Thursday, June 28, 2012

Notes From the Field -- Sleepin' on the Job...

Camp work done, the heat of the day. Dragonflies by the dozen, working reeds by the water. This is a place where you can sit beneath a cedar tree, cooled by a breeze beside a wilderness lake.

When a dragonfly lights on a page of the book you're reading if you stay very still you can watch it breathe -- abdomen moving in out in out with the pulse of life.

Spot the dragonfly

Then lulled by the sun on the lake tossed by a wind out of the west, words of overriding importance blur to indifference. While you nap birds sing through, calling for companionship or simply happy to be alive and a bird during lush summer days in the Northwoods. Insects buzz about. A bullfrog sings out. Wind in the trees rushes all around -- rising and falling and rising more -- never silent, always changing. The voice of the Earth I suppose, only without a throat to throw it or if there is one, we don't know where that is and hardly remember how to listen.

You doze through it all not exactly asleep but not nearly awake -- hearing, feeling as if in a dream and sufficiently still that a red squirrel figures it's safe to climb the sapling next to you. It drops something with a rustle through springy boughs and that ends in a soft clunk on the forest floor.

You stir and the squirrel is instantly gone. Disappeared up some other, safer tree to noisily scold you for not being dead.

And you wonder, now more or less awake, how it is we came to believe anyone is meant to live other than this.

Off to the west, gauzy mare's tails mark the sky for the coming night's storms, when the ground will shake as if astride by giants, lightning will rend the dark and most birds sensibly lay low.

But not before a thousand fireflies light the reeds and the sheathed sky in turn with the sparkling language of shooting stars and for some things there's never a photograph, though the image remains indelibly forever upon the soul.

Like the following morning when you keep a Cecropia Moth safe until it recovers from the storm, then straight out of your hand it flew flew flew on a freshening breeze right into the shaded deep trees that offer nothing like safety, but at least they're home...

Monday, June 25, 2012

Penokee - Explore the Iron Hills

Came off the road, shaved, practiced tick removal then donned semi-fancy duds and gentleman's shoes to go off & mingle with the public for the better part of four hours. Talk about your culture shock.

The opening at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center of the exhibition Penokee - Explore the Iron Hills went off with nary a hitch. A presentation in the Center's auditorium kicked things off. It was exceptionally gratifying when additional chairs needed to be brought in to accommodate an overflow crowd.

A highlight of the presentation was a performance by Zachary Hartlev of the Bad River Ojibwa. The lighting in the clip's not so good and I apologize for the sudden relocation of the camera near the beginning, but damned if young Zach didn't shed on the proceedings a full complement of perfect light all his own:

Later, everyone moved upstairs to view the exhibition. And quite the show it is.

Of the refreshments provided, I dared sample the garlic rope cheese and still went out to mingle. No harm done, it seemed. Or maybe folk were just too darned polite to hold their nose, I dunno.

Now that I've viewed the entire collection, I'm doubly honored to keep company with such a skilled, insightful and diverse group of creatives. The educational and artistic aspects of the exhibition are each fully realized and each informs the other, which combination makes for an exceptional show.

And if perchance you won't make it but care to check out my and others contributions all the same, start here.

Penokee - Explore the Iron Hills will be in residence at the Northern Great Lakes Visitors Center through January, 2013. Should you find yourself in the area, by all means stop in. I guarantee it'll prove worth your time.


Appearances deceive.

Despite the landscape now being resolutely green, with the Solstice now behind us the downslide toward another winter is already begun. There're many more miles for us to travel together and much yet for me to do before the Northwoods is again cloaked in ice, so now it's back to work...

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Iron Giant -- A Job Half Done

Through all the contention over the Cline Group's proposal to extract iron from the Penokee Hills -- from Governor Walker's insistence that 40 years of environmental law be sacrificed upon the altar of "Job Creation", to lawn signs and community organizing, to recall elections and ferocious animosity delivered neighbor to neighbor by both 'sides' railing against the other -- I've never once heard the thing accurately named.

What the Governor & his Florida pals plan for the southern half of the Gogebic Range is properly called "mountaintop removal", though the particulars differ a bit as in common usage the term refers to coal mining in Appalachia, not iron extraction in the Northwoods.

All the same, mountaintop removal is what's been proposed. After a 22 mile long, 1,000' deep, mile and a half wide hole is all that remains of the Penokee Hills, the reasonably intact half of this ancient mountain range will have been well & truly removed.

Now, there're usually a raft of reasons why folk don't call a thing for what it is. Often it's in their self-interest, as is likely the case with the Cline Group & their supporters. Mountaintop removal mining is a permanently nasty business and down in American coal communities, the natural and cultural devastation left by the process has earned steadfast resistance. So you can understand why supporters choose not to use the term.

