Thursday, December 29, 2011

Notes From the Field -- A New Year

Traditionally, the turning of a New Year is occasion for a glance back and a look forward. Maybe that’s ‘cause short days and long nights leave little else to do but contemplate past mistakes while planning new ones.

As many of you recover from holiday merriment and the gauzy hangover of our annual indulgence in peace on earth good will towards men, this seems an appropriate time to take it easy on this blog business for a few weeks, as before us loom hard months stretched through the depths of a dark season.

High noon @ Bobcat Lake

I’ve film to work though, portfolios to compile & and submit, research to dig deeper into and plans to be finalized -- including a February visit to a special place reached only across Superior ice, a foray for which I’d best be well prepared.

I ought also make time to do some printing. Even with the reaper of digital facility leavening photographic excellence down to meager measures like pixels & screen resolution, an image isn’t a work of fine art until laid down on  paper, when its luminous quality can be judged beneath balanced light. After all, the core gig here is to make lasting art. What’s already in hand must be properly assessed before making more or risk being buried beneath a massive pile of undifferentiated effort.

The next ten months or so will demand everything I’ve got and it’d be wise to make myself ready to push on through, so for a few weeks these posts will be…well, shorter at least. Then we’ll more deeply engage this Odyssey already well begun.

These are the most interesting of times around the Superior basin -- fraught with difficulty and offering too little authentic promise to meet the challenge. 

That means there’ll be a lot for us to see. 

Together we’ll take well worn roads to familiar places for a fresh look at those, considering modern times. We'll also broaden our horizons by wandering paths less traveled and even blaze new trail now and again through the complex wilderness of landscape and culture, just to see what’s there.

And of course, because it's Superior, there will be marvels.

So I’ll be back full bore real soon and then we’re hanging tough for the duration, come what may.

Happy New Year, one & all...

Thursday, December 22, 2011

King Copper -- Lament

1913 was a hard year on the Copper Range of Michigan.

By December, a worker’s strike against the copper mines was in its 5th month and faltering. The great Calumet & Hecla Mining Company refused to negotiate with the Western Federation of Miners and many strikers returned to work or left the range. The dispute was as always and is still today: the right of working folk to determine the value of their labor versus the right of Capital to determine what return on their investment is acceptable.

Then as now technology played a critical role. A one man drill was introduced to replace the old drill, which required two men to operate. For labor that meant harder work for fewer workers. To the Company it meant increased productivity and greater profit. All too familiar lines were clearly drawn.

On Christmas Eve, the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Union held a Christmas Party for strikers and their families on the 2nd floor of Calumet’s Italian Hall. Much of what happened that night remains in question.

Perhaps as many as 500 people gathered in the hall. The celebration was barely begun when person or persons unknown yelled “Fire!” Panic ensued. The single stairway down to street level quickly filled with the dead and dying. Some say the doors at the bottom of the stairs opened only inward, which apparently isn't true. Some say they were held closed. There was no fire.

No one can say for certain how many people died that night, crushed to death by friends and family in a narrow stairwell. Most victims were Finns. Most were women and children. Christmas morning, a local Finnish newspaper put the number at 80 dead, all told.

What’s indisputable is that the worst disaster of its kind in Michigan history was the direct result of a bitter dispute that set neighbor against neighbor over the harvest of copper and it occurred on Christmas Eve.

A funeral procession was held. An inquest during which folk who didn’t speak English were forced to answer questions in English proved inconclusive. No one was ever charged. Recriminations followed and however faint, those echo across the region even now.

The strike of 1913-1914 ended in April of ’14, with only 2,500 of the estimated original 9,000 members of the Western Federation of Miners left to vote on the referendum to call off the strike. Little was gained and much was lost. The town of Calumet never fully recovered and the Italian Hall was torn down in 1984. By all reports, it didn’t fall easily.


The good citizens of Michigan receive near to nothing in exchange for their precious resources. If you think Capital pays good value in cash to any community for their irreplaceable wealth, you should think again. What jobs are created last only so long as the resource lasts and that’s rarely very long. Then jobs and the capital to fund them and the resource from which both flow are forever gone.

Always some few hardy people stay, drawn to a land by false promise and remaining for reasons of their own. Some stay for love of place and they put down permanent roots spread wide over hard rock.

What’s true is this: American resources belong to American people before corporations and jobs alone are insufficient to buy them. If the harvest of our resources can’t be made to profit workers and Capital alike, if wealth created from our resources can’t be kept in the communities that earn it and the exhaustion of the resource means the exhaustion of the community, then those resources ought remain untapped until such time as a wiser, more just people can work out better means.

