Friday, April 4, 2014

The Presque Isle River, Part 1

Derived from the French presqu'île, Presque Isle means 'almost an island'. For me, that name's proven to be rich with more than merely geological meaning.

Rising from near the Wisconsin/Michigan border, the Presque Isle River slips generally northwest. It defines a rich swath of Ottawa National Forest with a mostly gentle meander as it goes, picking up voice from the chorus of creeks and streams that populate the woods. There it becomes a signifier for my ancestral home.

As the forest rises to meet the Porcupine Mountains, the Presque Isle quickens.

Near the designated wilderness of the Porkies, the river cascades through a rock canyon some call the Presque Isle Gorge, though that name doesn't appear on my Gazetteer. There it reads simply, "Rapids", and I bet that's true.

Through the Porkies the Presque Isle mostly rushes down slope in a determined blur, dark water foaming on hard rock between steepening slopes, singing an increasingly urgent song.

Until right at the end where my river earns it's name by forking a quicksilver tongue then disappearing with a roil into Superior.

I’ve fished at or just up from the mouth of the Presque Isle River into Superior for a long time. 40 years, I figure. That’s fair time gone. And the place whipped my ass for maybe half that, but I've been an ardent suitor.

Then this stretch of water and I seemed somehow to reach a rough accommodation. I’ve no need to beat the Presque Isle and would prefer it not beat me. And as an old married man, I know a sign of lasting love when I see it...

Though the signage is specifically for vacationers, it offers a word to the wise just the same.

What's true is that the careless are occasionally carried down from the falls and sacrificed by the river to icy Superior, where sometimes one’s mortal remains remain forever lost. I’d be of mixed mind, as to that.

Yet this glistening ribbon that rises from lowland to inform a great forest before cutting a tumble at the end is my river. It's song runs through me, even as it does the great, wild forest.

And the Presque Isle's terminus at Superior, where hard rock does indeed become almost an island because the river's cleaved it in two, that place is my anchor in this wilderness...

A Friend Indeed

Almost always, it'd be a Friday in mid to late September.

Johnny, Heather & I'd end our respective work weeks, head to our respective homes and pack. Some hours later I'd make the rounds to pick them up. We stuffed the car to bursting along the way.

Then late at night or even later, with little sleep or none at all, we'd hit the road and drive on through. Which was often an adventure in and of itself. Like the time the little arrow read "E" and we spent precious predawn hours fretting at the outskirts of sizable Fond du Lac WI, waiting for the only gas station to open. If you're reading this and younger than 35, just try to imagine that.

Thing was, we'd no time to lose.

Vacation in the Northwoods meant we'd soon be loose in Wonderland. The first of so few, brief days at liberty had to count for more than just driving. If we pushed through the night we'd secure provisions at least for the weekend and set up camp in time to do something.

It was important.


Heather & I arrived in front of Johnny's house long about 11:00 pm, my big black Oldsmobile '88 already well packed. A pile of Johnny's gear lay out on the walkway, the known quantity of which had space barely preserved for it in the car.

We carried lots of stuff.

A man approached from down the street, military gait undisguised by pseudo-civilian ease.

"Artie!" Johnny greeted the fellow with open arms.

Artie was just in on leave from the Marines. He'd come over to see what his best boyhood friend Johnny was up to on a Friday night.

Geez Artie, we're all set to leave for a week... I wish... Hey, do 'ya think?... I dunno... only a week... What else 'ya got to do? ...of course there's room... It's freakin' awesome up there...

O.K. What the Hell.

I don't remember how we managed. At any rate we didn't lash Artie to the roof and there'd be room for him in Johnny's tent. As a Marine, Artie'd been unburdened of most personal stuff. What little was left he'd been well taught to keep tight. We were good to go.

So off we went, spirits high and set firmly on adventure. For the first and only time, our little trio of northwoods explorers added a fourth.


In the short afternoon of a late September day, we arrived at the Presque Isle unit of the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness. The place was mostly empty and we secured our two favorite campsites overlooking Superior.

We ought to have set up camp but like restive kids excitement overrode our judgment and instead of chores we headed down to the river to see what could be seen.

You can't see my river from the trail leading down to it. You have to commit, though over the years I've learned to anticipate the state of things by what I hear from her on high.

On this day in September, the Presque Isle's voice was full.

So was the parking lot and with Michigan plates too, a good sign for the fishing. Locals don't much waste time where fish aren't but like to take full on advantage of where they are.

Down the stairs we tumbled, clumsy with anticipation.

Jammed shoulder to shoulder, fishermen lined every reasonably safe spot along both sides of the heavy river. On the suspension bridge we stood agape as dozens of Coho salmon were hooked, disgorged and rudely tossed to the rocks behind, with fresh lines quickly laid out then all but instantly hooking another silvery fish. Behind every fisherman there flopped a pile of not quite yet dead salmon.

