Thursday, October 6, 2011

The 51st of these United States

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan has long been treated as the suspect cousin with special skills who only gets his seat at the family table for so long as his skills are needed and when they’re not his invitation gets somehow lost in the mail and everybody happily eats without him. But let some war effort require iron, or the price of copper rise and the mosquitos of outside interests swarm the place like it’s the first warm blood of the season.

When not being exploited for its “inexhaustible” resources, the region is mostly ignored by the State Capital in Lansing and periodically some local will launch a campaign for the U.P. (as it’s known) to secede from the State of Michigan and become the State of Cloverland, which is a terrible name for a State, or the State of Superior, which isn’t.

To look at a map, the Upper Peninsula is no part of Michigan at all, connected only by the Mackinac Bridge. If that disappeared into fog roiling the Straits of Mackinac the only thing bordering the U.P that isn’t Lake Superior would be Wisconsin, who had her chance to claim this land but didn’t much want it then and can’t have it now. The late John Voelker, a splendid writer and Michigan Supreme Court Justice said “The best thing that could happen to the U.P. would be for someone to bomb the bridge”. Judge Voelker was no one’s fool though if uttered today his thoughts on the Mighty Mac might earn the good judge a visit from the Department of Homeland Security right quick.

Wisconsin shills herself as the Northwoods with supper clubs, family resorts, fishing guides and shops that hawk “genuine” Indian moccasins to tourists, but to cross the Mississippi watershed divide is to leave all that behind and enter a world apart. Then those roads that lead to resort woods down below become fire lanes and logging roads leading mostly to nowhere but more woods. A place of long shadow, hard rock and forest so deep it’s a national treasure in need of preservation and a towering resource crying out for harvest, depending.

The Northwoods is a tough, glorious place with a checkered past. To look at it today you wouldn’t think that not so long ago as the raven flies damned near every tree in the Upper Peninsula was cut down. Or that cougar and wolves were trapped out. Eagles nearly gone too and in my lifetime. Or that the ridges now dressed in autumn’s finest were crowned by dozens of mines that threw smoke to the sky, while stamp mills pounding stone to separate copper from poor rock shook the earth like giants walking. And the towns that grew to support the industry, towns with names like Iron Belt and Bessemer, these swarmed over with immigrants who brought their own customs, which were made new in a new place. Notably, those included the Finns with their saunas and the Cornish with their pasties and thank goodness for both.

You’d never guess the region was honeycombed by rails that led all the way to places like Chicago. Now the tracks are mostly gone, rails recycled, grades converted to snowmobile trails or let to go fallow. Marquette, the biggest city in the U.P., can only be reached by two-lane. Just last week Frontier Airlines announced its intention to cease air service to the Gogebic/Iron County Airport as of next March, ensuring yet further isolation. And so it goes.

I was talking to a man and his wife, who live on a splendid spit of land they rightly call their own. He said It’s right there in the deed. I own the land but don’t own the minerals beneath it. Some mining company owns those. They can come and put me off my own land for ‘fair market value’. A friend told me that’s true of most everyone up here who owns some piece of God’s green earth. Are they squatters on their own land?  Tenant Farmers who don’t farm? Whatever the word or phrase, it’d be particularly American you betcha.

One thing’s certain: it can’t be “landowner” either. Not when some company has preemptively partnered with the government in order to put you off your own land by writ as needs might arise. And it’s not like the mining company pays these folk’s property taxes either. Which would seem only fair, considering.

I suppose that’s emblematic of the central dilemma we’ll explore together over the next year, when we’re not otherwise telling tall tales and having fun in the woods. These folk who live in splendid isolation, who sustenance hunt and fish, who burn wood and propane for heat, who invariably wave to you after you’ve given them wide berth with your car as they walk the gravel shoulder of two-lane blacktop, these people have always just wanted to be taken as what they honestly are. They’ve long since earned that respect and deserve no less, for past services rendered.

Instead they just keep being taken. By outsiders who don’t live here permanent and never could.

Along the Underwood Grade, Gogebic County, MI

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