Until we determine what a land and its people are worth when measured in copper or iron or oil or water, we sell our resources and us blindly and our children’s future entirely too cheap.

Because what’s indisputable is that the world and we are one beneath the heavens.

Or at least on Christmas, we’re encouraged to hope and entitled to dream…

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Superior Christmas

They say there’re only two seasons in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan: winter and a couple of days in late July.  That may or may not be, but illustrates the legendary status of winter around the Superior basin all the same. 

Flush with youthful enthusiasm, I once proclaimed to an aged local my desire to live on the range. His grey watery eyes narrowed. He took a long hard look at the kid then replied, “Well…pretty nice up here. Winter’s kinda long, though.” This from a man who for the duration of the season kept a baseball bat handy to dissuade porcupines eagerly working over accumulated salt from chewing through the brakes lines of his car.

Undaunted by tall tales or the skepticism of old men, Heather and I thought to see for ourselves. Christmas is for family but this once we’d go off to create a living gift for just the two of us. A friend of a friend had cabins for rent along the Montreal River and arrangements were made.

Excited at the prospect of seeing familiar sights radically altered by the season, we compiled a mental list of things to see and do. We rode our old Subaru wagon, which modest ride nevertheless possessed a robust four-wheel drive and having previously driven it without incident along abandoned railroad grades, winter gave us little pause.

Our cabin was rustic, cozy and warm. A vintage outbuilding as I remember it; long converted, nestled in the woods outside Ironwood with a Finnish sauna onsite and a waterfall on the river for added ambience. We were the only tenants for the duration and game for adventure.

A frozen waterfall is an incongruous thing, a frozen moment of current in motion transported out of time. Being inexorable, current finds ways to travel downstream under the ice, around it, over it, through it. The mineral content of the Montreal River made our picturesque little falls look like a root beer float.

Accompanying photos are from vintage 35mm images captured during our Christmas adventure

Snowshoes were provided for use of guests. At first it was tough to find a proper gait, what with oversized tennis rackets strapped to our boots, but once you figure it out they’re a damned sight better than tromping your way through knee-high snow with who knows what hidden beneath. Temperatures headed lower and we set off downriver beside the Montreal, through skeletal trees over snow covered ground. Apart from the occasional deer track, we blazed trail. Before too long, Heather returned to the comfort of the cabin. I pressed forward alone, exhilarated.

Though evening in the woods is exquisite any season, the blue half-light forest of winter leaves its mark. I hiked a fair piece until near full dark then lingered upon a log, listening to the trickle of water over ice, the only sound in the world. In time I returned to the cabin, path plain by the river through the woods, moonlight shimmering over all. High time for a sauna.

Finns settled across the UP during the 19th Century, drawn by promises of “streets paved with gold”, which as it turned out meant work in the mines. When those played out the Finns stayed. Many built farms and some prospered but most ended up as rock farmers -- a hard, unyielding land being one reason that today the basin is dotted with abandoned farmsteads. The ‘Yooper’ accent, pasties and Finnish saunas stayed too.

Our sauna sat maybe 100’ across pure winter from the cabin. Inside, tongue & groove cedar made for a tight seal and benches lined the room. A thick metal basket filled with Lake Superior cobbles adjoined a fireplace, already well stoked. A bucket sat next to a spigot. We got properly naked, poured water over hot rock to raise the temperature beyond steady reckoning, then indulged in the physical and spiritual cleansing properties of abundant sweat.

Tradition dictates a roll in the snow upon leaving a winter sauna. Once done with the heat, I left my shoes and clothes for Heather to carry and stepped naked out into the universe of ice beneath the stars. Snow to my calves, breath hanging in the frigid air, I hurled myself onto the snow and rolled over exactly once, amongst the most deliriously bracing movements of my life.

Then I yelled, “Goodness gracious!!” or words to that effect and beat Heather back to the cabin.

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

Snow depth is inconsistent in the forest and travel proved easy. We found our favorite lake asleep beneath a blanket of white then pressed deeper to a high vista over trackless wilderness and a creek that meanders through a tamarack swamp. Many’s the time I’ve wanted to go down there and once hiked alone into those woods to see what could be seen, only to become temporarily bewildered, which is a technical term for “lost” and another story altogether.

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

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 and clear but at the South Boundary Road such industry ended, unbroken snow on the road into the park proving that no one had recently preceded us. Icy crust scraped the undercarriage of the car as we made our way in to where a trail leads down to the falls.

What a sight awaited us at the bottom!

All was ice and snow, a world frosted over in white. The 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 would mean certain death and burial at sea.

