Thursday, March 22, 2012

Spring Break...

My plan for this project has always been to put up fresh material at least once a week each & every week for the duration, come what may. Since I’m asking you to come along for the ride, it’s on to me to keep your interest.

As it happens, I unexpectedly (though happily) must travel to Utah to honor a longstanding collaborative effort now drawing to a close. So I’ll be off our road after today and on that road into April.

During my years in the photo industry, I was a commercial deadline driven multitasking lab rat of note and that remnant part of me now desires nothing more than to plow on through regardless. But the simple truth is, by this morning next week I’ll have risen before the sun to step out from a cabin and into the glories of Zion National Park. Having never before traveled out west, there’s every expectation I’ll be lost in abject wonder.

I won’t cheat myself of that or Heather of my full participation in it. Neither will I ever cheat you and this project of my proper attention. So the blog’ll just have to idle quietly in my absence and that’s that.


If you’ve been here before, I encourage you to take the opportunity and noodle around for what you might’ve missed. If you’ve just come across this project, please feel free to dig deep. The basic premises are laid out, there’s already plenty to look at and once I return the narrative will grow richer with every mile traveled together through the complex wilderness of the Superior Basin.

I've also added a resource page to the right hand sidebar that puts all the hot links used for these essays in one categorized list for convenient edification & amusement.

In the meantime -- and considering it’ll then be full on April -- here’s a selection of never before seen images lifted from field work done during previous springs. Though large format film is an ideal means to capture botanicals, I've only rarely shown this work because it fell outside my core portfolio. Besides, it’s a field crowded with both well established pros and amateurs alike. And as it turns out, there are formal rules for shooting flowers. What I do with them out in the field rarely conforms to those.

So here’re some botanicals meant to hold the fort in my absence; all taken during the last few seasons with only “Marsh Marigolds” not captured on large format chrome. It’s nice to finally have an opportunity to share some of these.

And with this being something of the ‘winter that never was’, maybe by the time we’re again on the road there’ll be fresh flowers everywhere to greet us.

See you soon…

Apple Orchard -- Bayfield County, WI

Marsh Marigolds (Caltha palustris) -- Gogebic County, MI

Great White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) -- Gogebic County, MI

Apple Tree & Cabin -- Bayfield County, WI

Forget Me Not (Myosotis sylvatica) -- Gogebic County, MI

Two Trillium -- Gogebic County, MI

Apple Orchard 2 -- Bayfield County, WI

Thursday, March 15, 2012

On Sentient Landscape and the Pterodactyl

There’s a sacred place just up from the big lake, well hidden by a strong stretch of forest. Though fairly near a good road, if you don’t already know it’s there, you won’t when driving by.

It’s one of many such sites around Lake Superior. A few are world famous, like Agawa. In deference to Homeland Security I’ve secured the necessary papers so we’re free to travel the north shore this summer, when brilliant afternoons are best spent in idle contemplation near the cool waters of any shallow bay while waiting for long light to whisper that it’s again time to get off my contemplative ass and back to work.

Even when not world famous, some of these sacred sites are marked for the convenience of tourists. Many remain obscure. Most are near special waters. Almost all are infused with a mysterious but palpable blend of landscape and culture, which recognition is beyond the capacity of words to adequately convey. You have to be there. I suppose plenty of these sacred places remain unknown to most white men and rightly so.

This place I know used to have a sign. It used to have a trail. It used to be abused by tourists who’d take pieces of it home, little living pieces precisely positioned with profound purpose by others, but pocket sized and way better than cheap dream catchers or moccasins all the same. Though once I witnessed a young man who in accordance with Jewish custom left an object of respect in this place, so sometimes signs and trails serve noble intent, depending on who’s using ‘em and for what.


The trail to this sacred place led up from the road along a deep cut of small, winding creek. On one side of the path stood thick forest. To the other, trees fell steeply away with the ravine. Through those you could see over and down to the streambed, where bristling brush and decades of debris still obscures a slow tumble of dark water that over time washes everything it touches into tiny pieces down to the Great Lake.

It was misty, cool and still the day that Johnny, Heather and I first went in.

I don’t recall how we found the place. Probably the wooden sign, which was cut in the rough profile of an Indian’s head with great beak for a nose & complete with full feathered headdress of the sort not worn by Indians from anywhere around there. Why we went in was the same reason we did most everything in the northwoods, which was simply to see, perchance to know. With that purpose and our awareness on high alert, we crept into the mist shrouded forest.