We'd never seen the like and stood, transfixed.

Then we shook ourselves and ran the steep steps up from the river two at a time, a thing I can no longer do regardless of circumstance.

We threw gear from the car to build the essentials of a camp. Day slipped towards dark while we made ready. Which was why we carried Mr.Coleman's portable sun to begin with, to blast the night.

Flush with anticipation, at dusk we headed back to the river.

The parking lot stood empty, as did the riverbank below. That left all the choice spots for us. We clambered down a narrow trail to a smooth rock ledge along furious water. We fired the Coleman, rigged our gear and commenced to fish.

We rode astride the world, as intended.

Johnny stood upriver to my left, nearest the falls. Heather came next, then me. Artie ended up downriver, submerged in near total darkness. So full was the river, you couldn't hear much of anything beyond its song. Turbulent air over the water ate the light from the portable sun and we threw our lines into fathomless blackness, hoping for the best.

Above the white rush of the falls, an existential alarm sounded.

Out of the night Heather ran right along the cruel edge of slick stone and wild water, yelling for all she was worth, arms waving wildly. I'd have scolded such dangerous abandon, but something worse caught my eye.

Johnny was in the river.

Were it not for flailing hands clawing at black slate I'd probably never have seen him. His head was roughly even with the ledge, thrown back in terror to keep from drowning then and there.

The current flung him to me. I stretched out my fishing pole. Johnny grabbed it and maybe slowed for the space of half a thought. Then he hurtled irrevocably past, to what in my horror I recognised for imminent death.

Johnny fast faded from sight. Deep in shadow, Artie bent at the waist.

With a mighty swipe of a single Marine hewn arm, Artie clutched the shoulder of Johnny's sodden coat. In a single fluid motion he plucked Johnny straight from the raging river and into the air, then set him down gently upon the welcome stability of slippery stone.

Against all reason, Johnny wasn't drowned after all.

Because Artie'd taken leave from the Marines and was unexpectedly hauled hundreds of miles overland to find himself precisely in the two square feet of all existence at the exact moment when he'd be the last person able save his best boyhood friend's life, which he did.

We gathered around Johnny. He shivered cold and wet, about as relieved as ever I've seen anyone. Together we made it off the river, up the stairs and back to camp.

Where we built the sort of bonfire that lights the night to let life know you're there.

Tuned out it was just the slightest misstep that pitched Johnny full into the river. He told us that the Presque Isle tried mightily to drag him beneath the undercut slate and claim him for its own.

Johnny said It tried to yank my boots off, which exact same words I was to hear some decades later, offered by an old man standing high above that same stretch of river on a sparkling autumn morning.

Through the night we four laughed and maybe cried a bit as our fire shot sparks off to the sky over Superior. I remember we spoke of life and death and life some more, always more.

Life had chosen Johnny. We remained at liberty to howl at the moon, our purpose for that day in that place forever secure.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Creative Destruction

There's not an abandoned place I've been to that doesn't cry failure, one way or the other.

Ramshackle schools are especially resonant. Where once there'd been prosperity and hope and people sufficient to build them, today there's only ruin.

After a while, patterns emerge. Then you sometimes wonder how they didn't know better, that it came to this?

Having done what I do a good long while now, anger over the way things too often were and the way things too often are is mostly kept to low simmer, lest I'd have been overcooked well before now.

Then at the very start of this project I visited Ontonagon:

Every time I'd been to Ontonagon, there was the Mill.

For as long as most folk still living had been alive, there was the Mill. Through good times and bad, whether belching at full capacity or near silent with layoffs, in Ontonagon there was the Mill.

Suddenly, there wasn't.

I captured a few images and of necessity moved quickly on, figuring I'd learn more later. It wasn't until near the end of the fieldwork that I did. During my presentation at the Porkies, I asked those assembled what happened to the Mill.

And for the only time during all the fieldwork, even considering the Penokees and North Hibbing and the Painesville School besides, I grew furious.

Because what's true is that if we're still not smarter than to let things come to this, we'll likely fail...

Job Creators (Revised)

I used to like to go to work,
but they shut it down.
I got a right to go to work,
but there's no work here to be found.
And they say
we're gonna have to pay what's owed,
we're gonna have to reap from some seed that's been sowed.

Ontonagon, MI -- October 2011

There'd been a paper mill at Ontonagon MI for something like 90 years. In large part, that's why the community survived the 20th Century when so many other towns around the U.P. didn't.

Ontonagon MI, October 2012

Smurfit Stone Corporation owned this mill, though they didn't build it and merely bought in late in the game. Right up to the end, the operation at Ontonagon turned a regular profit and was said to be the only paper plant in the State of Michigan to meet or exceed air & water quality standards.

After years of aggressively acquiring of other paper companies, Smurfit Stone found itself saddled with crushing debt. When the economy collapsed the Company resorted to Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection, seeking legal relief from it's bad decisions. This reinvention included closing the mill at Ontonagon, the largest employer in the County.