We explored thoroughly, ever careful of our step. The hour grew late. As we hiked back up to our car the wicked cold and bitter wind increased its grip on a wild world. Light flurries turned to moderate snow. No sooner did we make it out of the park and onto County 519 than the car balked and coughed, still deep in the wilderness and seventeen miles from the nearest phone with winter bearing down hard.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

King Copper -- Nonesuch

The special relationship between copper and people across the Superior region dates back at least 7,000 years because geology made it easy.  Ordinarily underground, around the lake and significantly along the Keweenaw fault, this easily worked metal was found on or just under the ground; casually discovered, easily accessed and put to handy use. Many of our most famous historic mines were first dug on prehistoric pits and those were first dug with tools of stone often lashed with hide to wood.

By the middle 1800’s, much of the Upper Peninsula was being stripped of its great forests. By the turn of the century, what the lumbermen left fell to the axe of folk that moved in after. Notable were miners, who needed wood not only to fuel the fires of industry but to warm hearth & home. Before long the landscape that once and again nurtures wilderness resembled post-nuclear catastrophe. But at the time, it looked only like progress.

During the great copper era of the 19th Century, dozens of working mines dotted the region and if you add the wildcatters and unnamed speculations, the number climbs exponentially from there. Despite the tens of millions of 1880’s dollars invested and the mountains of material hauled from the ground through the heroic toil of thousands of mostly immigrant miners, only a rare handful of operations ever sustained any profit at all.

That brings us to Nonesuch.

Image used courtesy of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Located at the southeast corner of the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, Nonesuch operated in fits and starts under five different owners roughly from 1867 to 1912. Its prime years were 1879-1881, when the mine is said to have returned a profit, however marginal.

The town built to support the mine peaked at perhaps 300 souls. Though little is known of cultural life specific to Nonesuch, there was a school, a boarding house, stores, a stagecoach stop and other trappings of small town life. Still, life for the workers and their families was hard and not just by modern standards. Nonesuch lost its post office in 1887, when the machinery at the mine was disassembled and shipped away to other, more likely ventures. While some folk stayed on and though the Calumet & Hecla Mining Company later dropped some 200 tons of equipment at Nonesuch to try again, it was all downhill from there.

The town of Nonesuch as it appears today

When I first went in to Nonesuch, the site was still privately owned but thoroughly abandoned. A friend said: “Watch for the sharp turn in the South Boundary Road. There’s short gravel to park on, behind the trees. Walk the old road and when the trail hangs a left, turn right and go down the hill. Keep your eyes open.” Our eyes were soon wide open because what litters that steep hill blanketed with dense forest are sights like this:

Huge dark stones mortared into thick, towering walls rise through obscurity in a wilderness that’s worked for more than 100 years to reclaim those stones for its own.

It’s hard to overstate the case for how special this place is. Walking that trail down that hill to catch first sight of the ruins of the Nonesuch mine is still akin an explorer caught unawares by remnants of a great race of builders, with only mysterious works of stone as evidence of their existence.

The problem at Nonesuch was that unlike most of the rest of the Keweenaw where copper was found in thick veins or even in boulders on the surface, this commodity was particularly fine and all but inseparable from within a bed of sandstone and underlying shale. The customary method of separating copper from poor rock in a stamp mill failed at Nonesuch. But where there’s a resource to be tapped, human ingenuity is brought full to bear.

During the 1880’s the Nonesuch Syndicate engaged in a radical process to recover the copper by dissolving the host rock in harsh chemicals, to cull the metal from the waste. Though the process later went on to great success, this first attempt failed.

Evidence remains of the chemical leaching process tried at Nonesuch

In the ‘Copper Handbook of 1902', Horace Stevens wrote of Nonesuch:

“Discovered in 1865, the mine was first opened in 1867, since which time it has swallowed several large fortunes, and has yielded the insignificant amount of 180 tons 1,072 pounds of refined copper from one of the richest beds of copper-bearing rock ever opened.

“The copper is there -- millions and millions of pounds of it, not worth a penny a ton in the mine. Someday the problem will be solved and a new crop of millionaires made from Nonesuch.”

And that, as they say, was that. I suppose those millions and millions of pounds of copper are still there. For certain, no new crop of millionaires has been made from it.

Today Nonesuch is protected by the Michigan DNR and the Keweenaw National Historic Park, which combined efforts help protect the last vestiges of regional cultural heritage before those are swallowed by time made harsher through abandonment and neglect. There’s never been a complete archeological survey taken at Nonesuch. Consider please, that the removal of artifacts at this or any historical site is the destruction of knowledge.  Not merely a crime by law, it’s a crime against our living cultural heritage.

