Thursday, May 11, 2017

Shining Light on the Prairie, Spring 2017


Spring proved recalcitrant this year. Resolutely wet & chill, patience led to opportunity just the same. So though I'm late to this venue, it's been a particularly productive season.


With fresh consideration of my boyhood prairies, it's occurred to me the mission's not so different than working Fayette or Old World Wisconsin, which essentially are heritage architecture theme parks.

Pre-settlement (that's before white folk and their applied industry), grassland stretched across roughly 1.4 million square miles of North America. In some places grasses grew as high as ten feet, from fifteen feet of particularly fecund topsoil. All manner of life thrived there.

Widely considered wasteland fit only for heathen savages too ignorant to bend the land to their will, settlers called it The Great American Desert or The Inland Sea. They said sometimes even on a horse you couldn't see over the top of it, and so were lost. Then the plow broke the plains.


Today the American grasslands are recognized as having been a manifest natural miracle of ecological diversity, sprung from a riotous abundance of detritus. And such is life.


Less than 2% of that complex magnificence remains. Of my local tallgrass prairie featuring glacial moraines, oak savannas and shallow creeks meandering through marshland, still less. Everything else long ago went over to farms, towns, cities and the occasional gravel pit. If you think that sort of progress doesn't accrue debt to the land at a staggering rate, feel free to think again.


Anyway, tallgrass prairie remnants are essentially bio-preservationist theme parks. These precious shards of what was exist only because some small number of people decided they should, while an even more select group of folk dedicate their lives to seeing that they do. That others of us can visit, marvel and if so inclined learn from the land is but a happy bonus.



Yet unlike lifeless Fayette frozen in time with its ghosts, or conglomerate Old World Wisconsin and its curated collection of reassembled artifacts, even within such critically pinched boundaries, prairies teem with life as intended.



Last year, I'd trouble seeing the prairie. It'd been a long time since I'd considered the grasslands in anything other than the abstract. The tall grass can indeed dull and blind you, though no longer just as they said. But this second year afoot on the prairie, the scent and song of air over the grass again lends me the vision necessary to see. It's like being intimate with a one-time lover after decades apart. Inevitably, closely held secrets come to light.



Ordinarily, these next weeks on the calendar are when I chase trillium and smallmouth in the Northwoods. Spring's been no bargain there either. Given it's only ten days or so that the place got beat down by an ice storm, a late June visit following a wet week on the Kingston Plains looks better by the day. Even despite the likelihood of getting savaged by clouds of biting bugs and welcome to paradise, eh?

In the interim the prairie offered up marsh marigolds and trillium both, you just have to know where to look. Prior to the last few years I thought those the province of northern climes and have upon occasion in ignorance traveled long distances to pursue their charms.

So while I'm currently chasing spring largemouth on prairie lakes and not smallies in wilderness rivers, at least there's been a taste of what's sorely missed and that's like a gift sent down my way, from Superior…




Friday, March 10, 2017

Apocalypse, Then

Let us not speak softly now, the hour is getting late...
(Apologies to Bob Dylan)

Iron County, WI

Foreword


In a somewhat different context during definitely different times, Thomas Jefferson wrote: The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.

Strange, that when leaning on this quote to support whatever agenda, most every supposed patriot urging resistance to tyranny real, would-be or imagined omits the reference to manure.

Gogebic County, MI

Maybe since we've long consigned to history's dustbin the agrarian culture that informed Jefferson, the revolution he fostered and about half the later narrative of the nation he helped found, that line's presumed irrelevant. Simply another right and proper casualty of progress. Like video cassette tape, cursive script and labor unions.

More likely we just don't like thinking of ourselves as America's manure, preferring instead to believe we're its masters.

Delta County, MI

When people honor history, mostly they mean their heritage. The difference may seem academic, but isn't. In fact, like Jefferson's reference to manure, it's operative. And the mistake we make when confusing the two compounds by the day until the truth of who we've been and how we came to be lies buried beneath generations of nostalgia piled high upon self-serving invention. That renders our collective path forward not merely obscure, but necessarily fractious.