Maybe 50 yards in, a great winged shadow rose silently to our left and over the creek. It loomed large enough and close enough that the three of us flushed with adrenaline and stopped suddenly to turn in unison. The creature glided just above the unnavigable tangle. Its giant wings barely moved. Eyes wide with primordial vision, we followed its track in the air upstream ‘til it’d ridden the rough map of the creek to disappear around a bend.

“Did you see that?!?” one of us cried.

It was a Great Blue Heron, back in the day when those were almost impossibly rare and what few there were signified a lasting wildness of place. But we instantly agreed that when first we turned and all the while we watched it fly, the silhouette of an impossibly large body carried aloft on massive wings appeared to us as nothing less than a pterodactyl on the hunt and we three in sudden thrall of ancient custom, cowering in thick cover as it flew by.

In an instant, for a minute and across millennia, we were all the same.

Properly primed, we headed on in to the sacred place and neither did it disappoint. We’d received everything we’d asked for and quite a bit more besides.


During the last day in the field this past November, I found myself on that winding road along the lake. The sun shone bright and warm. Whatever snow had fallen near shore the day before was already melted. I very much needed to head well inland to capture the first of winter before the short day and exquisite light was done and the opportunity wasted.

All the same, I’d not visited this sacred place in many years so I left the cameras in the car to take a walk in the woods and pay my respects. Though there’s no longer a sign, I knew the way. I’d not gone but a few paces in when a startling sight greeted me.

Where once there was clear trail, now there’s maybe dozens of trees felled directly upon it, sheared off near the ground in a row and stacked like cordwood across the way. It’s impassable and so neatly accomplished it looks very much like cold purpose to keep the tourists, their sticky fingers and indiscriminate curiosity from ever again finding the place. I later learned that during a great storm, Superior overwhelmed the road to claim the sign and with gale winds had snapped the trees.

I could’ve picked my way around the carnage. I might’ve cut fresh trail through the woods or even followed the streambed up, along the ancient trail of great herons and visions of pterodactyls on the wing. But on this day at that sacred place, what signage remained plainly read “Closed for Business”.

Content with that, I returned to the car and chased down what remained of the first snow of winter, to great effect.

A fine day, all around.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Iron Giant -- Introduction

Iron is the second tine to a forked dragon’s tail that with the Industrial Age first curled around the Superior basin and has yet to release its grip.

King Copper being sly enough to adapt to modern times, today it primes a curiously Keynesian economic pump with Internet towers and student scholarships and infrastructure assistance thrown knowingly around. So while King Copper’s interests are better served in the bargain, rose petals are strewn along its way. Nice job, when ‘ya can create it for yourself.

Iron remains a blind, blundering giant of the 19th Century; a time when corporate finesse was industrial strength weakness and not even the appearance of that was allowed lest workers lay claim to their labor, the ambitions of Capital come undone and the Republic ultimately fall.

Today Iron stirs afresh. Wielding cash hardened political muscle to clear a wide path, showing little regard for neighborly consideration and with but cursory concern for the breadth of its destructive footprint, the Giant again intends to stride shaded hills.

And you must get the Hell out of the way or be crushed, as Iron recognizes no third option and cares nothing for the mitigation of your hard choices, no matter how cheap the going rate.


On the Gogebic Range, courtesy of the Philip J. Kucera Collection

Iron and its child steel transformed the world to make it modern. The Iron Horse. The Plow that Broke the Plains. Buildings ten stories tall. The automobile, for goodness sake. And it’s around iron product we form concrete; to keep the roads and bridges upon which everything runs from ready collapse; as once rebar rusts too well, collapse those do.

All Earth’s iron was formed a couple billion years ago, give or take. With the advent of oxygen sufficient to support complex life, the reproductive age of iron came to a relatively abrupt end. Today most iron roils molten near the Earth’s core and can’t be harvested. What we collect is but an ancient scab to be scraped off by human ingenuity, ample elbow grease applied. A grand portion of North America’s exploitable iron is located in the Superior Basin, another happy accident of ancient geology, the legacy of volcanism and the glories of the Proterozoic eon.

Small wonder the Giant remains uncivilized, even today.

The Gogebic Range straddles northern Wisconsin into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It’s at the southern edge of the Laurentian Plateau, where rocks from the near the beginning of geologic time are exposed to sun, wind, rain and easy pickin’s. And just like Momma told us, picking puts scabs at risk of infection and at best leaves a lasting scar.

From the late 1800’s to about 1920, mines dug deep into the eastern stretch of the Gogebic were the nation’s greatest producers of iron and essential to the creation of industrial America. A wilderness that prior to 1880 was considered “impenetrable” fell quickly in the Giant’s path.

