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.