At the time, financial analysts at Credit Suisse wrote that this & another closure in Montana was good business, as the resultant lack of ready supply would help push prices up for packaging materials, thus increasing Company profit.

President and Chief Operating Officer of the Company Steve Klinger agreed, saying:

"These decisions were made to ensure the Company's long-term growth and profitability and do not reflect on the hard work and commitment of the employees at the Ontonagon mill."

With news of the closing, the community rolled up its collective sleeves and went to work, trying to line up investors to buy the facility. In Bankruptcy Court, the good citizens of Ontonagon petitioned the judge to prohibit the Company from destroying the plant and with it, perhaps their town.

"We don't want stimulus money. We don't want handouts. We have potential investors. All we want is for these people to have the right to make a decent living", wrote one.

Their pleas went unmet.

Smurfit Stone exited bankruptcy and promptly sold the mill at Ontonagon to a Canadian salvage company. 90 years of community investment in blood, sweat and tears, sold for scrap.

Two days later, Smurfit Stone announced it had sold itself to yet another paper company. As part of the deal, ex-CEO Patrick Moore received 59.5 million dollars. General counsel Craig Hunt was entitled to 9 million if he found himself unemployed. Senior V.P. Steven Strickland copped nearly 7 million.

Nice work, if 'ya can get it.

Today, where once beat the economic lifeblood of Ontonagon, there're only acres upon acres of mostly empty field surrounded by a high fence topped with barbed wire. This fallow ground is kept watch over by private security, hired by the Company to  protect its remaining interests in Ontonagon, whatever in the world those might be.

What's true is this:

According to law, Smurfit Stone owned the mill at Ontonagon. It was theirs to do with as they pleased, for whatever reasons they chose. And it was widely considered only good business for them to do what they did.

What's also true is this:

The Company didn't build that mill, they just bought it. And once they decided to abandon the place, by any reasonable moral standard if anyone had right of ownership over that mill, it was the community of Ontonagon, as theirs was a generational investment that can't be measured in dollars.

Now prime lakefront land on Superior stands fallow, apparently held in local hands but under restrictive covenants, future disposition undetermined.

An ex-employee told me there'll never be housing built on the land as before the environmental laws of the last few decades, lime and other toxins inherent to the milling process were dumped onsite.

If true, that creates both one more manmade wilderness on Superior's shore and leaves another sure sign of the legacy bequeathed by Capital when given free reign over our resources. Which along with a wide variety of poisons has left an entire region in poverty and despair.

What advocates for 'Job Creators' seem to resolutely ignore is that while (for example) a paper plant processes lumber down to salable product, without a community of workers it'd process nothing, ever.

Without workers, there'd never have been a mill in Ontonagon. Without workers there'd never have been product to sell to finance the debt Smurfit Stone used to acquire other paper companies and dig itself so deep into the hole t it could only resort to creative destruction as a last, best resort to reap profit from its investment.

Without those workers from this community absorbed a fatal hit to ensure some other operation could never come into Ontonagon and freely compete, the executives of Smurfit Stone wouldn't have emerged from bankruptcy able to sell to another company and secure great piles of personal wealth for themselves in the bargain.

As of the 2000 Census, the median annual income of the 786 households in Ontonagon stood at $28,300.  You can bet both the number of households and the income has shrunk since. At any rate, that's chump change, for those who managed to manage this place right into dust.

The good citizens of Ontonagon didn't want charity. They didn't ask for a handout. They simply asked for the chance to keep their town alive by maintaining a facility it's onetime owner no longer cared to own.

They never had a chance.

Creative destruction, the Job Creators call that. They say it's a good and proper thing and reflects the best of who we are. They say without we leave the Invisible Hand do its thing, we'd no longer be America.

I say that's just foul history repeating itself -- with honest, hardworking folk getting hosed over & over & over again in the bargain.

And the only real difference between this mill at Ontonagon and the Wolverine Mohawk or Nonesuch or the Cliff location or dozens of other similar sites, left by Capital to crumble where once they stood?

This being the 21st Century and not the 20th, the Company recycled its mistakes for cold cash on the barrelhead.

Which means that 100 years from now no one like me will ever stand near the fabled Ontonagon River amidst the mysterious ruins of long abandoned promises and have the opportunity to wonder...

How is it they didn't know better, than to let it come to this?

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Porcupine Mountains, Part 4 -- Fresh Content

Resident Artifacts

I've spent the greater portion of my photographic career in pursuit of what's left behind by those who've come before.

I do that primarily because what's hidden by the obscurity of a wild landscape always surprises & interests me. A sense of discovery coupled with mystery is often especially keen.