Ironwood MI, courtesy of the Philip J. Kucera Collection

The eastern portion of this ancient range is dotted with remnant mining towns. Viewed from Bessemer at night, these shine like a string of Christmas lights strung across the undermined hills. Through boom & bust, much of the western portion of the Range remained unmolested, as changing technology aligned with geologic coincidence to make the exploitation of iron less profitable there. Save for the axmen, whose considerable efforts irrevocably altered the face of the place, what’s now called the Penokee Hills is nearly as remote and wild a place today as it was before white men first stumbled upon the rough riches within them, though the earliest inhabitants would hardly recognise the hills as theirs.

Some folk just can’t leave well enough alone, especially when hard times beg for easy answers.

Tuesday night the Wisconsin State Senate defeated by a single vote legislation written specifically to ease the way of a privately held Company out of Florida, whose ambition it was to blast and scrape the ancient Penokee Hills from the face of the Earth.

In addition to a persistently fluctuating number of much needed jobs, the intensely private Cline Group’s subsidiary GogebicTaconite promised to leave us with a hole in the ground that -- depending on who was talking when & to whom -- would have been up to 1.5 miles wide, 1,000 feet deep and some 22 miles long, which is one helluva footprint even for an Iron Giant and so much for the Penokee Hills.

Before it could rain prosperity upon the Range, Gogebic Taconite insisted it first be relieved of 21st Century environmental considerations and permitting processes. That such prior restrictions placed in the way of outsider’s ambitions were a direct response made by the good citizens of Wisconsin to a hundred years of previous promises come to ill was no concern of theirs.

Upon this insistence that history must be ignored the question turned, at least for today. Immediately, Gogebic Taconite made good on its longstanding threat to pack up its promises and go home, good stinkin’ riddance to those more troublesome citizens of Wisconsin.

The Iron Giant is accustomed to old ways and unconcerned who knows it. Thankfully, it’ll never be the 19th Century again. Not even in the Northwoods, not even that some prefer otherwise.

Still, no one should believe this high stakes game is over just because a single hand seems played out. The resource remains untapped, awaiting only renewed ambition fueled by fresh perspective earned through temporary setback. Should the Cline Group not return and there’s yet a dollar to be made on iron still in the Range, someone else will ask for credit to buy in.

And maybe Gogebic Taconite’ll make ‘em a deep discount deal on all the spiffy lawn signs presently gone for naught:

Even considering the ‘which side are ‘ya on boys’ crapola offered up by those most eager to dance in the Giant’s shadow, the sort honest discussion that’s essential for citizens to make wise decisions on critical matters of unalterable permanence has held this day for the Penokee Hills. And for every citizen willing to love a wild place for what it is instead of for what corporate ambition promises to make it.

Turns out we’ve made a far more inclusive, critically transparent culture than when last the Giant walked. That’s the thought to hold to for when next it’s sorely needed, as it certainly will be.


The Iron Giant’s footsteps stretch far and wide around the Superior Basin. Neither rain nor wind washes those away. They won’t erode beneath the sun, are never completely obscured by resurgent wilderness and the passage of time. Where once the Giant walked at worst there remains infection, at best a permanent scar.

There’s another, more neighborly sign common on the Range: “Mining: Our history, our culture, our future”. That’s a premise that can be properly explored.

Since we can’t miss the Giant’s tracks along our way, over the coming months we’ll look to the history of iron exploitation around Superior to examine exactly what legacy it’s bequeathed to the culture. And we’ll be sure to come back ‘round to the Gogebic as needed, to press informed questions as regards the future.

Under any circumstance, especially those in constant flux during dire times like these, mining the field for hard evidence figures to be a more profitable venture than merely betting to collect on familiar promises easily ignored once the hand’s played out with the resource good & gone…

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Show & Tell -- January/February

Today is the first day of meteorological spring.

Like Groundhog Day that’s irrelevant to the passing of the seasons and in this case reflects mostly the passion of weathermen for trying to overlay scientific exactitude over the messiness of natural processes. Winter in the Northwoods might run well into May, but the calendar says its time is fast running out all the same and I’ll take that.

Still. If we all join together, click our heels and say: “There’s no time like spring. There’s no time like spring…” maybe we can hurry things along their way.

In the meantime, here’s a short shot of field work done during the cold, dark season.

This clip is set to a bit of Ralph Vaughn Williams’ 7th Symphony, named “Sinfonia Antartica” by the composer. The central themes were first conceived for the 1948 British Film “Scott of the Antarctic” and afterwards Vaughn Williams incorporated those into this longer, more cohesive work.

It’s performed here by the London Philharmonic under the direction of the great Bernard Haitink and lifted from my collection of vintage vinyl: