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When I think about freedom, I remember a lion named Elsa and a black lab named Biff

Americans celebrate the Fourth of July because freedom is more important than food and water. It is what makes us feel alive.

David McGrath’s cabin on Bluegill Lake in the North Woods of Wisconsin.
David McGrath

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 1966 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 that 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 her beloved Elsa so that she might live out her days in pure freedom.

Craving freedom for ourselves and those we love is a basic human need, something I felt in my gut after relocating to the North Woods.

My family’s “Africa” was a million and a half acres of woods and waters in Wisconsin’s Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, and our 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.

A Chicagoan, I was an alien in this environment. But the black labrador retriever we adopted at eight weeks was essentially a native, On his first morning walk to the water’s edge, his black puppy hair stood up like porcupine needles upon sniffing fresh tracks of 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, a yearling bear. He almost always rejoined my circuitous route back home, except for the morning he was lured by a pack of coyotes, when 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, and our too short (48 inches) chain link fence, and he bolted 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. He settled for burning his excess energy on the snow-covered bike path with my son Mike practicing for the cross-country team; and 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. How 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.

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 emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage and author of the essay collection “South Siders.”

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