So when you visit Nonesuch, be content to stand in awe of what the industry of our forebears left in their stead and of how the wilderness reclaims it now, right before your eyes. Sit quietly beside those sentinel walls amidst towering trees. Try to imagine what the place was like at its height -- the stench of caustic chemicals in the air, the sounds of axmen making constant fuel from dwindling timber, the persistent pounding of the stamp mill shaking the hill upon which it’s still perched and everywhere the sweat of labor and lives spent to little or no profitable end.

But most of all, listen for the voices of children. Life at Nonesuch wasn’t unrelieved, especially for them. 125 years ago, children ran this hill between these stone walls and down by the river the air rang with laughter.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Patrick O'Neill, Teacher and Poet

Patrick O’Neill is an esteemed teacher of college literature and composition, along with being the author of seven published books of poetry, the latest of which is titled “Snake Spit.” Upon seeing that title I had to meet the guy.

Photo courtesy of Patrick O'Neill

At a reading in Ironwood, the audience was full of Pat’s students, past and present. Throughout the evening, their laughter, knowing nods and obvious affection for Pat demonstrated not only that he’s a teacher in the finest sense of the word, but also a provocative, persistently engaging, always entertaining lecturer of the first order. And an authentic local legend to boot.

Patrick O’Neill continues to teach in ways large and small. He sets an example for the rest of us by donating the proceeds from his readings and from the sale of his books to funding for the Arts, including the Ironwood Carnegie Library’s creative programming for children, the creative needs of children being Pat’s raison d’ĂȘtre.

Considering the nature of the man, his accomplishments and particular skills, no prose reduction of mine can provide adequate representation, so this week I’ll turn things over to him. I only urge you to support Pat in his efforts to help the children of the region, which are its future. A good start would be to purchase one of Pat’s books of poetry or to attend his next reading, which will be held Wednesday December 7th, at the historic Ironwood Theater and is a fundraiser for the Ironwood Theatre and Carnegie Library Creative Writing Programming for Area Students: Sharing Poems and Stories.

With that, I proudly introduce Patrick O’Neill:

For Awhile
by Patrick O’Neill

Jack London and Robert Service sent me to the Range from Lower Michigan. Their dramatic/humorous stories of life in the Yukon that I read in junior high school gave me an appetite to tangle with bitter cold and heavy snow. The appetite lingered long enough to send me to the UP. Having been here so many decades killed my taste for snow and cold years ago. Now it’s the wilderness that holds me. The wildernesses’ compelling challenges drive my right brain, sending it exploring, discovering, creating. An appetite for the emotional impact of the mysterious and the unexplored draws me to the woods daily. The narrator of my poem “The Woods Is a Woman” and I share the same feelings, reflections, and inclinations:

                  The woods is a woman, a lover.
                  I enter her—not to escape or elude—
                  but to learn her pristine passion,
                  absorb her inspiration—and share
                  what I can of it with other inhabitants
                  of our crumbling world—where the frigid
                  calculator Institutionalism has captured,
                  castrated—robotized Reason—sent him
                  to war against his own sons and daughters.

Much of what draws me to the woods daily also draws me to my present and former students. They, too, are products of the wilderness. I don’t understand them anymore than I understand the birds, deer, rivers, trees, swamps. I bond with all of them. I walk into the same woods, classrooms day after day—and no two are ever the same; they shouldn’t be. It helps me keep strong my struggle against consistency; it chases me off traveled roads, trails, paths. Like the narrator of my Poem “Loops,”

I memorize
the annular trail
by tree buds, ripe berries,
stump mushrooms, snow.
But each trek my memory—
like a defiant kid—
hightails it into the woods,
vanishes. Lost, I—
without direction, haste—
discover alien buds,
berries, mushrooms, snow—
that blow presumptions
that wandered the bygones
with me to all Billy hell.

Former students often reassure me that my spontaneity—shortages of structure and direction both in and out of the classroom—along with my emotional outbreaks as the wildernesses clash with tamed uniformity has had some impact on them. It’s sent them to wildernesses where they explore, discover, invent, build vehicles, deliver—share only what they alone can share with the world. All of this does more than to reassure me that I don’t understand anything at all and to inspire me to keep trekking. The wildernesses of the woods and classrooms waft more than an independence; it’s a beautiful distance—a supreme poetry—that both humbles and inspires me. I embrace it.

by Patrick O’Neill

I submit my
images, thoughts
to the River.
It doesn’t applaud or jeer.
It just keeps rippling
and roaring its own poetry—
diminishing my words.

Its blatant disregard passes
a caustic, demeaning
judgment: documented disdain
that discourages, silences you—

or rankles you to keep
yapping—for awhile.

