Thursday, December 5, 2013

Show & Tell -- A Compendium of Images Captured on Film

I'd figured to wait on this until a hardware upgrade allowed for a software upgrade and I could then take full advantage of the facility provided by the most up to date slide show resources. But by the time I do that, I'll have completed the transition over to full-fledged digital imagist and there'll be little call to look backwards then.

So for now we'll close the photo album on our 14 month Odyssey around the Superior Basin with this extended piece, once again calling on the sublime work of Arvo Part and his Spiegel Im Spiegel for accompaniment.

Which persuasive rhythm and decidedly ambiguous emotional tenor seems ideal, considering everything.

The best of the season to you all. Thank-you for being here.





Thursday, November 7, 2013

Hunting the Big Bad Wolf

Some folk believe that before the arrival of people, North America was home to the most diverse community of life in the history of the world. Of course, we can't know for sure. But to be in the running means it was quite the place.

From a vintage 35mm negative

Even after 13 to 50 thousand years (give or take) of human habitation, America of just a couple hundred years ago wasn't anything like what it is today. While remnants and other rare places reminiscent of the past remain, these scattered, anachronistic landscapes are merely shadows thrown from a barely imaginable distance, somehow still alive and always whispering.

What's true is that in the glorious cradle of North American antiquity, all manner of life thrived in riotous abundance.

And nearly everywhere loped the wolf.

Social, fierce and discerning. Perceptive of the real world in ways as yet outside the scope of our imaginings, the wolf of North America stands largely unchanged for something like 750,000 years. That makes it a reasonable candidate for mammalian social perfection, or as near to that as humans can manage to measure.

Wolves knew America before there were humans here. Indeed, for a long, long time before there were humans anywhere. Taking everything into account, one might even consider the wolf a mature species.

A captive animal, from a vintage 35mm negative

Wolves run throughout the story of human existence.

Probably the best one stop shop to learn about that is Barry Lopez's book Of Wolves and Men. You'll not find so well considered, insightful and fundamental a retelling of the wolf/human narrative than that in Lopez's masterpiece.

So we'll stick to the ongoing story of wolves, men and Michigan. Which itself is quite the tale...

In 1838, the still new State of Michigan protected its citizens by establishing a bounty on wolves. Its purpose was to rid the place of wolves altogether, the better to render the abundance of godforsaken wilderness Michigan was blessed with safe for civilization.

Ingenuity was cruelly brought to bear. Not just in Michigan but nationwide, as dead animals stuffed with poison were strewn about the American landscape in hopes a wolf would pass by and chow down.

Nevermind the millions upon millions of other hapless critters who got themselves wasted in the bargain, whether by taking the bait or by being it. Those were just collateral damage brought by weapons of mass destruction employed during a pogrom that lasted some 125 years.

And simmers still, as we'll see.

In 1960 Michigan repealed its bounty program, which'd garnered one dead wolf during all of '59. By 1963, most thought it unlikely that wolves lived there at all, save in isolation out on Isle Royale.

It's estimated that by then wolves survived on barely 3% of their native American range, not counting Alaska. After more than a century of progress prosecuted with extreme prejudice, the number of wolves left alive in the lower 48 totaled 350 to 700 individuals, give or take.

A success, by near to every accustomed measure of those rapidly changing times.

Then in 1965, the State of Michigan granted its protection to wolves no longer there. Times can change quickly. Occasionally, people change with them. Not so much, the wolf.

A big chunk of Michigan got itself rehabbed along the way. With that we invited wolves to return to their ancestral home. Eventually, some took us up on it.

Efforts at reintroduction began in 1974, when four Minnesota wolves were captured and released in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. They were promptly killed. Yet by 1991, wolves had found their way back on their own. Pioneer population estimated at 17.

Inspired, Michigan formed a wolf recovery team, hatched a formal plan and got down to work. By 2004, wolf population in the State was guessed at 360. A modest but manifest success, at least by ever-shifting contemporary standards.

Today the whispering of a landscape fit to nurture both wolves and men again informs more than 20 million acres of forest land, or roughly 54% of Michigan. Not anything like days gone by to be sure, neither in quality nor quantity. But not half bad either, considering the vagaries of progress.

And those millions of acres of purposefully hard won forest are home to approximately 658 purposefully hard won wolves.

From 4x5 transparency film

That is, until next week.

When on the morning of November 15th and for the protection of its citizens, the State of Michigan will again sanction the arbitrary killing of wolves. This time, for sport.

Or as they like to call it, Wolf Management.

Should you wish to read the DNR's "Rationale and Basis" for this miserable indulgence, scroll down past the handy scorecard and you'll find only passing pretense of science or biology used to justify the renewal of indiscriminate killing.