For most everyone else, I suppose there's at least a bit of ignorance involved. After all, today many folk call the place the Penokee Hills. Before that it was simply the Gogebic Range, not the Gogebic Mountains. And when you're there, they don't look like mountains. But once, well before even collective memory and much nearer the time when Earth still made iron, these mountains defined their landscape like the Rockies or Alps or Andes of today define theirs.

We mustn't disrespect them simply because they're old and we never saw their glory. In fact, it's the sheer age of the place that makes the Iron Giant so greedy: time's worn these mountains near down to the nub. The good stuff that in other places remains closely held to the heart of its mountain, has by sheer weight of age on the Gogebic been reduced to easy pickin's.

Mountaintop removal is the name for what some want done to this land. No fault to the Gogebic, that it's survived on the face of the Earth so long its heart stands revealed.


"Penokee- Explore the Iron Hills" is an exhibition created by a group of individuals who committed to weave their voices together into a song that speaks for a place. These voices include artists, naturalists and historians, gathered together to test the theory that the more people know, the better they speak & listen together, then the greater the odds that whatever decision is reached over any given critical subject -- in this case the Penokee Hills -- will be as wise as we can make it.

Beginning this Saturday the 23rd, Penokee - Explore the Iron Hills takes up residence at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center in Ashland, through February 2013. An opening reception will begin Saturday afternoon at 1:00pm. I've not seen the entire show, so will have to speak to that next week.

But I know many of the people involved. It's a mature, considered piece of work you'll see, should you choose to attend.

Come by anytime. Then go take a walk in an ancient place, to see it and consider for yourself how we might best proceed.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Show & Tell -- April/May

That's right, no March. Frankly, March sucked.

But April and May didn't, when we ran from the tattered edge of winter straight through to the last few days of spring. From Grand Marais MI to Grand Portage MN and many points between, we chased a season 'til we had it just by the tail, then it slipped away.

S'okay. Now it's summer, with its 3:00am wakeup calls and Nautical Twilight that runs past 10:30pm. Which means midday naps are in order, when the brilliant sun blasts down, the landscape waves in the breeze and perfect light takes a daily Siesta.

This clip of selected fieldwork from April/May features a few brief pages from the final movement of Gustav Mahler's 2nd Symphony. Performed here by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Sir Georg Solti, from when they were about the greatest band in the world.

I was lucky enough to twice see them perform this piece live. The sort of performance you never forget.

The music starts softly, with a low rumble of things to come. So please be sure to turn up your speakers before you begin.


Thursday, June 14, 2012


It's said "a picture is worth a thousand words" and there're three of 'em up there, so in theory I've gone way past my word count for today. But even a photographer must admit, pictures only rarely tell a whole story...

Folk say these Untied States nurture people who go their own way, strike their own path, march to a different drummer. Depend not on ye stinkin' government for help and enterprise will clear the way for the rugged individual currently napping inside most of us.

Unlike the Brits, we don't belittle our characters as "eccentrics". We say they're American originals and hold them as emblematic of the indomitable character of a Great People born to reap the benefits of personal liberty. We celebrate our characters in story and song.

Sometimes, what folk say is even true. Sometimes it's not. In Tom Lakenen's case, it's a bit of both.


Having given up drinking and not being one to sit around in front of the TV, Tom Lakenen took up metal sculpture using scrap materials salvaged from construction sites.

He placed his work in his front yard until served notice by the good Burghers of Chocolay Township that they preferred otherwise and under pain of civil penalty too. Tom moved his sculptures to his backyard, but soon his work eclipsed the space.

So Tom bought a new space: a sizable slice of unwanted acreage along Michigan Highway 28 -- long logged over, empty of commerce, abused & neglected, zoned for near any use but hard to the thoroughfare either into or out of Marquette and just across the pavement from Lake Superior. A nice location. And sadly, still in Chocolay Township.

Though he'd never seen one, Tom set about to build a Sculpture Park. Appropriately, he named his place "Lakenland".

The Chocolay Township Board promptly set about its civic duty to harass him. Kept it up for some years, they did. I'll not recount that story here and we'll allow one of Tom's many letters to suffice except to say the repeated harassment was transparent in both method & means; typical of governmental wrongheadedness so much in the news these days.

Now, a lesser man would have succumbed. But Tom Lakenen is no lesser man. He's an American original, an individual and rural character at that. Tom persisted. While being harassed, he kept building those sculptures and improving his land, with the place kept open to all comers 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and never an admission charge for anyone ever. A sign reads: "Donations are appreciated but not expected" and Tom means that.

Tom Lakenen built his Sculpture Park. Today it includes over 80 sculptures, two fishing ponds for kids and a band shell where local musicians perform free concerts. Tom even built a wooden boardwalk so visitors can safely stroll through a small cedar swamp on his property. 

Throughout, the harassment of Tom by the Chocolay Township Board continued apace.

