Observing instead of seeing
By Darren Bush
It’s easy to see things. Light strikes an object, bounces off and passes through the lens of the eye, hits the retina, and then your brain creates an image from the neurotransmitter soup. Observation is a whole other level. Observation requires a lot more than seeing, it requires in-depth processing.
A few years ago as a thought experiment, I decided to paddle the entire Lower Wisconsin River and take notes as well as pictures, to really look hard at what was around me, and write about every mile.
This might be considered a challenge. The Lower Wisconsin can look pretty monolithic to a person just seeing. To a person observing, there are all sorts of features that present themselves.
It was a successful experiment. I have notes for about thirty one-mile stretches, but I’ve only written about half a dozen of them. One of them is about Mile 65, a.k.a. Boydtown.
As Marrieta township ends and Wauzeka township begins, you’ll find the small unincorporated community of Boydtown, so named by the Boyd family who settled this place in the 1850s. Boydtown is aptly placed at the mouth of Boydtown Hollow, through which runs Boydtown Hollow Road.
On a hillock overlooking the River is the Boydtown Cemetery, as pleasant a place any could desire for their last lot of permanent real estate. There are dozens of headstones dating from 1853 to 1979, and one might imagine a gravedigger in 1900 pausing to cool off in the breeze, admiring the view upstream.
I have counted over a dozen small cemeteries along the Lower Wisconsin. Walking among the headstones and remnants of headstones is one of my favorite pastimes, teasing as much history as I can from the names and dates. Numerous dates correspond to the influenza epidemic that swept through southwest Wisconsin in 1918. There’s George Wayne, died 1852, the first child born in Boydtown. There’s Inez Davis, died 1906, aged 25 years, 7 months and 7 days. Buried with her is “infant,” died 1906, age one day.
While visiting Boydtown I came across a cluster of Bush names that were unexpected in this place. Normally Wisconsin cemeteries are full of Norweigan and German surnames, but even in the English/Welsh southwest, it’s startling to see your own name splashed across a century-old piece of granite. My ancestors came from England and Wales about the same time these Bushes were settling in Boydtown, and they are, as far as I can tell, no direct relation, but it does make me wonder if we’re somehow cousins. I pulled a few weeds from one of the larger stones just in case.
Wonderful names grace these stones, anachronisms today but still poetic and lovely to the ear. Althea Ioline Titus Ward. Ebenezer L. Keilley. Gilbert G. Buckmaster. Every name belongs to a person, and on a contemplative summer afternoon, one begins to think about their lives. While history books are riddled with minutiae about what they ate for supper and their favorite after-dinner potables, most of the stories of these people are lost forever. A skilled genealogist might find when they were born, christened, went to school, married, worked, bought a piece of land or two and died, but other than that, it’s pretty slim pickings. It’s frustrating – there are obviously stories in every structure, even stories in places where a structure obviously belongs and is conspicuously absent. Walking around you get the feeling that personal histories lie just under the surface of every tree, building and rock. You might find a diary or short history at the State Historical Society, but the vast majority of the history of this place is lost forever.
All this mystery makes me want to write down my history so that my great-grandchildren will know their great-grampa, a normal sort of non-famous person, and how he spent his time. Will my progenitors, a hundred years from now, have any idea about my history? That’s pretty much up to me, I suppose.
Today, Boydtown is not so much a community as a group of houses. I counted half a dozen structures, only three of which were inhabited and the rest abandoned to the elements. One wonders about the fickle comings and goings of cities and towns, why they built there and then a few decades later pulled up stakes and moved on. A lot of it had to do with the railroad, I suspect. In the late 1890s, the railroad to Madison was built on the south banks of the Wisconsin, leaving the settlements on the north bank to languish and fall into obscurity. Indeed, today there are only a handful of towns of significant size on the north bank.
Stopping at Boydtown was fun, if only to discover a few distant cousins and to contemplate the passage of time. It gives a guy something to think about while he’s paddling the next stretch of the River (Mile 66) on a hot, August day.
I’ll keep observing, using Rite in the Rain notebooks and a No. 2 Ticonderoga sharpened with a pocket knife. I have sixty or so more miles to observe, and I look forward to the chance to fill a few more notebooks. This process of observing instead of seeing has made my river even more mine. Even if you don’t intend to write about it, trying observing. Take notes, if only for your own satisfaction.