But at least poison's not on the menu.

A captive animal, from a vintage 35mm negative

Across select areas of Michigan today, wolves dare to make themselves visible. That's a problem, as the level of wolfish comfort required before a wolf reveals itself is disconcerting to folk who share in the benefits of a restored landscape all the same.

Wolves appear at the fringes of yards. They trot through pastures, dart across roads, shadow people in forests and occasionally even saunter right through town. Wolves mate with dogs and sometimes kill them too. Judging by news reports, they might nurse a special grudge against hunting dogs, go figure.

Wolves take their fair share of deer. That infuriates deer hunters, a powerful lobby in Michigan and make no mistake.

Ill-suited to the restored northern reaches of a naturally difficult place and not near so dumb as they seem when caught in your headlights, deer during the last couple decades are headed steadily south to greener pastures.

Times change. Maybe even deer change with them. Deer hunters must, with or without we kill us some wolves.

Wolves take Michigan livestock, though accurate numbers are tough to come by. Not many not often, to be sure. But if that calf carcass on the ground belongs to you, there's gotta be some Hell to pay.  More commonly, wolves agitate horses and cattle. They know there're wolves about even when you don't, so the scuffling and snorting of domestic animals agitates the domesticated animal in you, too.

There's no record of a wolf ever attacking a human in Michigan. That can and does happen elsewhere, on rare occasion. Turns out, the authentic narrative of wolves and men bears little resemblance to the stories, legends and fables. But still...

No one wants to be the parent of the first child in Michigan ever killed by a wolf.

Neither should people free of that potentiality sell short the wages of such fear. Or belittle folk who hold to it, whether real or maybe not so much, yet present on a daily basis and thoroughly woven through every red thread of human history.

It makes primitive sense that Michigan's wolf hunt is intended solely to strike fear into wolves that don't possess it in sufficient quantity to suit us. Top line predators need know each other before they can share hunting grounds. That's a contract bound by blood, no matter what age the species.

So next week we'll dispatch maybe 1,200 soldiers into the wilds of Michigan to falsely allay citizen's fears, create an illusion of security and maintain marginal political peace. In our name they'll kill as many as 48 arbitrary wolves in order to terrorize the entire Michigan tribe of wolves, hoping the remaining 600 will take heed.

Which'll prove only that despite those refreshed 20 million acres of damned expensive forest land in freshly rehabbed Michigan, any wolfish notion that humans might in wolves' absence have matured into a species better equipped to live with a robust, healthy landscape as opposed to against it is at best premature and mostly, a lethal lie.

As people, we're supposed to be smarter than this. As Americans, we're supposed to be better than this.

We debase ourselves by resorting to simple-minded savagery because we're afraid, angry at each other and real world solutions require the hard work and advanced consideration of ingenuity creativity applied. We seem in particular short supply of that last, these days.

The story of wolves and men in Michigan mirrors questions critical to our day and age:

What constitutes the moral use of preventive force?

What price, the lives of innocents?

What cost in future freedoms, when government creates an illusion of safety for sake of political peace?

And finally, what cumulative damage is done to the battered landscape of authentic American character -- the good and true and right and just that's supposedly our birthright -- each & every time we answer wrong?

From 120mm transparency

What's true is that it's from what's best in the American character that we first engaged the labor to restore wild land in Michigan. And it's what's best in the American character that led us to invite an old, familiar enemy to come live side by side, finally in approximate peace.

*

That the wolf continues to vex a race long since proven dominant over every uncivilized creature on pretty much any landscape on Earth is testament to the wolf's inherent strengths.

That humans continue to exploit the wolf as handy avatar for a variety of fears & preoccupations curiously still nursed at by an undisputed, as yet undefeated Champion Predator of the World (that's you and me) is testament to the passel of inherent weaknesses we've yet to outgrow.

Somehow, despite this age of relative enlightenment, technological wonders and only a few generations into a critical revolution in our relationship with the real world, we must again fight for ground once thought secured.

It's year two of Wisconsin's resumed wolf hunt. Likewise in Minnesota, a wellspring of repatriated wolves around the region and home to the International Wolf Center. You can read a firsthand tale of how and why a Minnesota hunt goes down here, as originally appearing in The Varmint Hunter magazine.

Meanwhile, approximately 75 wolves reintroduced by us into the wilds down New Mexico way have Americans securing kids in chicken coops at bus stops while blaming the wolf for everything from a decline in tourism to the loss of Sacred American Freedom via the wolf of (American) government.

That last wolfish notion comes courtesy of those vigilant shepherds of liberty the billionaire Koch Bros., peddled through their Americans for Prosperity flock of sheep.

