By Bob von Sternberg
Bob von Sternberg was a reporter at the Star Tribune for 27 years, covering politics and other topics. He lives in Minneapolis.
PRESQUE ISLE, Wis. — Folks up here, the few who live here all year, are fond of calling it "Wisconsin's last wilderness." Which it is, mostly. But somewhat less than it used to be, just a few years ago.
It's not one of those classic, federally mandated wildernesses, with no human intrusions beyond footfalls or maybe canoes. It's no BWCA, but if you squint your eyes and open your ears it's pretty close. The land is dense with fragrant, towering trees that have obliterated the depredations of 19th century logging. It is dotted with pristine lakes. The only real difference between this area and real wilderness can be found in the tiny towns bisected by county roads and the cabins and resorts tucked into the forest.
Outdoors, the sounds are the same, too. Loons cackling and hooting at sunrise and dusk. Owls screeching out their territorial rights. The frogs' symphony, ebbing and flowing along with the changing nighttime temperatures. Sure, there's the growl of the occasional logging truck from a long way off, but you never doubt that you're deep in the north woods, comfortingly far from civilization.
But that's been changing the past few years, as this wired century has muscled its way into the wilderness. Gone are the days when the pay phone in the closest little hamlet served as the lifeline to the civilization you'd tried to leave behind, if only for a weekend, a week or a month.
The old sounds now are interrupted by the digital ones. Trilling and beeping cell phones, the expansive chord of laptops being fired up, the deedle-deedle-deedle and boops of the i-everythings doing their assigned tasks. Add to that the satellite TV rigs that have sprouted in so many cabin yards and atop roofs, allowing the interiors to glow with the cathode light of 100 channels.
It's an old lament: that it's impossible to break free from work, even in the middle of nowhere, because you're always linked in 24-7. But this is something new, I think. Sure, recreating in the old way still goes on in the water, in the woods or around a campfire. But becoming just as common is a scene I saw the other night: adults and kids huddled around the flat screen TV and a laptop, because multiple screens are "how most people recreate these days."
Then there were kids crying because they couldn't play games on a parent's iPad, and a 4-year-old spending naptime watching a video on an iPhone, while Dad was busy on a conference call.
Much is gained from all of this — information, entertainment, intellectual stimulation, the banishment of boredom — but I can't help but think that something's being lost, that the pixels are leeching away some part of reality. Or, to be pompous, a bit of our soul. Used to be, we'd head into the wilderness to reconnect with earth and sky, to find the self that work and the city and routine can rub so raw. But the keyboards and charging cords keep us anchored to that life and become an electronic mediator between us and the natural world. It's still out there, but all of this electronic detritus makes it harder to get there.
It's not just cheap nostalgia, or a value judgment. It's a question of priorities and a small lament for what we're losing. And although these are observations from a small corner of Wisconsin, I'd be surprised if this phenomenon isn't a lot more widespread.
Full disclosure: I'm writing this on a laptop late at night, missing a full moon and the Milky Way — and checking it with my editor on my cell phone. So, I'm a hypocrite, OK? But I don't have to like it.