Author: Julie Melton
Lost Lake is living evidence of the last glacier in southern Wisconsin. As the glacier melted, huge chunks of ice were separated from the receding edge. Rivers of melt water gushed around it depositing 30 foot deep layers of silt, rock, and gravel. Lost Lake was born when the ice melted leaving a depression in the landscape. Ground water, rain, and snow fed it.
After the glaciers receded, life returned, eventually greening the landscape. Ancestors of the Ho-Chunk who lived throughout this area were attracted to the lake. This space was so sacred to them that they built several mounds here. Some of the mounds honored their family members who passed from this life. Others honored water spirit life. The Ho-Chunk were the first stewards of Lost Lake.
After treaties with the Ho-Chunk forced their removal from the land they called DeJope, speculators purchased it from the US government. In the 1850s, John Kennedy, a recent immigrant from Ireland, bought several sections of land in the town of Westport, including Lost Lake. The Kennedy family stewarded the lake as farmers.
In 1953, three Sisters of Benedict from Sioux City Iowa were called to Madison to establish a school for girls. They were expected to buy land for the school and build it. They didn’t like the land shown to them. Instead they followed a suggestion to look at some land owned by two local dentists, brothers named Kennedy. Following a gravel road around the lake, they saw some land with a beautiful view. So they buried a St. Benedict medal here and went to find the owners. They bought forty acres that included Lost Lake. The land was sacred to them. They began to steward the land.
In the 1990s, the community of Sisters, co-workers, fellow worshippers, and people concerned about the health of Lake Mendota watershed determined that the lake was in peril. For years, run-off from the upland farms and a drainage ditch serving the Bishop’s Bay development filled the lake with silt and debris. Run-off from the woods north of the property ran through the woods covering the ground with soil and debris each spring. Something had to be done.
A call to restore Lost Lake to its original size was included in the 1995 Master Plan for stewardship of Monastery grounds. There was a thorough study of the lake to determine its original boundaries. A huge dredging project done during the winters from 1997 to 1999, produced 87,000 cubic yards of silt. All that accumulation was deposited on the uplands.
Today, ongoing stewardship of Lost Lake reflects the mission of the Benedictine Women of Madison to care for the earth. When you walk around Lost Lake, you see the results of decades of loving care. It is a place of serenity, inviting contemplation. Birds flock to the lake. Migratory waterfowl and songbirds delight our eyes and ears. Foxes run across the ice. Muskrats feed and create habitat for other species. The lake is filled with life-supporting macro organisms that feed frogs and insects. All is in balance.
The balance is not assured to last. As land stewards we are called to do our part to maintain it. What could go wrong? Climate change can make the water too warm to support a diversity of life. Invasive species could overrun natives. Run-off from super rain storms can again wash soil and chemicals into the lake. Just as we have successfully worked to restore prairies, savannas and woods, we have to focus future projects on restoring Lost Lake. Development north of the lake will affect the wetlands and the lake itself. Efforts are being considered to create a buffer between upland development and the lake. This will be very expensive, but the cost of doing nothing may be even higher. We need to ask what we can do to preserve this sacred piece of land under our watchful stewardship.
This is a wonderful story, an echo that calls to us from long ago to the present moment.
Thank you Bobbie Joy. The echo is one to contemplate.