Then through a bit of legal chicanery, a smart & sympathetic lawyer had Tom Lakenen's name placed on the original 1880's Federal Land Grant for the property. That translated into Tom's ownership of his land predating the existence of Chocolay Township and thus its Board, legally speaking. Which then left Tom in possession of certain Federal rights, granting him a measure of protection from the whims of his neighbors.

Even with pictures to help tell the tale, ongoing stories have many sides, with some narrative threads not satisfactorily resolved, or with root causes resolutely obscure. Such is life. Freshly empowered, Tom put up his unusually specific No Trespassing signs. The harassment abated, though I'm told Chocolay Township raised the taxes on Tom's home each year ever since, right straight through this latest Depression.

Tom Lakenen gives back to his community, as best his considerable industry and skills allow. People need good free fun, especially in hard times. Lakenland thrives:


It's popular these days to say government impedes progress, it's myriad rules and regulations strangle innovation and even that American Government is the enemy of Liberty. Lots of folk seem to believe that and, as a child come to awareness in Chicago during the 60's, you'll understand I'm not entirely unsympathetic to the view, especially that last part.

But here's the deal: of all our government entities, it's the Feds who're explicitly charged with seeing each and every one of us receives the equal treatment under the law that as Americans is our due, with over 200 years of Federal law written expressly to help nudge that unlikely premise towards actuality. This great, messy pile of accumulated law protects our right to be who we choose and contribute as best we might. And to freely reject any & all who tell us we should just leave things up to them.

So come November, when you go to the polls and the chants of vested self-interests ring your ears with demands to strip the Feds of power so regular folk can wrest control of their own destinies, pause for a moment over the story of Tom Lakenen.

Consider that the most vindictive sons of bitches you'll ever meet in your life are overwhelmingly likely to crop up from amongst family, friends and neighbors. Bet on it.

And that without recourse to our stumbling, half-assed, towering Babel of American Federal glory, you'd have scant protection from them at all.

At any rate, what's inarguable is that by the time I headed out of Lakenenland long about midday, Tom's place positively crawled with kids and their families. Parents smiled warmly at their charges, whose peals of excited laughter rang throughout. And no one had to pay for their fun.

On some warm summer night should you happen to pass by on the way to one place or the other, when just a hint of a breeze wafts in from the lake and over M-28 to caress a few acres of once neglected land, you might even find a concert taking place. That'll be an ongoing celebration of American individualism you're always free to just drop in on, if you choose. No charge.

But when you visit Lakenland and provided you can afford it, please go right ahead and drop a fiver in the bin, though Tom doesn't ask that and won't ever expect it. Do it because we say we celebrate folk like Tom Lakenen. 

Do it for who we claim to be, 'cause Tom proves it true.

Thursday, June 7, 2012


Superior is a freshwater sea and all the land around it a maritime province. Storm tossed, unpredictable and deadly, the lake has long been noted for the men, ships and material it claims. From Indian then Voyageur canoes, to pleasure craft and mighty commercial vessels, all are at risk of sudden storms with gale force winds and waves up to 35 feet high.

For scuba divers the Upper Peninsula alone contains four underwaterpreserves and for the rest of us there're glass bottom boat tours out of Munising.

The stretch of lake between Grand Marais and Whitefish Point is called by some the “Graveyard of Superior”. It’s here that the Edmund Fitzgerald went down. And while technically just west of Grand Marais, for sake of argument we’ll include Au Sable Reef in that ledger.

Here there are three ships come to final rest within an easy walk along a splendidly wild and at least occasionally most terrible shore. On this lovely stretch of sand and rock between the mouth of the Hurricane River and Au Sable Light, most anyone can get up close and personal with Superior’s deadly heritage.

Given the vagaries of wind, water and sand, sometimes these icons of disaster are near invisible. At other times they’re like nothing more than bones of dead dinosaurs washed up on the beach and that’s quite the thing to see.

So should you ever find yourself in Grand Marais, be sure to stop by and pay your respects…

Mary Jarecki

Built in 1871 and rebuilt in 1880, Mary Jarecki was a 200' steam barge. On July 4th 1883 she was downbound from Marquette and fully loaded when the ship went off course in thick fog. She hit Au Sable Reef with such force that her bow was out of the water by a yard. Salvage attempts were made on at least two different occasions, but eventually Mary Jarecki was abandoned for a wreck and total loss.

This is the first ship you'll see, along the beach east of the Hurricane River.


Built 1887, Sitka was a 272', 1,740 ton steam barge, also working the iron trade. On October 15th 1893, the crew of the Sitka rescued five survivors of the schooner Sherwood, which boat waterlogged and went to the bottom off Grand Island. Nearly eleven years to the day, on October 4th 1904 came Sitka's turn.