After all, when we refuse to accept the full breadth and width of how we got to here, how can we honestly acknowledge who we are in order to build agreement on what sort of people we should become?


What's true is that for myriad reasons – occasionally righteous and far too often not – untold numbers of patriots have refreshed Jefferson's tree of liberty with their blood. But homegrown tyrants, not so much.


Gogebic County, MI

We take such pride in the storied success of American-style capitalism that imagined as much or more than real success defines us. I say American-style because ours certainly isn't the capitalism of Adam Smith, who wrote the original book:

To feel much for others and little for ourselves; to restrain our selfishness and exercise our benevolent affections, constitute the perfection of human nature.

Nor is it the capitalism of John Maynard Keynes, who later rewrote the book for much of the rest of the more or less free world:

The social object of skilled investment should be to defeat the dark forces of ignorance which envelope our future.

Truth is there's scant happy consensus about anything when it comes to economic theory, not even among those who peddle what's basically the same delivered wisdom. That only figures, what with the sand upon which they stake their claim to social righteousness via political power being ever sifted by an omnipresent invisible hand.


Alger County, MI

Funny how that works, eh?

Damned convenient too, that no theorist no matter how exalted need ever get things finally right. In devoted pursuit of their own collective happiness, these worshipers at the altar of data must merely pass their articles of faith on to the next generation of True Believers to go right on mucking around with the lives of all, in perpetuity. No even semi-reasonable endgame to this tinkering with people's supposedly inalienable liberties need ever apply.

Imagine that. An Invisible Hand. Might as well call it God and give up.

So with the caveat that everything depends on who's doing the figuring and why...

Since 1785 we the People have suffered as many as nine economic Panics, five full blown depressions and thirty-four recessions. Including the most recent, now dubbed by some The Great Recession apparently to distinguish it in the historical ledger from our bewildering collection of run-o-the mill recessions. But not including the next recession some economists warn is already overdue.

Anyway, over pretty much the entire political/economic life of the country, it adds up to roughly one fresh economic catastrophe of varying duration and degree every 4.8 years. That recurrent suffering is typically borne not by politicians or their moneyed masters, but by them leaving the rest of us permanently indentured to the increasingly uncertain futures of our children and the nation they'll inherit.

The whole arrangement stinks of wolfish tyranny masked in sheep's tattered hope. A tyranny masked by perennially unfulfilled but always ostensibly patriotic promise. And if in fact true blue American tyranny, whose blood refreshes its corrupt and ever corruptive tree at the Republic's ongoing peril? Mostly regular folk. The long, long list of intermittently hallowed dead patriots included.

What's true is that in addition to multinational corporations, Internet facility, coffee on demand and everyone's metaphorical bootstraps, the result of your average American's faith in their nation's storied economic heritage all but inevitably ends up looking something like this:

Houghton County, MI

And why should anyone be surprised? It's called creative destruction, after all.

*

The history of the Superior Basin and in particular the Upper Peninsula of Michigan offers an object lesson in the Boom & Bust nature of American socioeconomic politics. An ongoing experiment that sustains the already powerful in a fashion to which they figure they're entitled, whatever the century. That same narrative also tends to leave workers and other common folk from whose labor wealth actually springs entirely on their own to bear the heritage of degraded landscapes, near perpetual poverty and ultimately, multigenerational despair.

From fur to timber, from ore to today's politics of fear, if there's one dominant theme that runs through the otherwise diverse material I've gathered over the years, that's it. So over the forthcoming months we'll periodically examine that aspect of the region's history, along with the peculiarly American heritage it so ably illustrates.

It's in me to do. And the time sure seems right to do it.

Because the clown's eyes are yet again ablaze with reflected red glory delivered via populist obsequience to American tyranny as enforced by it's ever ravenous hellhound, creative destruction unbound by an invisible hand...



Thursday, March 2, 2017

Calling All Artists, 2017

Friday March 31st is the deadline for creatives to submit their work to the 2017 Artists in Residence Program hosted by the Friends of the Porkies in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness of Upper Michigan.

If selected you'll spend up to three weeks in a great cabin, nestled just off a sparsely traveled trail cut through a quiet stretch of authentic, upper Midwestern wilderness.


And within spittin' distance of Lake Superior, the most magnificent body of freshwater left in the world.



The Friends are gracious hosts. My time there in October of 2012 was among the best two weeks of my life. I did some of the finest work of my life, while there. Everything in the film clip below labeled "Ontonagon County" was accomplished during my stay at Dan's Cabin.




I'm again promoting the program because I'm committed to do that every year, for so long as the Friends and I are both in business. Seems the least I can do. My residency changed my art. It changed me.

Imagine what a residency at Dan's Cabin might do for you, especially during these troubled and troubling times.

Here's where you'll be, who you'll meet and what to expect:






Then the friends and Dan's Cabin:



Finally, let's revisit Nonesuch, just down the road from where you'll stay, if selected.


I say be brave and go for it. The times call for no less.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Friday, December 23, 2016

A Christmas Story

A story of 20th Century America, first published in 2011 and now revised to accommodate a fresh perspective on the 21st...



It's said there’re only two seasons in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan: winter then a few days during July. And never bet the rent on July.

Flush with the enthusiasm of youth, to an aged local I once proclaimed my desire to live on the Range. With narrow grey eyes the old man drew a hard look down at the presumptuous kid and said, “Well…it's pretty nice up here. Winter’s kinda long, though.”

Undaunted by tall tales, Heather and I decided to see for ourselves. Christmas is for family but just this once we’d go off to the wilderness intent on creating a living gift of memory for just the two of us.

A friend of a friend rented cabins along the Montreal River, outside Ironwood. Arrangements were made.

Though decidedly rustic, nestled in the woods our cabin proved cozy and warm. With a Finnish sauna at our disposal and a waterfall on the river for added ambience, we'd be the only tenants for the duration and were game for winter adventure.


Our host provided snowshoes for use by guests. Temperatures headed lower as we set off downriver beside the Montreal, through skeletal trees over snow covered ground. Apart from the occasional deer track, we blazed trail. It'd already been a long day and after a while, Heather returned to the comfort of the cabin. I pressed forward alone, exhilarated.


In the forest, the blue half-light of winter leaves its mark on the soul. I hiked a fair piece until near dark and spent time upon a log, listening to the trickle of water over ice, the only sound in the world.


I returned to the cabin, path laid plain by the river through the woods, moonlight shining over all.

It was high time for a sauna, which sat maybe 100 feet across pure winter from the cabin. Inside, benches lined the room while tongue & groove cedar made for a tight seal. A metal basket filled with Lake Superior cobbles adjoined a fireplace, already well stoked by our host. A bucket sat next to a spigot. We poured water over hot rock to raise the temperature beyond steady reckoning, then indulged in the physical and spiritual cleansing of a proper Finnish sauna.

Tradition dictates a roll in the snow upon leaving the sauna. Sated with the heat, I left my shoes and clothes for Heather to carry and stepped naked out into a universe of ice beneath shimmering stars. Breath suspended in the frigid air, I hurled myself onto the snow and rolled over exactly once, just about the most deliriously bracing movement of my life.

I yelled, “Goodness gracious!!” (or words to that effect) and actually beat Heather back to the sanctuary of the cabin.

We bundled together to sit awhile, gazing at the wilderness outside our window. The next day was Christmas Eve. We slept like contented children, secure in the knowledge that whatever further gifts winter had in store for us, we’d be on the receiving end come morning.

*


Snow depth is inconsistent in the forest and travel proved easy. We found Bobcat Lake asleep beneath a blanket of white then pressed deeper through the Ottawa to a high vista over the woods and a creek that meanders through tamarack swamp.

The top of the ridge was covered with animal tracks and at its edge, snow was tamped to a bright sheen. From there a well worn slide ran all the way down the precipice, across the frozen creek below and ended in a black hole of open water in the ice. Thick waterproof fur covering layers of seasonal fat, a pair of otters amused themselves by climbing the long way up the hill, then sliding back down all the way to that hole in the ice.


As a kid, I'd been taught that 'play' was one of the signal things that separates humans from animals. What we don't know about animals is a lot. Hell, what we don't know about us is a lot. Lacking the otter’s fur coat and layers of winter fat if not their sense of play, we soon left them to their games atop that windblown ridge.

Our next stop was the mouth of the Presque Isle River at Lake Superior. County 519 was plowed clear but at the South Boundary Road all such industry ended. Unbroken snow on the road into the park proved that no one had recently preceded us. Icy crust scraped the undercarriage of our battered old Subaru as we made our way in to where the trail leads down to the falls.

All was ice and snow, a world frosted over in white. My beloved river ran high and roily. Most of it pushed angrily beneath a shifting, groaning ceiling of ice. Never had we seen treachery and beauty so freely interwoven. A dangerous river along its lower reaches, the Presque Isle that day invited disaster, as even the slightest misstep meant certain death followed by burial at sea.


We explored thoroughly, if ever careful of our step. The hour grew late. As we hiked back up to our car, a wicked cold wind increased its grip on the wild world. Light flurries turned to moderate snow.

No sooner did we make it out of the park and back onto the easy going of 519 than the car coughed and balked, some seventeen miles from the nearest phone and with winter bearing down hard. We were reasonably well prepared, the backseat piled high with winter clothes just in case. Though the car grew worse with every passing mile, we managed to limp all the way back to Ironwood. Where late in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, smack dab in the middle of the region’s only busy intersection, the old Subaru sputtered and died. No amount of coaxing made it start again.

We stood beside the car in the street, feckless and perplexed. The wind grew stronger still and the temperature plummeted. A State Trooper stopped traffic and helped get us out of harm’s way. He stayed with us while we tried to come up with a plan. Time was short, what with the region's slender services shutting down by the minute as people hurried home for their holiday.

Amidst a steady stream of last minute Christmas shoppers, Heather and I worked the pay phones in front of the local Kmart. A car dealer in Hurley stayed open late to provide a tow. A used car lot with the only rentals on the Range agreed to remain open until Heather secured the lone taxi that worked the area to get there. Strangers offered help and advice. Everyone bent over backwards to assure we’d be safe.

The mechanic said he’d never seen a carburetor so badly frozen. Somewhere along the way I’d purchased fuel with excessive moisture content and the brutal weather proved more than the car could withstand. Once thawed they’d fix it, though with the holiday falling on a weekend that wouldn’t be ‘til three days later and a full day after our cabin was spoken for by others.

Still, everyone agreed that had the car died just an hour before it did, there was no telling how or whether we’d have made it out of the woods alive.

Heather arrived at the mechanic's driving a well-used, mid-seventies land yacht; a lifeboat to us. We guided the beast back to our Christmas cabin. Here our host offered us the comfort of his mother’s home for the additional night, as she was away for the holiday.

We’d made reservations at a local ski lodge for Christmas dinner. Warm in the cabin and bathed in relief over a narrow escape, we made ready for our big date.

Outside, things continued to deteriorate.


In the woods it’s sometimes tough to tell just how bad the weather is. Full dark when we left the cabin, we’d traveled only a bit when we realized we were again adrift on the storm. This time in seventeen degrees below zero with a forty-five mile an hour wind hurling snow every which way through a world of howling fury.

Out on the highway, visibility proved nil. The red glow of brake lights flickering through a whiteout brought us to a halt. A four car pileup had the road completely closed. Emergency crews were at the scene. We sat and waited, land yacht rocking side to side in the wind, heater pumping to the max.

