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.

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