Laden with ore taken on in Marquette, Sitka hung up on Au Sable Reef some 100' from shore. Though lifesavers from Grand Marais responded to the distress call, with placid weather Captain Johnson & crew remained aboard, sending a single man ashore to call for a tug in hopes of refloating the boat. The next morning brought a rising gale. The ship was abandoned and pounded to pieces by waves. Later, wreckers were able to strip what little was left.

I'm told that the wreck of Sitka is mingled with the remains of Gale Staples, the third ship along this beach. But some 15 years or so ago I went in and captured a single image, which doesn't look much at all like the Staples.

I've not seen Sitka since, as she's remained buried beneath the sand. I asked a Park worker when last anyone saw Sitka. "Long time", he replied.

So despite repeated visits, this lone vintage 4x5 chrome will have to serve.

Gale Staples

Originally named Caledonia and renamed Gale Staples after transfer to Canadian ownership, the 277', 2,197 ton wooden steamer was hauling coal when on October 1st, 1918 rough weather forced her onto Au Sable Reef. Coast Guard removed eleven crew members and tugs were called. The storm worsened and the remaining six crewmembers left the ship. Hard seas over several days completed her destruction and the Gale Staples became a total loss.

Of these three derelict ships, Gale Staples is the most dependable. Except for the time I shot what I take to be Sitka, Staples has lain revealed on the beach each time I've visited and is regularly the most photogenic of the three.

Look closely to spy an ore boat on the horizon

Gale Staples once gave me an object lesson in the pursuit of perfect light.

I'd worked this wreck beneath resolutely grey skies for hours. Had done everything I could under the circumstances and, disappointed, packed to leave. While walking away I looked skyward and thought perhaps there'd come a break. I threw down the pack and hurriedly set up. Standing in the water, I'd time only for a single exposure before grey once again overwhelmed. 

This shot of Gale Staples remains one of my personal favorites. Now that's perfect light...

Monday, June 4, 2012

The People's House

'Penokee - Explore the Iron Hills' premiered Saturday in the rotunda of the State Capitol Building in Madison WI. It was an extraordinary place to hold an exhibition and things went well.

Though only part of the show was mounted in the rotunda, what there was of it left me honored to have played a part. Both the artistic and the educational aspects of the thing are particularly strong. Can't hardly wait to view the entire show when it takes up residence at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center on June 23rd.


Every Saturday in season the good citizens of Madison Wi throw themselves a Circus on Capitol Square. They call it a Farmer's Market.

In fairness, there are farmers and lot's of 'em, selling all manner of things from produce to meat. There're also spices and syrups, fresh baked goods & potted plants too. These tents ring the walk immediately around the Capitol Building. Foot traffic is heavy, business brisk.

Strung around that and fanning out in different directions is Madison celebrating itself, from folk hawking doo dads & gee gaws, to musicians, food vendors & community organizations spreading the word. And, gloriously reminiscent of Chicago's once celebrated but now mostly moribund Bughouse Square, abundant free speech practiced freely, with purpose.

All told, it's quite the scene:

From the steps of the Capitol Building

Inside the Capitol Building is the final ring of this weekly public Circus and what transpires there is profound. Citizens treat their building as if it belongs to them not merely in some abstract political sense but in actual fact. With the business of the State being light on Saturdays folk clamber all over the place, always treating their public house with respect and often with wide-eyed children in tow. It's a great civics lesson being repeatedly taught in a living place instead of in a museum filled with artifacts.

Naturally, most of the activity centers around the floor of the rotunda beneath the towering Capitol dome, which by volume is the largest of its kind in these United States and among the largest in the world.

From our vantage on the 2nd floor, we watched the people's parade pass by. Mostly, it was good fun but not infrequently folk came to this spot with high purpose and in reverence, as when a group of a dozen or more bikers held a lengthy prayer circle beneath the shining light that flows down from the dome.

Then something sublime occurred. A man walked quietly into his house, stood near its center and humbly raised his voice in song:

Tomorrow, the good citizens of Wisconsin have the responsibility to participate in an historic election. Only twice before in our Nation's history has there been a recall election of a sitting Governor. Tuesday will be the third.

When Governor Walker was 1st elected, it was with 52.29% of the vote cast by only 49.7 percent of voters. In other words, roughly a quarter of Wisconsin's eligible citizens decided what course the State should take. That's not near good enough under any circumstance, especially during hard times. Many who stayed home became dissatisfied with the result and rather quickly, too. That's only expected, when folk choose to let others do the heavy lifting for them.

So get out and vote, Wisconsin. Show the cynics, the naysayers, the political panderers & cronies of every stripe, the fear mongers, demagogues & the exploiters for gain that in America, power truly rests in the hands of The People.

Your forbears built for you a splendid, joyously inclusive People's House.

Tomorrow's your opportunity to earn it anew.