Discretion finally recognized as being the better part of valor, I doubled back and picked my way through side streets towards Hurley, hoping to find refuge on Christmas Eve.

There was a restaurant in Hurley called Walter’s Café, one of the periodic attempts to bring fine dining to the Range. Things being what they are it didn't last and that's a long time gone now. But on that night so many years past, the windows on Walter’s Café glittered festively and inside two winter weary travelers were served a Christmas feast for which Walter should forever be proud.

When we left the Café, a full moon hung in the sky south of Hurley, while just to the north roared the Beast. The Superior snow machine was on full bore. Beyond the woods the demarcation between comfort and risk stood plain in the night. We returned to our cabin and spent the last of Christmas Eve in front of a crackling fire, music of the season playing softly, a bit of fine wine and gifts exchanged between us. Outside, winter raged.


In the best tradition of the northwoods, no one is a stranger in time of need and all folk are neighbors, never more so than when thrown to the mercy of the wild. That year, two hapless tourists could hardly have been more grateful for gifts so freely given.

If the most precious gift of all is giving and Christmas is the special season set aside for that, then we were made rich that Christmas Eve.

*

Over the decades since then, America seems to have been made cruel. Never more so than today, when it's widely acceptable to mock tenderness for weakness, treat compassion as the province of fools and when so many of us embrace righteous meanness as if that could ever be a proper aspect the American character.

I believe different. I believe as I was first taught and as life went on to teach me, that if Americans are at all a special breed it's in no small part because as a nation of immigrants each of us or our kin have all, at one time or another, been strangers to this great land. And none of us would be here today but that each successive generation in turn received some sort of helping hand from those who came before.

What's true is that for America to actually be that shining city on a hill we so like to brag on, we must every day work collectively to create a lasting light that illuminates the miserable universe of human darkness.


Otherwise we'll all face winter alone and stuck on thin ice, at the mercy of the storm…




Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Water is Life

At the farthest reaches of Hunter's Point where Lake Superior meets Copper Harbor, the big lake runs into the harbor, then out, then back again – life in constant regenerative motion. You can see it. Sit quietly and you can hear it, especially during the transition, when the big lake reverses course. That throws a hush over the entire natural world and the absence of sound alerts every sense that a momentous event is upon you.

On the hardest rock edges between land and sea where humans simply can't survive, life thrives...



I stand with Standing Rock. We all do. Even those who don't know it.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Panning for Gold -- Year after Year

Ontonagon County MI, 2015

For most of my adult life I've enjoyed two autumns every year. The first in the Northwoods, then later on the prairie. That's a gift I've always appreciated. Never more so than this year, when it didn't happen.

I panned the October prairie for gold but it proved an unusual season. Uncommonly warm and wet, this year autumn on the grasslands slowly fell fallow brown.

On the other hand, we picked our last cucumber just prior to Thanksgiving, cut the final rosebuds after and our first really hard freeze is yet to arrive, so there's that. A trio of Dark-eyed Juncos down from the great northern forest has worked the stubble of our garden for the better part of three weeks. Most years, it's more like three days.

The world changes and it's only we who don't change with it.

Reviewing that slender stack of brown prairie images had me longing for better times spent in other places during richer years. That sent me back in my catalog to September of 2015, where I found a cache of uncollected work captured primarily on and around the Gogebic Range, about my favorite place in the world.

Rarely has the disparate character of the two landscapes seemed plainer to me, maybe because I didn't see them back to back as always and yearn for what I cannot have. At any rate, the contrast between these two places I call home – captured beneath similarly long light in the same (relative) season - is particularly stunning as this winter sets in. An awful lot's happened, in the course of that year.

What's called meteorological winter is now upon us. Though it promises to be long and cold, the countdown to solstice is set. Time counts and keeps counting. So before the world turns yet again, I thought to take a look back.