For instance, someone once casually mentioned an abandoned railroad grade cut through the woods, on which Heather and I then proceeded to take our old Subaru out for a drive. The grade was narrow and steep and once on it, the only way out was to keep right on going, no matter how or where it ended. Had we come to a collapsed bridge over a river, that car might still be in the woods and decades from now someone could be amazed by it, much like I was once amazed by this...

On our drive along the middle of nowhere, we came across a once fine white house standing hard by the old grade. Long unlived in and with the forest fast encroaching, it was easy to imagine that when the trains still ran, that house possessed a clear purpose since obscured by disuse. By the time we found it, the place was the province only of ghosts and they sang for us that day.

Eventually, we returned to blacktop without having to walk out.

Over the years, I've fallen in love with the geometry of wreckage, which I believe makes for powerful, resonant imagery. It used to be there were only a relative few of us working that rough-edged territory. Recently, digital shooters everywhere have  taken up the cause. These days, Detroit draws photographers from all over the world.

Some folk call that "ruin porn" and sometimes, that's exactly what it is.

The definition turns largely on creative purpose. Some photographers have a ready sense of exactly what they're up to and why. Many don't. Mostly, you can see the difference between the two in their images.

At any rate, if the work is to have lasting value you'd best first come to grips with the fact that you're picking over the remnants of people's lives and livelihoods and learn to treat that with respect.

My stay in splendid isolation at Dan's Cabin was a deeply personal experience. While there, I found things to share with you and earned things to keep just for me. That spoke directly to my purpose at the time, which was both professional and private, depending on the moment.

In the cabin there's a journal kept by the artists in residence, for the residents that follow. It's a great read and often strictly personal. I did my part and poured myself into it. I'd not intended to share any of that with you.

But the farther removed I am from the immediate experience, the greater the resonance of it grows in me and the longer we're on this trip together, the more I think it appropriate to share pieces of what I'd thought I wouldn't.

So here're some edited excerpts from the better than 5,000 words I committed to that journal mostly by lamplight, and a few other things scavenged from my residency besides...

From the Journal

Day Five

It's occurred to me that while there'll surely be other writers/photographers to stay in this splendid cabin after me, it's possible -- perhaps even likely -- that I'll be the last to capture this place on film.

I went up to Lake of the Clouds before dawn yesterday morning on the hope that the coming storm would bleed the sky red. It didn't. So I never took the cameras from the bag 'cause the harsh light just plain sucked.

But that didn't stop the cadre of digital shooters, lined up shoulder to shoulder. Shutters clicked away like a swarm of angry beetles. Bad light? Fix it later.

And I wondered if any of these shooters know that it's on them to create a new aesthetic for their new medium, as the once rigorous craft of capturing light to inform content -- intended to capture the authenticity of a given moment in time -- is fast passing from the world.

What'll replace that aesthetic I can't guess and I'd guess that neither can those digital shooters busily collecting pixels up on the escarpment, to be altered later in Photoshop and turned into what they wanted to see, not what they actually saw.

But you'd like to think the thought's at least crossed their minds...

Day 9

It rained overnight & again late this morning. Hadn't planned to, but as I again awoke a couple hours before sunrise I headed up to Lake of the Clouds in hopes that the valley would be filled with mist. It wasn't.

Had the place near to myself though. The last week's been tough on autumn color as gale force winds knocked it to the ground and the forest floor is littered with brittle golden death. Man, just let the season slide past peak and all the amateurs skitter away. Truth is, the fun's just starting.

The rain came again, more persistently. S'okay. I needed to do laundry anyway so went into Ontonagon and treated myself to a proper sit down lunch while the clothes dried.

Even though the thermometer says it's a bit warmer today than yesterday, the moisture's lent a bite to the air & after lunch I repaired to the cabin intending to hunker down.

That didn't last.

Quite unexpectedly, the rain stopped the wind died and the clouds thinned just enough so that the light became perfect. I hurried down to where the Little Union joins its big sister & for about an hour or so proceeded to do what should be among the most sublime landscape work of the trip to date.

And isn't that the advantage of residency? When the moment came, I was here. Not somewheres else, not on the road, not holed up in a motel 'cause of the rain.

Then the magic hour passed & I returned to the cabin to reshoot the fungi I'd worked the other day. As an old Indian friend used to say: "Everything's better when wet".

A very good day...

Day 12

So at night I've been practicing my Barred Owl call, which used to be fairly good. Apparently not anymore, as I've drawn no owl response. However, every time I do it some tiny critter in the woods near the cabin goes apoplectic.

"Alarm! Alarm!" it chirps.

I don't recognise the voice. Maybe it's a Red Squirrel, a little bird or even a mouse with operatic lungs, I dunno. But making so much noise when you think an owl is near doesn't seem like sound survival strategy to me. Having had no luck with the owls, I'll desist, as all I seem to be doing is disturbing some poor neighbor's sleep...

A couple of days ago I learned through the Ironwood Daily Globe that I'd be doing a reading as part of my presentation. I'd forgotten I'd promised one of those. That being the case, I figured I'd better write something to read. Which is how I spent Day 10 -- sitting at the table writing.

Note: you can read what I wrote sitting at that table during Day 10 by going here. Scroll down to "A Landscape of Perspective".

This image was taken by a dear friend who visited with me on the day of my presentation. I figured it too precious by half to ever show. But what the hell...

Day 13

Last Full Day.

O.K. then.

Woke slow, purposefully. It was raining, a bit.

Eventually went down to the Folk School to get a copy of the book 'Dan's Cabin' by Karen Berg. Stayed for a while to chat. Awfully nice folk, these are. And smart like nobody's business, too.

Rain stopped, no wind. Heavy overcast. Walked the Union Spring Trail 'cause Bob Wild said there're a couple old cars at what once was a lumber camp & there are, but only pieces. Sure am glad I didn't haul my gear in. Only the second time in two weeks I went walking with just the Toy Canon in tow.

Shot my way back from Ontonagon -- creek mouths & the blue house about midway between here & there. Intended to make an early day of it but as I approached the Park that changed.

One of the things I love about the Bessemer Bluffs of the Gogebic Range is that occasionally the sky drops down so low that the tops of the hills are shrouded with clouds. So it was this evening at Lake of the Clouds. I ran up there one last time & hot damn, it finally paid off. Mist rolled over the cliffs and through the valley. I've waited 30 years to catch that with pro gear. I was the only shooter there.

Made it back to the cabin at dusk. The woods soft & still. Struck a fire in the ring & devoured a piece of seared cow flesh.

Tomorrow I'll work my way down the South Boundary Road & depending, maybe even stop @ the Presque Isle to see if there're any more Steelhead with my name on them.

I think it likely that I've done some of the best work of my life, these past two weeks. It's what I needed to do, 'cause who wants to bring a decades' long creative craft to a close by moping & putzing around?

One more night & a wakeup & I'm out of here. I've no desire to leave save for that I must & the cabin isn't mine, though from here on some bit of my spirit will help inform this place too.

Note: There's frequent mention in the Journal of a nighttime skittering across the Cabin's roof.

Likewise, I've heard the visitor in the roof. Neither do I know what it is. But unlike some, I don't care. I figure as long as this fine place isn't being damaged the critters are welcome, whoever they are.

To you digital imagers who follow -- remember, it's on you to establish a new aesthetic for your new medium. Sure, you can keep trying to do what photographers like me have done for more than 100 years, but the authenticity of light is today rendered irrelevant and there's no good reason for you to pursue it further by working backwards into the past.

Consider instead what filmmaker and documentarian Werner Herzog calls "Ecstatic Truth".

Pursue that with your wondrous new tools and you've the chance to achieve something great...

It's at or about the new moon & still heavily overcast. Not a hint of breeze. Through much of my stay I heard each individual leaf fall through the night air to strike an invisible earth. Now most are fallen and none fall tonight. Only the creek murmurs, refreshed by eight days or so of generally light but persistently periodic rain. The Little Union finally sounds happy.

All is dark, silent & still. A right & proper night, to call it a career.

My chapter of this profoundly inspiring narrative is drawn to a close.

Your turn.

Live it large.


Finally, the same dear friend who took that picture of me also captured a few bits of video during my presentation at the Visitor's Center. I viewed it once immediately after the fact, then not again until I started gathering the material for this post.

Despite the relative roughness of the video, regardless of the fact that 14 months of road food made me resemble a backwoods Santa and even considering my positively relentless use of the word "alright" as some sorta verbal bridge, I've decided to share some of it with you.

My presentation lasted better than an hour. It began with my reading of A Landscape of Perspective, followed by a slide presentation similar to this.

Then I winged it. I'd not known I could talk so long off the cuff at such a stretch, though that'd probably not surprise some of my friends.

As it happened, the question & answer period turned on local issues and proved so lively that we ran overtime. You won't see that here, though later this month I'll repost the essay that came from it, as that continues to have lasting resonance not only to the region but for the nation at large, as we assess what hard times have wrought & why with a mind to moving forward and making this country better for all who love it.

In the meantime, here're a couple artifacts of me...

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Porcupine Mountains, Part 3

These are incredibly challenging times for artists. The Democratization of all Media has made for a chaotic, undifferentiated cultural marketplace that's devalued intellectual property to the extent that you can now buy a novel for less than an order of fast food fries.

In addition to having to sell themselves cheap, most creatives hold down 'real jobs', while working at their art as best they can. That's not gotten any easier, what with these being the hardest stinkin' times since the Great stinkin' Depression.

So maybe it's high time to do something for yourself and your work.

Opportunities for artistic residencies exist throughout this land and across the great, big world beyond. Some offer contemplative isolation in remote places. Others feature vibrant cross-cultural conversation in big cities. These residency programs come in packages large and small, whether publicly supported, privately funded or a collaborative combination of the two. Taken together, they favor every sort of creative effort.

