Thursday, July 12, 2012

Lake Superior Day

This Sunday is Lake Superior Day. Have you hugged your Lake today?

Grand Sable Dunes, from 4x5 chrome

I'm on something of a fool's errand, but I knew that from the beginning.

Trying to capture a spirit of place; to define it, translate that, distill the translation and disseminate the bonded spirits from barrel direct to bar is like trying to tell of the shimmering summer's day when a butterfly lit easily upon your hand to contentedly linger. Then, you knew the butterfly and it knew you.

Outside that penetrating moment, it's all just story. No matter how perfect the light we might shed on it, story is necessarily a reduction of life. The more reduced, the more magic is squeezed from it, breath leaves from it and the transcendent moment that translated without translator quickly becomes our favorite misrepresentation of truth -- the past.

From vintage 35mm chrome: crappy film, bad glass, amazing sky, indelible memory.

As a race, we're pretty unexceptional. We've not been around long enough to merit otherwise. Dinosaurs dominated the Earth for hundreds of millions of years and it seems only an accident took 'em out or perhaps today we'd be like furtive rats snatching our food from traps set by inventive lizards intent on keeping our filthy selves out of their garages.

Even the much maligned grey wolf has been what it is living where it does for better than 750,000 years, despite being subjected to a determined holocaust by us for nearly all of modern history. That's some survival skills.

We've barely 20,000 years under our collective belt and for only a slender sliver of that what we please to call "civilized", in which our greatest enemy is so demonstrably us that aspect of the human story's been granted aphorism status.

Our sole gift is invention. Of construct. Which we then use to protect ourselves from what we must instead embrace, lest our ingenuity eventually fails to save us and some other species waiting or yet unknown claims their rightful turn on Earth in our place.

While traveling around the Superior Basin, the word inexhaustible never strays far from mind. For the longest time it was something of an emblematic American word because that seemed to symbolize both the undiscovered country of America and also its people's "unlimited" potential, blessed by rightful possession of a magnificent land.  In certain circles the concept inexhaustible remains dear, though publicly the word itself has fallen properly to disuse. Not so, "rightful possession" whether as phrase or concept.

Around the Superior Basin, the long list of rightful possessions once considered inexhaustible included beaver, white pine, copper, iron, hemlock, lake trout, pure water and even the wilderness itself. All were wrong.

All were wrong.

Each time, every time, always. Often, folk could see they were wrong yet at the same time both maintained and celebrated the illusion, as when the great pine forests fell in that slow motion nuclear blast of commerce & ambition & need & heedless action in service of conflicting interests that's the lumbering gait of human progress.

Even today, if you travel the Basin and don't look close, the word can ring true to the senses. It's a wild sea of trees around an untamed ocean of blue. Birds fly. Fish swim. Bears buster about. Wolf and cougar lurk. The Superior landscape dwarfs us by such an order of magnitude that we can only wrap our brains around little pieces of it and not many of those at the same time.

We're fragile and finite. Utterly dependent upon construct. Only by comparison does the big lake and the wilderness around it appear inexhaustible. In fact, provided we don't first try to divine its story through us and when we manage to barely stitch but a few of the perceptible parts together into coherent narrative, it's obviously anything but.

The Kingston Plains, from 120mm chrome

After us, the wilderness is made of different trees. After us, the water isn't pure. After us, the lake trout and cougar and wolf and bear are penned to fragments of sanctuary, their essential role in the health of the Basin reduced mostly to story and made inestimably more difficult where it's not.

No one can see the future, though many pretend they can. Beware of those, as they hold their own ego well above your better interests.

What's true is that the next metals scabbed from the Basin will be the last of it.

What's true is that the next "resource" likely to be treated as inexhaustible is fresh water.

Aquifers decline, natural replenishment unable to keep pace with our accelerated need. Or they're debased, an unhappy byproduct of a particular sort of progress too often celebrated in ignorance. Then there're all those folk who live on landscapes not blessed by water because we've the inventiveness that's allowed them to do it. And all the land that's farmed to feed the world, though only through the construct of irrigation, which water we increasingly borrow from Peter to pay Paul.

It's been said that the coming water wars will make our constant contretemps over oil look like patty cake.

What's true is that even today there's conversation going on about the diversion of water from Superior, conversation held mostly behind closed doors, penned there like wolves on forest fragments by International Treaties and mutual agreement but everyone knows what those are worth when desperation trumps all and looses raw need to burst forth from the poorly constructed dam of our accumulated wisdom.

And if Superior still seems so large as to be inexhaustible, consider the unnatural fate of the Aral Sea, which in my lifetime was one of the four largest lakes in the world. Today -- because folk needed, because they could -- it's a super-sized mud hole, "have it your way" indeed.

Copper Harbor, from 4x5 chrome

Like with other commemorative 'Days', there'll be all sorts of events scheduled around the Basin for the weekend -- in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ontario, to celebrate this magnificent place.

So by all means get out and hug your lake. Hug it well. Not because someday you won't be able to. No one can say that for certain, though if we read the human story with even a bit of comprehension, storm clouds are likely closer upon Superior's blue horizon than it might otherwise seem.

Do it because the only way to know the butterfly is to first invite it to light upon your hand, then hope it will.

Digital Image captured with the Toy Cannon


  1. I don't think this is a fool's errand. I think it's a wise man't errand.

  2. You're very sweet, Nonnie, thank-you. The thing is, with this task being inherently incremental, progress is difficult to measure...

  3. Thank-you, Maryanne. For coming by to visit & for the kind words. This has been a helluva trip, with the best months yet to come...