Thursday, August 24, 2017

Hidden Places, Summer 2017

Bayfield County, WI

Well, Cornucopia's not hidden and neither is the big-assed lake it hugs. Let's call those far reaches. And being summer I'd say the livin' was easy, as mostly it was. But the lively mosquitoes one morning at Bobcat Lake give me pause, even in contented retrospect.

I'd been gone from the Northwoods a month short of two years. Maybe the longest stretch since before my putative majority. Hard to say. That's a lot of life and things grow long. Heather was absent the Big Lake longer still. In other words and all things considered, too damn long.

Summer around Superior is a season of not always getting what I want, except when I let it, what's needed tends to find me. This year the lake stayed cold. Swam anyway.


Bayfield County, WI

Men went to sea in that. The boat and the men who on it daily risked their lives to fish share a rich and stormy story. Every time I look at it and even given being all worn out I think, We need a bigger boat. Small boat for such a big lake. Insubstantial even, what with the plywood and such playing bulwark against an angry sea.

Yet the boats went out. The men fished. As from Cornucopia they do still today.

Bayfield County, WI

You'll notice the boat's not so different. A squat, hardy vessel. Vulnerable looking with the back doors open wide as they must be, to run nets. Updated with an array of no doubt really handy gizmos and maybe better powered. To me a mighty small boat just the same, when out questing on cold, deep Superior and getting slapped hard for the effort. Then as now.

So if trolling the Bayfield Peninsula this coming harvest time, swing out Cornucopia way to consider the wrecks and the ships and the men. Then buy fish at Halverson's, no question where those come from.


Bayfield County, WI

Downstream of that (or upstream going in), do yourself the favor and take a brief walk through high quality woods to visit the Houghton Falls Preserve. This run of intermittent creek cuts through crazily precipitous rock so collected snow melt or rainwater can run as needed to the inland sea. Previously a hidden place, now given tender loving care and made convenient for casual visitors to boot. But should you think the little trickle down there's not so much, that logjam at the center speaks to fury and make no mistake.


Summer in the Northwoods is resolutely green. Some folk like it. Tourists mostly, though I happily defer to those who prefer the warm comfy season no matter where. For my money summer's high sun does neither the work nor the fishing any favors. And it's still all stinkin' green.

This is my favorite backwoods meadow. I've shot this meadow on and off for maybe 40 years and it remains a mystery to me. Between blinding deluges, the light was soft. The meadow's glorious in full flower. Maybe I've never seen it so rich, even with the years. The sublime, rolling architecture of the place is intact.

Gogebic County, MI

But I don't smell it. Can't hear it, not the insects or the wind or the profound quiet that often comes over the place. As much as anything, that brings me back. Guess I'll just have to try again.

Finally, not so long past the height of summer I found the harbinger of change that's always present in the Northwoods, no matter the season. Only winter ever gets seriously locked in and that not so regular or lengthy as used to be. Everything else flows quickly one to the other and sometimes due to the latitude and the embrace of Superior, verdant summer runs quicker still. Or seems to.

You just never know what you'll find around beaver ponds. Sometimes it's a whole other season. With apologies to my friends who live there, can't hardly wait…

Gogebic County, MI

Friday, August 4, 2017

Patrick O'Neill January 17, 1937 – July 31st, 2017

Pat O'Neill is dead. With that, a fierce voice for the Northwoods and stalwart champion of its young folk has passed. The poet Patrick O'Neill wrote:

Death is life.
It's why we're all here,
because of the dead.
Our homes, our clothing, our food, our compositions
are donated bodies of the once living -- gifts.
The dead are our primary caregivers.

But does a writer ever really die, so long as their words can be found? At any rate, I know some writers who hope not.

After a lengthy, productive life, poet and teacher Patrick O'Neill is gone. The Northwoods are the poorer for it. Pat didn't want any fuss. Far as I know, there won't be an obituary. I'm told there'll be a gathering tomorrow night at Nora's in Hurley, you'd best call before showing up. I'm far away from the Range, where news neither travels particularly fast nor necessarily remains sound over distance. Things change.

Should you care to read what I've written of Pat, go here. Should you like to honor him for a life well lived, go here and order one or more of his books. I have to believe arrangements are made so the sale of those will continue his good work for the youth of the region. More even than his poetry, that work speaks for Pat and will, for generations.

Patrick O'Neill spoke for himself, for the Northwoods and its many children about as fiercely and well as any man I've met. So he gets the last word here.

Save Godspeed, old man

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Summer Solstice 2017, Addendum

Shining Light on the Prairie...

This year's solstice was splendid 'round these parts. A near perfect summer day, not too warm and with a breeze from the northeast, whispering down the length of our local great lake. Unlike any other season, this time of year that wind's a blessing.

Given such opportunity on the longest day of the year, Heather and I spent quality time out & about.

While it's true winter's coming and make no mistake, here's the thing about summer, whether in the Northwoods or on the prairie:

Everybody eats.

And if you can't quite find that in the last image, you'll just have to trust me…

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Solstice 2017 -- 11:24 PM, CDT

Yeah, I jumped the gun a bit. Long day, tomorrow. Starts early, stays late…

Marquette County, MI

Not everyone celebrates summer solstice by dancing naked 'round the fire, metaphorical fire or no.

Typically, I don't do much field work during summer. The light is harsh, the woods obscured by life unbound and the universe around goes resolutely green. How many shades of green does it take, before everything becomes an emerald wash?

And it's all an illusion, anyway. An excuse to dance naked around the fire for to revel in Earth's priceless, live-sustaining bounty. Long may it last.

The truth is the world has turned. As of now the countdown to the shortest day of winter is on. It's inexorable. In recognition of that, to some northern folk summer solstice is an unwelcome reminder of hard, dark days to come.

You mightn't share their attitude, but they're not wrong.

For my friends along the Superior Basin who understand that and who mark the solstice each in their own way, I dug through my back catalog for images of soft summer to commemorate the day. Winter's coming all right (or so I've heard), but this magnificent, god's honest comfort comes first.

So for now, party on.

Captured on film along the shore of Superior, mostly during magic hours when summer's light is long, the cool of the morning is warm upon the skin and the evening chill provides welcome respite from the day:

Keweenaw County, MI

Ontario, Canada

Keweenaw County, MI

Ontario, Canada

Gogebic County, MI

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


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…