All exist to serve you, the dreamer. The aspirant. The artist.

Among those things that've pleased me most during this project is that other creatives have applied for artistic residency at the Porcupine Mountains, inspired by my experience at Dan's Cabin.

Because as it turned out, my residency was among the finest, most productive two weeks of my life and that's the sort of thing that simply must be shared.

So do yourself a favor. Give it a shot.

If not to the program at the Porkies, then Google for one that suits you and apply there. Should the first time not bear fruit, try again. If you've been applying for years at one program, switch up and try another.

What's true is that great art came out of the last Depression. Art that helped make the world a better place.

Today the culture at large needs you more than ever, even if the wages don't reflect that. And there are all sorts of fine folk just like in the Porkies, ready and willing to share a personal commitment with you.

As an artist your only choice is to either keep at it or give up, there's no third way.

Never give up.

Creative Conversation (Revised)

Many people act like they expect to live forever. But they won't.

Others spend their lives creating things that might.

So artists offer their song to the wind and the wind carries the best of them to an unknown place where echo is the only currency of trade and whether or not their offering lasts, they'll never know it either way.

What's true is that art informs us, whether for a moment or forever.

It shows us who our we are, how we see our lives and culture and our neighbors too, so that we might better understand what it is to be human and better define our own place in the cosmos, having shared.

Creativity is a conversation as essential to human wellbeing as are earth, air, water and sky. Without its saving graces, we'd be a poor race indeed.

And from the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness of Michigan, a diverse group of dedicated folk devote their best efforts to assure that conversation thrives.

For two weeks during October of 2012, I reveled in a residency at Dan's Cabin, courtesy of the Artists in Residence Program  sponsored by the Friends of the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness

While there I led the ideal artist's life -- near the only time in my life I've been at liberty to do that, for whatever length of time. As direct result I accomplished some my best work ever.

And as is true of most of this Odyssey, where I've gone you can too.

Burdened by regular jobs, cultural noise and myriad sundry demands, tempted by handy distractions like T.V., Facebook and blogs, many artists yearn for an opportunity to submerse themselves in their work.

That opportunity is here.

Yeah, it's in the wilderness and maybe that's wholly outside your experience, much less comfort level. I get that.

So here's the gig:

Nestled in a splendid grove of hemlock a mere quarter mile from the road, your fellow creatives have built a comfortable, sturdy cabin reserved for you.

Outside, the real world rules and a creek runs by. Inside there's a comfy bed, a well equipped kitchen, ample working space and a wood burning stove for warmth, with everything framed by a wide expanse of windows that let the wild woods shine in, day and night.

And you're welcome to bring someone along whether for companionship or courage, should either suit you.

What the place lacks is phone, Internet, T.V., radio and all the distractions of contemporary life. There're resorts charging big money to rent that sort of liberty for even a single night.

On that table is a journal kept by a succession of residents for the benefit of those who follow. It's quite the read. Artists use their stay at Dan's Cabin for everything from relaxation to adventure, from quiet contemplation to life altering self-discovery.

While there, they also accomplish fundamental work.

Out your door is a well maintained trail system cut more than 87 miles through 60,000 acres of wildness, offering prospects that range from remote waterfalls to accessible vistas.

Then there're the pristine beaches of Superior, where folk hunt agates or swim or simply spend a relaxing afternoon beneath a warming sun.

After which you might choose to bathe in the wonder of twilight as seen from the edge of the world's greatest inland sea and later marvel as the Milky Way blankets the sky one star at a time, an exquisite filigree undimmed by light pollution.

And being a creative, you will work, as the spirit moves.

Maybe you think it all seems daunting. That you're too utterly urban to risk the real world or it's too distant or maybe you're too old to engage it or that your particular creative effort is an unlikely fit for the program.

What's true is that artists grow excuses like an untended garden grows weeds.

The Residency's hosted a rich array of artists whose work runs the gamut. Writers. Photographers. Poets. A filmmaker. Sculptors, painters, composers, graphic artists and musicians. Ceramicists and a glass artist. Printmakers and more.

That includes an octogenarian painter, a ceramicist in from Australia and an installation sculptor who traveled from Tokyo. So there's that.

What these folk share is a commitment to creative effort and the rewards earned when willing to take a leap of faith in oneself. What they have in common is that they took a chance.

Did I mention the built in audience?

In return for Residency, your obligation is to donate a piece of work inspired by your stay and to give a public presentation during it -- the audience for which is involved, informed and friendly.

Can a working artist ask for more?

Yeah, the deadline for 2014 entry is March 31st and you might think that leaves little time to prepare.

All the same, most working artists have their best work compiled and at hand. So putting together a proper presentation takes at most a bit of judicious consideration and just a few hours time. I'm here to tell you that a modest if well considered effort expended late in the winter of 2012 paid off for me in spades come that autumn...