Growing and Gathering
by Patrick O’Neill

A frequent question people shoot at me is, Have you noticed dramatic changes in high school graduates in your classes?  I’ve always disappointed them, answered the question with a head shake and, “No”—until the last couple decades. More and more students walk into my freshman comp classes not knowing they can invent, not knowing what invention is, or believing it’s unnecessary—a waste of time and energy.

Economic declines reinforcing governmental pressures that demand nearly exclusive objective curriculums have crippled our educational institutions. Excessive objective testing and the cutting of classes that promote creativity make it unduly difficult for educators to devote the necessary time and energy to give our kids the incentive to be creative.  Our elementary teachers—who hold the most important jobs in our culture—battle the brunt of the assault. 

I believe that during impressionable elementary-school years our kids are most able to discover, embrace, and hold on to the revelation that they not only can be but have a responsibility to be creative. It’s the only way they’ll ever share what’s vital to the health of any culture: the exclusive essence of its individual members. Creatively deprived cultures wither like root-bound plants and die. The Romans who sat comfortably rooted in their pots of plenty, letting other cultures invent for them, showed us that.  Their long, withering demise was their most useful contribution to the world.

My lifetime goal is to donate all the time, energy, and money I can grow and gather to give as many of our kids as I can what our elementary and secondary schools never seem to have the finances or time to provide: the inspiration, encouragement, direction, and self confidence to grow creatively. And along with this, I hope that my audiences—cultivators and producers of this endeavor—will find some inspiration, encouragement, direction, and self confidence in what I share in my books and at my readings.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Splendid Isolation

This being family time, I’ll not burden you with much of me but please be sure to check in next week as I’ll have my first profile and it’s of an authentic living legend, someone who perhaps you’ve never heard of, but will be better off for having met.

If you don’t turn your face to the sun on the occasion it shows itself during a long hard winter, you’re like to forget it was ever there or will be again. And then maybe you’ll miss it when next it shines squarely upon you.

For myself, this season I’m especially thankful to my wife Heather McKelly, with whom I’ve shared Northwoods adventures now for some 33 years all told. When first I came up with the concept for this gig, it was Heather who was all in from the get go. So it’s because of my wife that I now get to work in such splendid isolation, to challenge myself to present the Superior Basin in all its complex history and rich glories, both past and present.

And at the moment I’m particularly thankful for these. If you’ve read “Where Eagles (Almost) Dare” you’ll understand why. Take that, ye Great White Bird:

Anyway, sometimes things said simplest are said best, so today I’ll just offer this. Left for us by an anonymous donor at an abandoned ‘black granite’ quarry in Ashland County WI and presented here in my sincere wish that it’s as true for you as it is for me, at least for today and maybe even as often as not…

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Snow Job

At the end of September I told of the afternoon when winter rudely intruded upon autumn to provide a stark reminder of seasons turning. After that the region enjoyed an extended period of unusually mild and stable weather, which lasted into November. Then six weeks to the day of autumn having first taken a hard turn, winter kicked the door in.

Just prior, long light streamed through late season woods stripped bare.

Through most of the year the great northern wilderness is an obscurity. Thick understory built up around uncountable trees arrayed beneath a nearly impenetrable canopy of green makes the forest appear as a single entity when in fact it’s nothing of the sort. Instead, the northwoods is a massive chorus of rough and tumble harmony, individual voices raised together with life and death freely intermingled, for three consecutive seasons the former feeding on the latter in a riot of opportunistic appetite.

With the last of autumn that chorus grows ever more unbalanced as trees shed leaves, brisk winds strip the place of its veil and all things weak or dying fall finally to the ground in a clutter. The occasional dilapidated building, groups of browsing deer, long abandoned cars, cranky red squirrels, hard rock outcroppings, pileated woodpeckers and old gnarled trees -- all stand revealed as distinguishable from the whole. If anything, the chorus then becomes richer for its transparency.

The evening before winter arrived, I attended a public hearing at Gogebic Community College. Held by the MichiganDepartment of Environmental Quality to publicly discuss Orvana’s proposed Copperwood mine, you’d think a meeting like that might’ve included at least a question or two about the environmental impact of a mine, but you’d be wrong. It was pep rally pure and simple, no bones about it and get those questions the Hell out of the way already.

Scheduled for three hours it lasted 80 minutes, if that. No apologies offered, none necessary. What do we need? We need jobs. When do we need them? We need them now!

