemed with animal life” to the Swamp Land Acts of the mid-19th century that allowed—even encouraged—neighboring farms to “swallow them whole.”
Bates’ true tour de force, though, is his description the mills along the route. Here the full complexity of Bates, the environmentalist, emerges. He explains the environmental issues created by mills and the water-powered dams they required for operation, but he does not allow for easy answers. After reading about each mill along the Bark and its corresponding millpond, which some communities today use as recreational lakes, I found myself thinking that perhaps all dams should be removed and the river restored to its original course. But Bates gave me pause with his description of what happened to Green Isle Lake when the Department of Natural Resources took down the local dam:
Certainly it looked and smelled worse. Where a sheet of water had once mirrored the sky and clouds there was now a twenty-eight-acre expanse of smelly, boot-sucking mud. True, the Bark River was running free for the first time since 1836. It was convalescing as a watershed, and in its healthy state it may eventually reclaim the affection of Hebron residents. In the meantime, though, many feel loss rather than exhilaration—the loss not only of recreation and beauty, but also of their past.
It’s Bates’ deft treatment of the enormously complex environmental issues surrounding this seemingly insignificant waterway that allows The Bark River Chronicles to convey its message more effectively than so many books before it. In many ways, it’s a quiet cousin to An Inconvenient Truth and other projects that tackle environmental degradation on a global scale. There are no carbon dioxide charts or maps with ominous red blobs here. Rather, the river is the metaphor for the state of the environment in Wisconsin and the world. And while Bates makes no claim that a return to the past would be better, he suggests, in his subtle style, that the future might be.