Years ago, my wife and I built a new house on a big bluff overlooking a Wisconsin River flowage (Lake Wisconsin). We had unobstructed views of the water, the deer, and the wild turkeys. Over time, the residential lots on top of the hill and on the hillside filled in with big houses and little houses. A structure resembling a double wide lay in the path of our view of the lake.
I remember complaining to Professor Tom Heberlein, a casual acquaintance, about losing my view. He looked up at me, peering over his professorial glasses, and said, “Ahh, you have last settler’s syndrome.” Heberlein taught rural sociology at the University of Wisconsin and lived part-time in Lodi and part-time in Sweden. So I didn’t feel stupid when I asked him what he was talking about.
“Last settler syndrome is where each new settler wants the area to remain the way it was when you first get there,” Heberlein explained with a wry smile. After that sunk in, I remember feeling a little bit ashamed. Heberlein lived in an old existing farmhouse that didn’t require new development adding to road congestion, hillside erosion or new infrastructure. In putting up a new house, I contributed to the degradation of the natural beauty that attracted me to the area. A decade after that conversation and continued development, we didn’t want to live there anymore.
Eventually, we moved away to an older home set back in the woods with far-away neighbors. We have views of marsh and woods. If I want to pee outside, there are safe places to do so. Strangely, ever since I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, that is one of the symbols of personal freedom that remains with me.
Yesterday, I hiked in the Pheasant Branch Conservancy in Middleton, Wisconsin. The first part of the hike brought my blood pressure and stress down to acceptable levels. I saw flocks of sandhill cranes, migrating geese and ducks. The boundary trail wound up a hillside prairie that was capped with strong, thick oaks.
From the top of the hill, I could see Lake Mendota and the faint outline of the state capitol. Sitting on the bench that appears in the center photo above, a peace washed over me. Then I turned around and continued. The trail took me within a stone’s throw of houses in a subdivision. Some of the houses were new and had changed the landscape recently.
My intention is not to be critical of people choosing these homes. Obviously, they love nature to choose such a spot. The owner of the home with the swimming pool even maintains a private path to use the conservancy trail. The conservancy is a wonderful place for the subdivision dwellers to get away from the stress of urban life. However, it occurred to me as I hiked that I want to visit more remote places during the next phase of my life. And it’s important for me to do so while adhering as much as possible to the “leave no trace” ethic.