The toy Canon sat at rest on my lap and I might have brought you some of the cheerleading but as the evening progressed too rapidly from a litany delivered by region-wide officialdom (attendance apparently mandatory) to a succession of everyday citizens, absurdity blurred to tragicomedy to outright tragedy and these good citizens deserve to stand for their hard choice outside the idle gaze and snap judgments of Internet gawkers. I wish I’d the chops of a Samuel Beckett in order to bring it to you distilled to its essence and yet unchewed, but my poor best will have to serve.

Old men, most wistful some still fierce, leaned heavily upon nostalgia for better days. Businessmen, desperate to stay in business even if only for another few years. Educators, burdened by damage done to youth through unrelieved rural poverty, with the field of opportunity gone barren. “We want our kids to stay here” played a common refrain.

At the last there rose an American mother, stoic but barely dry eyed while offering a song of Depression. She lamented that not only is the region depressed, we are depressed, with heads low and shoulders stooped, weighted down by cruel fate and crueler history, crueler because men make history and are crueler than fate. She sang that the Copperwood mine could serve as a new beginning, a wellspring of revitalization, a turning of our dark season to a brighter tomorrow for our children, our culture and community -- together in a great and magnificent land for generations to call home.

Copperwood is slated to last 14 years. Which means that by then, children conceived during this first flush season of desperate hope will be looking to their final years at A.D. Johnston High School and to the closure of the Copperwood mine, precisely when they’ll most need some hope of their first good job in order to remain in the region.

Everything else aside, that’s the thing about mining: whether copper or iron, they ain’t making any more. Once the resource is tapped, transformed into a marketable commodity and sold off to China to be repurchased by us in some other form, our resource is just gone. Then everything dependent upon it goes away and quickly too, a few short years of cash in hand being insufficient to pin an entire future on and there’s ample proof of that already, everywhere around Superior.

Overnight, winter came.

The forest is a wonder, flush with the first snow of the season. The chorus falls to a hush so low you can hear the snow fall. Superior is great enough that it makes its own weather and bands of lake effect snow flew across the Range, a little here a whole bunch there. As it happened, I headed off into the whole bunch.

It was work in a splendid place and isn’t that everything the good citizens of the region ask for, after all? Shooting made nettlesome by squalls, I started by spending as much time watching a shy flock of what I took for American Coots that’d taken refuge on a backwoods lake as I did actually working.

After a few hours it was prudent to head towards safer haven rather than farther away. Eight inches down and mine the only recent track on forest service roads wasn't simply an enticing gift, it was an invitation for the wilderness to demonstrate once again its indifference to every human concern.

Along the hilly ribbon of glorified two-lane that allows a corridor of wind to slice through the forest between Marenisco and Wakefield, I drove briefly in near whiteout. Only a few other working folk shared the road, because work is what we do and where it takes us we must go.

Meanwhile, hard rock was covered in soft white while the deer and Coots and red squirrels and even the millions of trees? Unburdened by human concern they murmured on, knowing that short of dying there’s nothing can be done but to remain resolute in the face of a long winter in the wilderness, with its sure hard times and roiled discontent.

That, and provided we mustn’t eat our own bodies to survive in the meantime, to take comfort that a season having once turned must inevitably turn back again.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Down to the Sea in Ships...

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 and so fast it was as if she'd vanished. Without even time enough to send a distress signal:

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 by Mishipeshu, 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…”

An image of Whitefish Bay taken at the mouth of the Tahquamenon River, retrieved from my now retired portfolio of 35mm film.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Notes From the Field

While considering taking this project public I checked out popular photography blogs, which are full of tips and tricks for capturing better images whether on film or file. And of course there’s a lot of gearhead talk, ‘cause without gear you can’t take a photograph at all.

I realised that nothing I’d do would fit the template. The time honored craft of capturing images on large format film isn’t relevant to most of you. Neither is the gear used to do it. I could tell you how to use my light meter and a stop watch to guesstimate proper exposure for transparency film under moonlight or other such arcana, but that’s knowledge you’ll likely never use. So we’ll treat these notes as waysides along the road, making only periodic stops…

Tip ‘o the day #1: when shooting from a canoe, make sure you’ve brought two anchors for boat control because the quality of your tripod isn’t worth a damn when what you set it on moves even a little:

The first leg of this odyssey encompassed 16 consecutive working days in the field and traversed nearly 3,000 miles, all but 600 or so on two-lane blacktop and too many of those at or near full dark. The longest day ran 18 hours, the shortest ten. I wanted to see autumn through from early color to past peak and did. If the mission was to chase perfect light, I sometimes chased too much or anticipated poorly and missed things I ought to have captured. That was partly due to the added distraction of the blog and the ease of shooting with the toy Canon for blog content, which together presented a challenging workflow. I pushed on through, learned on the fly from my mistakes and won’t make the same ones again.