These last few years of fieldwork sparked by specific creative purpose then informed across a magnificent landscape populated by a diverse, indomitable people have indelibly informed me.

And with that, whatever light I possess is edged closer to lastingly perfect. A proper source of warmth for blood run thin once my day's grown long.

Of all the miles over all the months across country grand & hard, of the people, places, sights, sounds and smells, of the incredible history freely mixed with triumph and misery and truth and lies and glimpses of a regional future with promise unlimited -- even considering all that and more -- it's likely that my two weeks spent as a guest at Dan's Cabin will be the time I treasure most through the years.

So do yourself a favor; consider applying for an artist's residency  at the Porcupine Mountains. Do it for your work. Do it for yourself.

Put your very best effort on the line for something uncommon.

Again, click here, to stop procrastinating and get started.

And by all means please share this link with other creatives of all inclination everywhere, whether via Google or Twitter or Facebook or good old fashioned word of mouth.

Because creative conversation is the name of the game and you never can tell where that'll lead...

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Porcupine Mountains, Part 2

To me, one of the most stunning developments in American politics over the last 40 years or so is the indiscriminate hatred of government that drives so much of our freshly populist political rhetoric.

That used to be merely the province of hippies, malcontents and other outsiders. Regular folk and mainstream opinion countered that desultory view with determination born of an innately positive attitude and approach that had been passed down to them across generations.

Today, demagogues that relentlessly peddle this new delivered wisdom want us to buy into the silly notion that an outright rejection of our Government is a core value of the American character.

Self-destructive stuff and nonsense, is what that is. Long ago, Mr. Lincoln said: "A house divided against itself cannot stand" and he was right. He's still right.

Mind you, I'm not saying folk should just blindly trust their government, American or otherwise. Far from it. Anyone who came of age after the 1950's knows damned well that's unwise. But American government belongs to all of us, just the same. And we must each take full responsibility for it, as the ongoing American Experiment in liberty requires collaboration among free citizens or it fails.

It's hard to counter delivered wisdom, especially when pandering to people's fears and despair is so effective.

But if you're tired of all the gloom & doom relentlessly tossed your way and would like a short shot of real evidence that when people of good will partner with their government things still work the way they're supposed to, or if you've come to believe such things are no longer possible, you need look no farther than the Porcupine Mountains for proof positive that the shrieking fear mongers who so beset the public conversation these days are feeding you a steaming pile of of hooey.

Because there, in a region ravaged by hard times, Americans continue to make things better for all of us by partnering with their government and working together for common cause...

A People and Their Government at Work (Revised)

In the arena of contemporary public discourse, American government and government workers are routinely disrespected. How and why that happened doesn't much concern us here.

What's true is that a constituency exists for each taxpayer's penny spent, for everything the government spends those on. From warheads and surveillance to corporate welfare. From education and environmental remediation and public health, to the critical research necessary when trying to transition an entire civilization over to sustainable against a fast ticking resource clock.

Our inability to make government function wisely and at optimal efficiency leads us to a conversation where government itself seems rendered unsustainable. Save that almost everyone who yells "Cut!" is yelling about cutting yours not theirs.

So there'll always be some form of government left to deliver theirs, if not yours.

When fueled by the populist righteousness the democratization of all media has unleashed in us, the nuance of real life is too often obscured and our public conversation fails.

Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park is a landscape eminently suited to the restoration of healthy human perspective.

It's prudent to remember that your liberty to visit was first secured through direct government response to local citizen advocacy, while today an ongoing and robust public/private partnership smooths your way.

Without government & government workers, it'd be just you alone against nearly a hundred square miles of undifferentiated, cut over northern stump field turned to slowly evolving desert, like out in the Kingston Plains. It's unlikely you'd ever think to go there or even guess this exists, much less be able to launch a boat on it or snap a picture when someone does:

The real world stays open 24/7, so folk wander the Porkies day and night through the seasons. It's impossible to tell exactly how many people visit the place during any given year. Something upwards of 300,000, best guess.

And they come from all over the world.

There're day trippers, trekkers, skiers and kayakers. Families with picnic baskets next to beach blankets. Fishermen and other dreamers. Hunters, bird watchers and gatherers of berries. Collectors of solitude, busloads of school kids, devoted travelers and casual tourists alike.

And during a few short weeks in autumn, the Porkies play host to flocks of migrating photographers who descend on the landscape like hundreds of busily clicking starlings, only to flee south again when leaves fall to a wet north wind.

So the Park employs 35 workers to provide for the education, amusement, comfort and safety of all comers.

That's 12 full time paid staff and 23 part time paid staff to ride herd on better than 300,000 of us let loose over 60,000 acres of otherwise inaccessible wildness, open to us 24 hours a day, 360 days a year.

