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Between engagements (12/05/2004)
By Janet Lewis Burns

"Once he carried a gun through the forests and was thrilled." "Once he cast a lure and shouted when the fish struck." "If he lifts his weary eyes, it is only to make sure he has not strayed from the trail." "His mind is wintry with despair and he never hears the old dog until the gray muzzle nudges his knee." -Mel Ellis, from "The Land, Always The Land"

In-between summer's heady balm and winter's crackling ice isn't usually as mild as this year's "Indian Summer" was. My muse twists with weather, as it turns from one season to another. My poetry's brief hatching, and frenzied rush to try new wings, barely lifts from the paper-thin launching pad. I have deserted poetry's cadence to other versifiers.

Attitude sets the stage as a body sets out for a ride in the countryside on an overcast, late fall afternoon. Temperatures unusually warm usher a sightseer along gravel roads and between hillocks, still frost-resilient. It was one of those unproductive days when a sour disposition leans to gray clouds (with no silver linings).

Into moody blues, a Willie Nelson CD weeping "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain" spins with an unreeling landscape, distorted with dry, brown foliage, crop fields deserted to rubble, and unsightly limp weeds, stripped of their summer frocks. One could call it desolation, a drab, unappealing death.

On another day, the same paths traveled, Willie peps up with "If you've got the money, honey, I've got the time." Cattails burst beyond their season, waving with cotton-clad hands. My forehead has left the ache of frowning back at the office. Pampas grass sweeps crisp air with its golden russet attire...good death.

We have a choice - to seek out the beautiful or to wallow in the dismal. For the many moods of mankind, a writer's poem or essay, a pouring forth from the gut, may either be held in the mind, an emotional prisoner, or unleashed and shared with joy.

I wish that Mel were still among us. I would very much like to thank him for sharing his insightful stories, for his remarkable knowledge of the Midwest's natural world, and mainly because he was candid enough to speak through personal moments.

At the age of 65, the author of eighteen books, and a Milwaukee Journal columnist completed his masterpiece "The Land, Always The Land," illustrated by his daughter Suzanne. Sadly, it would not be published for two decades, after his passing.

A former WWII airman, who flew bombing runs, Mel Ellis and his wife created a wildlife haven for their children, grandchildren, and an adoring public. The couple developed fifteen acres in southeastern Wisconsin at "Little Lakes," near Big Bend.

Mel knew every tree, rock, creature, species of fauna and flora, and all spider webs at any given time, as he indulged in the invigorating natural world surrounding him, and led his offspring to respect and to love the out-of-doors, sharing his "watching places."

"The Land, Always The Land" is Ellis' month-by-month account of observations in nature's territory. He, ever the optimist, did have reasonable blue moments. When I feel low and pick up his journal, it always grounds and rejuvenates me.

In his book's prologue, Mel writes, "So why do I love the land? Because for every vice, ten thousand virtues; for every deceit, all the truths; 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." Mel's growing old wasn't sad really, his final engagement being a peaceful return to the unchangeable land he had been so in awe of.

Listening to Willie's latest CD as I write, the album title, "It Will Always Be" reminds one that "what will always be" is beyond human control. "On the road again," admiring a new landscape, it's not about Willie; it's not about me...

...it's "The Land, Always The Land!" Every engagement a standing ovation. 


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