That would be tip ‘o the day #2: when you’re in the field and a thing doesn’t work as planned, change the plan because the gig is to capture the image. Once I adapted my approach to accommodate the increased workload, things went better.

I exposed 30 sheets of 4x5 (nearly 1/10th my total supply) and 38 rolls of 120mm transparency. I took chances. Some worked and some didn’t, which is what happens when you take chances in the field but you always should, especially if you’re shooting digital as there’s no economic barrier to restrain you. Let it fly and sort it out later. Whether working in difficult light, with nettlesome subject matter or some combination of both, daring is essential to creative growth. Always press forward with your particular vision, even when that means returning home with fewer usable images rather than more.

Knowing that looking at the world exclusively through a lens tends to obscure why I’m looking, I took a handful of hours off during those sixteen days. Left all the gear back at the motel and went out to enjoy the world. Turned out the most exquisite light encountered during the entire time occurred precisely then. For instance, I captured this only with the toy Canon. Not only is that unacceptable, it’s downright painful:

So tip ‘o the day #3 is the old Boy Scout motto: Be prepared. And if you’re not, then be content to suffer the laughter of the photo gods. From here on I haul everything everywhere always, even when on break.

The elusiveness of perfect light notwithstanding, I got what I shot: a ratio of better than 2 to 1 with the large format, something less with the Mamiya because with that I was profligate. I met good folk, shared stories, enjoyed a surprise visit from an otter, through which conversation he spoke and I listened. And on day two I lucked my way onto special a site I’ve coveted for near to a quarter of a century, securing an invitation to return throughout the coming seasons to document the place in full over the next year. And of course, I got this blog business off to a proper start. All told a fine and proper beginning for an odyssey.

Our first autumn in the field having been well and truly spent, we’ll move forward together into November -- in some locations merely a grey, unwelcome harbinger of bitter times to come but up north the hard face of early winter and no foolin’.

Now the waters run cold, the forest lays bare secrets previously hidden and long shadows enhance the landscape, offering ever more opportunity to capture perfect light…

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Northwoods Autumn Festival

My home town is Bessemer MI. I’ve never lived there but my maternal family roots go back 120 years in the place, it was there that as a child I first saw the Northern Lights from the back window of my Uncle John’s house and the Gogebic Range is where I’ve felt most at home. So I claim it with no less authority than if I were born there and dare anyone to say I can’t.

Along the way I’ll tell you the story of Bessemer, which is complex. But not today. On the weekend of October 1st the sun shone bright upon the Range and Pumpkin Fest went off with nary a hitch…though the helicopter guy never showed so the helicopter rides didn’t either.

I suppose Pumpkin Fest is Bessemer’s celebration of both harvest and Halloween, the latter held a month early. That’d be because Monday’s forecast calls for 45°. Folk will be wearing gloves, which means you can’t lick your fingers and that makes it tough to enjoy your sno cones, which (apparently) go all the way back to the Roman stinkin’ Empire. I read it on the Internet so it must be true.

Among the delights at Pumpkin Fest was a horseshoe tournament held down by the VFW, an antique tractor pull and a pie social. Abelman’s Department Store, where they’ve been selling quality goods since 1887 with attendant service you’ll never find at the Wal-Mart, held a sale. A pumpkin seed spitting contest was met and won. And of course there was food. Taken together, the sort of day many are familiar with only from old movies, if at all. The sort of day our corporate media delivery machine would treat as quaint while obliquely snickering at the rubes. Cynicism being the order of our day, as it helps keep the rubes in line.

When I arrived downtown, ventriloquist Dave Parker and Skippy already held a crowd of costumed children rapt. I first thought to show you pictures of these kid’s faces because they’re a treasure, but the Internet is no small town newspaper and I’ve no business plastering kid’s faces across it so Mr. Dave and Skippy will have to do:

I went over to the pie social at City Hall. Admission was cash on the barrelhead if you intended to eat pie, free to merely socialize. The table of pie stretched 40 feet or more, the auditorium was packed and the place bristled with anticipation. I was just in time to capture this:

I must be allergic to pie because my eyes misted over, so I went back out into the sun to clear them. In the grand American tradition, two members of the local Tea Party had a table set out on the street, taking their personal politics to the public square. Business was scant, beaten to Hell by sno cones.

Though popular movements on both extremes of our political spectrum currently dominate the news, that table served as reminder that our retail politics have shifted from the street to the Internet and social media, where we gnash the dry kernels of our myriad grievances 24/7. We need never face our neighbor in disagreement, need never consider dissenting opinion. That means too many of us now try to remake our community in our own proprietary image, taking little account of our neighbors.

