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Local View: The gift of freedom is what we savor on the Fourth of July

From the column: "Freedom for ourselves and those we love is a basic human need, something I felt in my gut after relocating to the north woods."

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070421.op.dnt.toon

Americans celebrate Independence Day because freedom is more important than food and water for making us feel alive. And the physical, sensual, and emotional meaning of freedom was never more poignantly dramatized than in the award-winning feature film, “Born Free.”

The movie is based on a true story of Joy Adamson (played by Virginia McKenna), wife of African game warden George Adamson (Bill Travers), who adopts an orphaned lion cub she names Elsa. As Elsa matures into a 300-pound adult, and the perils of keeping her become obvious, Adamson can’t bear the idea of her being caged in a zoo and resolves to return her to the wild.

The rest of the film chronicles the risks, difficulties, and seeming impossibility of teaching the lioness to survive on her own in the jungle. But perfect, selfless love enables Adamson, in a heartbreaking scene, to drive away from her beloved Elsa so that she might live out her days in pure freedom.

Freedom for ourselves and those we love is a basic human need, something I felt in my gut after relocating to the north woods. Our “Africa” was a million and a half acres of woods and waters in Wisconsin’s Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, and my family’s base camp was an 800-square-foot cabin we built on the shore of little Bluegill Lake.

No lions or elephants, but a paradise of forested ridges, valleys, and streams, dense with red and white pine, aspen and balsam, free of asphalt, fences, and other human constraints, and teeming with wildlife, including wolves, elk, and deer.

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A Chicago native, I was an alien in this environment. But the black Lab we adopted at 8 weeks was essentially a native who, on his first morning walk to the water’s edge, had his black puppy hair stand up like porcupine needles upon sniffing the fresh tracks of a black bear that had passed in the night. “Biff” had yet to see a mouse or even a rabbit in his young life, but ancient knowledge of the woods was carried in his DNA.

Thus, he became our guide in the wilds. Never knowing a leash, he was our Geiger counter for nature, alerting us to nearby wildlife or predators on the prowl. He saw, scented, or heard what we were incapable of perceiving, by whining, pointing, or leading us to the source, which even included the approach of distant thunderstorms whose static electricity he sensed in the atmosphere and telegraphed with his trembling.

Every daybreak, I went outside and unlocked the door where my daughter Jackie slept in the little guest “bunkhouse,” and Biff would spring out to lope alongside on my morning jog. Invariably, new smells sent him on side trips of exploration, giving short-lived chase to a deer and once treeing a bobcat. Another time it was a yearling bear. He almost always rejoined my circuitous route back home, except for the morning he was lured by a pack of coyotes. I feared he’d never return. But he was back in the afternoon, thirsty and muddy and chastised, wearily wagging his tail.

He so cherished his freedom that he required a bribe (Liva Snaps) to ride in the pick-up. Nor did he appreciate the confines of a boat from which he’d leap while I was fishing to visit the family of loons or pursue his own piscatorial quarry in Bluegill’s crystal-clear depths.

At summer’s end, when we returned to Illinois, Biff made it his mission to escape prison. A door left slightly ajar or our too-short (48 inches) chain-link fence sent him bolting for freedom. Phone calls from understanding dog people and an overnight search in the dark led to a taller fence, better security, and an uncomprehending but affectionately resigned dog, who settled for burning his excess energy on the snow-covered bike path with my son Mike, practicing for the cross-country team. There were also long walks with Jackie and Janet, when he was excited though unrequited by the scent of raccoon, skunk, or rabbit from the nearby golf course.

He adapted to domesticity, sneaking onto our couch at night, hopping down before I came out in the morning, incriminating shiny black hairs left behind.

But the following summer, and each one thereafter for the next nine years, my family relished the return to the wild as much or more so than Biff, exhilarating in his freedom as if it were our own.

On his last side trip, not of his choosing, I held him in my arms while recalling for his vet a memorable walk with Janet and me the previous April through melting snow along the Chippewa River. He had plunged into the rushing water and swam to the other side, keeping us in his sights as we explored opposite banks. When I whistled time to go, he raised his head, paused, and galloped 80 yards upstream before leaping back into the icy Chippewa, paddling and riding the current to emerge precisely where we stood.

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Many years later, a feeling of longing and love for our “Elsa,” and for the gift of freedom, is what we savor and remember on the Fourth of July.

David McGrath is a former Hayward resident, an emeritus English professor at the College of DuPage in Illinois, the author of "South Siders," and a frequent contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page. He can be reached at profmcgrath2004@yahoo.com.

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David McGrath

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