I pulled off County Highway E and entered the driveway leading to Paul Gilk’s log house, located in the township of Harding in Lincoln County, Wisconsin. I dropped my pickup into 4-wheel drive to ease through the pines and hemlocks on a fresh layer of snow that filled the two-track path. I passed an older tumbledown shack that had served as his original dwelling, a cabin Paul described as poorly built at best.
Beyond the old shack and through a drop-off and another bend the drive rises to his log house. It was moved in 1990 from an abandoned meadow near U.S. Highway 51, between Merrill and Tomahawk, Wisconsin.
It was my second visit to Paul’s log house. I felt right at home as I entered the enclave warmed by heat radiating from a woodstove. The interior walls are lined with books from floor to ceiling. A current copy of New Yorker Magazine sits atop a nearby end-table along with a notepad full of jottings. I was visiting Paul under the pretense of an interview, but it was more of a meeting of two friends. When I decided to begin writing several years ago my circle of friends broadened; that’s how I met Paul.
Except for a nine-year stint living in St. Louis, Paul has lived off the grid most of his adult life. Toward the end of that period, in 1976, he said he began to miss rural life tremendously. He says he began spending time in the St. Louis Zoo. He was particularly fond of the elephants. He realized it was the smell that brought his mind back to the dairy barn of his upbringing.
It was also during this time Paul began questioning why small farms are dying. It wasn’t just the decline of small farms that concerned him. The disappearance of rural culture was at the core of his concern. When he moved back to Wisconsin he began searching for answers to his question.
It wasn’t something mainstream social-science scholars were particularly concerned with at the time. So Paul turned to philosophical works by people like Wendell Berry, who had written “The Unsettling of America,” and Lewis Mumford, who wrote “The Myth of the Machine.” It was through his study of works like those that Paul gained an historical perspective about the nature of the disappearance of small farms and rural culture.
The small farm and its culture have not completely disappeared from the rural landscape, of course, but they are becoming increasingly rare. Take a drive through any farming region to see the remnants of a different era as old dairy barns, silos and granaries give way to the ground they were built on. Those structures are being replaced by modern pole barns and bunker silos that accommodate ever-larger numbers of cattle and equipment.
To many it’s simply a sign of the times and progress. To Paul it’s a phenomenon worth studying and understanding from an historical perspective that goes back to the Roman Empire. The result has been several books that Paul has authored along the way. His most recent book, “Picking Fights with the Gods,” is dedicated to a group of people who, Paul states, “are doing the most for the revival and renewal of rural culture.” Those folks happen to be direct-market farmers. They produce animal and vegetable products from small acreages to sell directly to consumers. That model of farm production is becoming more popular in our country and represents an historical link to agriculture of the past.
Because it’s rare to come across someone who has chosen a lifestyle unfettered by the excesses of modern technology, one might question the relevance of Paul’s ideas and writings. But living a life of relative solitude has not turned Paul into a hermit. He was town supervisor for Harding Township in the past and is currently a supervisor on the Lincoln County Board. He holds a seat on the Merrill Library Board and is partially responsible for the installation of solar panels on the library building. He’s also on the board of trustees for Pine Crest Nursing Home in Merrill. In addition Paul is a self-taught guitar player, versed in traditional European folk music. He also happens to be a fine baker who produces artisan-style bread with his wood-fired stove.
Paul Gilk is an example of a relatively unknown gem tucked away in the quiet woods of northern Wisconsin. I often wonder about the stories linked to the tumble-down barns I see as I drive through rural Wisconsin, or the lone mailbox at the end of a winding driveway that disappears into what seems like no-man’s land. In this case I’m happy to know the story of Paul Gilk, and equally fortunate to have learned from his provocative philosophies.
In total Paul has written eight books. Perhaps a good place to start, if one were to read his works, would be the biographical account of Paul’s father, Henry. The two slim biographical volumes are written in the voice of his father. They tell about Henry’s life from his childhood in North Dakota to his arrival in Wisconsin, where he carved out his living in the woods of Lincoln County. Those books – “Get Poor Now,” “Avoid the Rush” and “A Windfall Homestead” – are lightly fictionalized and authored under the pseudonym Seedy Buckberry. It’s plain to see that Henry made a deep impact on Paul. These and Paul’s other books authored under his own name are available through Wipf & Stock Publishers of Eugene, Oregon. Visit wipfandstock.com for more information.
Greg and Wendy Galbraith have since 1989 owned a 229-acre grass-based dairy farm in eastern Marathon County, Wisconsin, near the dells of the Eau Claire River. They milk 100 cows and seasonally calve their dairy herd every spring. Their son, David Galbraith, has completed the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship program and is transitioning into ownership of the farm. Visit www.poeticfarmer.com for more information.