We ought treat this newfound digital liberty with better care, as each of us sitting alone venting our miseries into the ether means we’re free to neglect what it means to be a neighbor.  And regardless of intention, in such isolation we end up working against our community’s greater health.

No matter what you choose to believe, that’s no way to teach those children on that stage how to be either a good neighbor or a good citizen.

Anyway, some days are just to celebrate who we are and at least at Pumpkin Fest, most folk paid politics and its attendant grievance no mind. The autumn sun was brilliant. Kids laughed and skipped and sang. Adults proudly embraced their community, while Dave Parker with his goofy songs and invariably creepy sidekick Skippy held children of all ages in happy thrall.

Though I never did learn why the helicopter guy didn’t show, and me having set ten bucks aside for to purchase a bird’s eye view…

Thursday, October 20, 2011

King Copper -- Prelude

There are any number of fine scenic drives around the Superior Basin: the Covered Road in Houghton County MI, Brockway Mountain Drive out on the Keweenaw, the ride up the Nipigon Palisades in Ontario and (while we’re there) the entirety of Trans-Canadian Highway 17 across the north shore of Superior all the way from Sault St. Marie to Thunder Bay, which is bordered by wonders on every side pretty much its entire length. We’ll not be taking those last two until next spring, as winter is bearing down and Mrs. Hutton didn’t raise any fools.

My favorite drive is the 24 miles or so of two lane blacktop named South Boundary Road that runs up and down and all around through splendid woods from the Park Headquarters of the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness to the Presque Isle unit on the western edge of the park. It’s what you call “Seasonal”. That is it’s not plowed so in winter you travel it at your own risk. Like every other day I suppose, but more so.

To get there off the Gogebic Range, head out of Wakefield onto the slender ribbon running all the way to Marquette but instead hook a quick left onto County Road 519 to leave all that behind. In Thomaston -- which lost its post office in 1926 but was once a happenin’ place -- take a second left and you’re headed straight north into mostly nothing but a waving ocean of trees until the Presque Isle River falls out from the southeast to greet you. Then north becomes relative and after a bit you meet up with the aforementioned South Boundary Road. Along County 519 lies today’s story.

We’ve dug copper in the region for better than 5,000 years and times being tough, we’ve returned to take some more. A company named Orvana intends to dig a mine between the Black and the Presque Isle River, out in the woods near the shore of Superior. They call it “Copperwood”, designed to sound like a bucolic subdivision but reachable only via County Road 519. Fourteen years the job creators say, they’ll pound copper from hard rock and make the region worth something again. Sell the treasure on the open market so American firms can bid for our copper against the Chinese or whomever. Create jobs. Make some money. Fourteen good years maybe more, to help reinvigorate our community. Win win.

On the last day of September, a group of people got together at the Wakefield Twp. Hall. The mood was celebratory, the way it is when folk gather to slap themselves on the back for a job well done. Turns out, Orvana will contribute something less than a quarter of the $3.5 million it’ll cost to convert 519 into an industrial service road, which meager percentage was sufficient for all involved to tout the virtues of public/private cooperation, even despite 75% of the tab being left to you and me. Giddy with enthusiasm and as reported by the Ironwood Daily Globe the next day, State Senator Tom Casperson took the opportunity to exclaim: “Let’s put our people to work and let’s not accept people telling us that we’re ruining the environment. We won’t accept that.

…Together, they can’t stop us.”

They? Who the Hell is they?

The legacy of mining litters the Superior Basin like fallen leaves in autumn. From ancient copper pits on Isle Royale east to Sault Ste. Marie, which canal was dug so we could haul riches away from the place, northwest from there to the copper, gold and platinum around Marathon Ontario, southwest to the famous Wasabi Iron Range in Minnesota, across to my home turf of the Gogebic Range and finally back to the proposed Copperwood on the western edge of the Keweenaw Fault where famous mines once sprung up atop ancient pits. We’ll not escape the legacy of mining along our scenic drive and will have ample opportunity to decide for ourselves what that’s meant to the region and how it continues to inform the culture. At any rate, County Road 519 isn’t where we’ll make the case either way, as it’ a done deal.

I just wanted you to know that even before final permits for the mine have been let, work on the road has begun and is scheduled for completion in 2013.

So if you'd prefer to drive Michigan County 519 before heavy equipment rules the road and see this:

which will bring you to this,

which after a short distance ends here,

then you’d best take the opportunity sooner rather than later, ‘cause all the way from Wakefield right up to the South Boundary Road, County 519 is about to be remade into something altogether different and “they” won’t stop it.

King Copper is accepting no less.