These 35 government workers maintain 87 miles of mostly backcountry trail. They clean toilets, cut grass, respond courteously to every inquiry and rescue the careless. They fix what we break, replace what can't be fixed as budget allows and otherwise faithfully serve the needs of everyone who visits.

They do all this and oversee the natural health of the place too.

Being so near the Visitor Center during my stay at Dan's Cabin offered the opportunity to interact with Park staff far more than is usual for me, as my home turf of the Presque Isle is something of a lonely outpost by comparison. Near the end of my residency, I took advantage of one of the fine interpretive programs regularly offered by the Park.

Which is how I came to spend a bit of quality time with Lynette Score, government worker...

When traveling the Northwoods, many people hope to see a bear. The Porkies are a good place for that, as bears roam throughout the Park. But most times, bears know you're there before you do and head the other way. Typically, any easy way to turn the odds of a sighting in your favor invariably courts disaster for both you and them.

Near the end a damp, chill afternoon, Lynette greeted me and two other travelers at a trailhead, then led us into the woods to get up close and personal with the next best thing:

That's a split trunk Birch and one-time winter home to a bear. It's located not far from the road, but you'd never know it's there and in all my years bustering 'round the woods, I'd not stumbled across the like or I might've tried sleeping there myself during some mystic summer night of my youth.

In command of her subject and thoroughly engaging, Lynnette said this was likely the den of a mother bear, as those need to approach winter's rest with far greater care than do their male counterparts. After all, it's the female bear that carries the considerable burden of ursine reproduction, a truly extraordinary process that Lynette explained in terms easily understood.

On the other hand, guys being guys whatever the species, male bears sleep pretty much wherever. They might fall asleep up in the branches of a tree or just lay down atop a depression in the earth  and nod off, only later to be covered by a blanket of snow.

Take this little guy, who made his den smack dab in the middle of what in full winter becomes a groomed, cross-country ski trail and for a while at least, slept right through all the traffic that passed over him. With the discovery of the den, Park staff ceased grooming and rerouted the ski trail, though a trail cam later captured the bear's early emergence on a too warm day in March -- mighty wet but apparently none the worse for wear.

Image courtesy of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources

And while I know a bit about bears, it was Lynette who clued me in to the disagreement over whether or not they're true hibernators, because bears confound our necessarily reductive scientific criteria for that by occasionally waking up.

Like when some hapless intern is sent into a den and checks the hibernation temperature of a bear via insertion of an anal thermometer...

Lynette offered the opinion that whether bears aren't true hibernators or are the most adept practitioners of it, the bear shows us that the wonder of Nature resists efforts at reduction.

Of course, she was right.

During these hard times and especially considering her expertise, young Lynette Score might well have accepted full time employment downstate. Instead she chose to take her chances and work part time in the Porkies, hoping to make a home and build a career serving people and a landscape better suited to bears than to most humans.

Would that more of us had that kind of moxie or shared that level of commitment.

And from now on, whenever some cackling demagogue appropriates government workers as excuse to constrain a people's government down to the narrowest of selfish purpose, Lynette and her co-workers who've chosen tough careers in public service at publicly funded Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park will be among the folk I think of first.


Significantly, the Porkies benefits greatly from a working public/private partnership through which citizens and their government together put shoulders to the load and achieve common goals.

Having worked my way right through my residency, I was well & truly done and it was only on the last full day when finally I took all things easy.

Late that morning I stopped by the Folk School for a bit of business, but mostly for the warmth of friendly company. There I chatted while everyone else in the room busily made for themselves pretty much from scratch a traditional Finnish stringed instrument, called the kantele.

Later, they'd learn to play it.

Friends of the Porkies thrives on a deep loam of citizen advocacy and appropriate government response. As the Artist's Residency is one result of that, I came to know this fine organization far better than I previously had.

It's like a big old backwoods Hemlock. The landscape might be hard but the Hemlock rises tall and sturdy just the same, with roots spread wide and the whole of the thing essential to the forest's continuing health, as new life invariably springs from old.

First there's the famous Porcupine Mountains Folk School from which the artist's program, Dan's Cabin and a host of other good things stem.

Like the annual Porcupine Mountains Music Festival that attracts both talent and audience from far and wide.

Then, should you care to see what a top drawer workshop overseen by a diverse cooperative of dedicated creatives looks like, go here.

Across all the miles we've traveled together on this Odyssey, I've kept a special watch for sustainable practices because it's only through those that the region will ever escape the historically destructive cycle of boom & bust.

Turns out, the Superior region is a veritable Petri dish of those.

Prime among them is the personal partnership forged over time between concerned private citizens and their government, to advocate for ancient Kag wadjiw. That's a distinctly American relationship that assures a unique landscape and the people who live on it not merely survive but thrive, so that all of us are the better for it.

I'm the better for that partnership.

And if you're a working creative, please drop by next week to learn how you might be too...