After all, that's what photography's for, right? To capture a moment of light and then hold to it as if suspended in amber for all time, or at least to the end of our days.

September, 2015

Keweenaw County, MI

Ontonagon County, MI

Iron County, WI

Iron County, WI

This next image is of a geologically significant place. Hidden in short woods just off Gile, WI. That's an actual split in the world:

Iron County, MI


October, 2016 McHenry County, IL


My boyhood creek runs through this prairie that rolls over rubble hills left by the last great glacier. Once a channelized, agricultural drainage ditch, it's since been restored to a natural meander by good people who care for the Earth. The overall benefits of that caring are rarely more evident than amidst these oak savanna islands once again afloat on a sea of grass…







Thursday, November 10, 2016

In Remembrance

First published on November 10th, 2011

Some years ago when I was sitting on the beach at Whitefish Point just north of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, a couple of old men ambled past and stood close together on the sand hard by the shore. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop but couldn’t help overhearing what passed between them, which was far more than mere words.

These men spent their lives as mariners on Superior. They spoke of the big lake as a woman, spoke of her with reverence, awe and regret. In old age these men still both loved and feared the lake. Even though the day was bright and calm, with the surface of Superior as placid and blue as ever it gets, their conversation turned mostly upon hard times spent trying to escape their love’s final embrace.

I recall those old men sometimes, when sitting beside Superior in her many moods. But I think of them always on November 10th, which was the date in 1975 when the Edmund Fitzgerald went down with all hands.


No one knows for certain why the Fitzgerald sank, though the question continues to be asked because that’s what we do -- we try to impose a sense of certainty upon an uncertain world. We do that so we might fool ourselves into believing that our constructs provide some final measure of control over a world utterly indifferent to human concern. That’s bald conceit. What’s true is that Lake Superior is big and men are small and sometimes we can’t survive its embrace no matter how mighty our lifeboat.

Superior serves as grave to untold thousands of human souls, from native peoples plucked out of canoes to Voyageurs caught between safe harbors, from pleasure seekers run afoul of sudden weather to seasoned crews serving aboard the mightiest ships men can construct. So please take a moment out of your busy day to remember those souls lost and to consider, however briefly, that no matter the might of human industry, it’s never greater than a speck of dust in the eye of a storm…


“If they’d put fifteen more miles behind her…”

Whitefish Bay, from a vintage 35mm transparency


Friday, November 4, 2016

I digress...


                                                                                    Credit: In Your Face Radio

An estimated 57.5% of eligible voters chose to exercise their franchise during the 2012 Presidential election. That means "some 93 million eligible citizens did not vote".

What's true is that fascism didn't rise in 1930's Germany because fascism was strong. Fascism is a coward's way, it's never strong. Fascism infected Germany then near laid waste to the world because a critical number of German people surrendered to fear, anger and resentment. That made their democracy weak.

Think on that, whether you intend this year to vote in anger or with a pox on both their houses shrug, don't plan to vote at all. Or worse, figure to waste your franchise to vote for a candidate that cannot win and thus serve the needs of your own moral vanity at the expense of your neighbors and country.

Think hard on 1930's Germany. It  echoes resurgent cross the American landscape these days, disguised as patriotism promising greatness and growing fat off terminal discontent. The stench of fear turns the air rancid. And with that, moral equivalence is made to seem like reason.



Think on these things then vote like your life, your liberty and the pursuit of your happiness depend on you simply showing up and choosing to do the right thing. Truth is, they do. They always do.

We've come too far to turn back. The time to sow the wretched ground of fear, exclusion and misogyny with salt so to purge those poisons from the greater American landscape e'en unto the last generation is now. The opportunity is at hand. History demands it. Woe be the world if we don't take it.

Get off your ass and vote, damn it.

And in the event you can't be bothered, at the very least never again dare let anyone hear you whine about the state of things in America.

Because you'll have surrendered the right, no matter how inalienable.