And back in Michigan, citizens who petitioned the State to refrain from arbitrarily killing purposefully reintroduced wolves received an end run 'round by politicians in Lansing. Maybe we'll get the chance next year, to see how much Democracy matters when weighed against political profiteering.

At present, the landscape doesn't look good. But considering the absurd narrative of wolves and men in Michigan, who can say?


Like most photographers, I've work that for a variety of reasons doesn't often get shown.

During our Search for Perfect Light, I captured images of what I'm reasonably certain was a young wolf, the first roadkill wolf I've ever seen and only the second wild wolf I've been near to.

It cuts a vibrant, seminal figure even in death. This figure whispers through our collective unconscious, for which favor we've made it a symbol of all that's taken for dangerous or ungodly in heathen wildness.

Should you care to see what a wolf hunter pays dearly for the mere hope of seeing up close and personal, go here and here.

Now just imagine how much more vibrant and valuable when alive -- eyes bright, nose keen to the breeze as autumn ruffles thickening fur and paws barley touch the cool, dark earth while trotting through wild Michigan -- and made appropriately wary of human predation.

Then take action according to the whispers of your conscience and your own best interests.

Because wolves in sheep's clothing are out and about, salivating at the scent of our fears.


Friday, October 4, 2013

Riding the Imaging Revolution, Part 2

Or, what I did on my summer vacation...

In May of this year I tucked the Linhof snugly into the backpack that's carried it from Switzerland in 1996 to Dan's Cabin in 2012.

Typically that was 54# of dead weight, slung to my shoulders then hauled off across wild land and/or into the broken buildings that frequently litter it. Always, the pack secured my practical purpose for being there. And served for an admirable working platform too. Flat ground or no, fair weather or foul.

Next to the Linhof I placed a Gossen Luna Pro light meter of the type I first used while shooting 16mm film, along with a proper coterie of necessary camera accessories and a factory sealed, outdated box of 20 4x5 transparencies. Everything snug as a bug in a rug, ready to be whisked off someplace exciting tomorrow.

Then I gathered all the other gear my photographic life at one time or another depended upon, carefully cleaned each piece and catalogued the lot.

A few weeks ago I sent everything off in a box to New York, to see just how few pennies on the dollar obsolescence fetches on the open market these days. At the last minute I set aside the ragged but authentic hippie camera strap from my first Nikon, what the hell.

And now for the first time in nearly 40 years, I am not a photographer.

Wolverine Mohawk, Keweenaw County MI. 2012  From 4x5 transparency film


It was difficult sometimes to remain focused on the initial impetus for this Odyssey, what with all the miles of discovery leading us here & there. As narratives will, this one took on a life of its own. But always, in the Artist's Statement and my basement freezer, there lurked a stinging reminder.

The last large format film I'll likely ever use was discontinued by its manufacturer a full year before I got the news. I'd run through stock on hand, went to order more for the 2011 shooting season and poof!

That same April day, I secured from trusted sources every remaining sheet in the world I could. Latest expiration date: August 2012. 300 sheets, all told. With roughly 17 months to live. And I'd never made more than maybe 150 exposures in any given year prior, largely because when each click of the shutter costs eight bucks a pop, you learn creative discretion or learn to do something else.

Bobcat Lake, Gogebic County MI. 2012   From 4x5 transparency film

A month later I was with my canoe on Bobcat Lake, in full "woe is me" mode. A freezer filled with short-dated 4x5 transparencies dragged on me like a sea anchor in a storm. There'd be no more, ever. And I'd no plan.

Air and water warmed by a hot early season, summer patterns were already in place and the splendid spring fishing I'd longed for all winter was well & truly finished by the time spring and I arrived. So even fishing sucked. That's called piling on.

Save that Bobcat is one of Earth's magic places and it heals me.

An only vaguely metaphorical light bulb flashed on over my head, like in a retro cartoon. I probably didn't slap my own forehead in response, but may have said aloud:

"Social media, dummy." 

It was an epiphany. Or as close to one of those as I'm likely to come at this relatively late date.

Ontario, Canada 2012   From 4x5 transparency film

Until that morning, core principles led me to mostly avoid the chaotic social scrum made marketing mandate courtesy of the Democratization of All Media. For me, going live was a big deal.

The idea was to create an organic structure around the work as we went. That way there'd be no stacks of notebooks and massive pile 'o undifferentiated film left begging for a couple year's reconstruction project at the end.

And here we are.

Along the Pinguisibi River, Ontario Canada 2012   From 4x5 transparency film


Read Riding the Imaging Revolution Pt. 1 and you'll understand that 30 years of production experience came immediately into play. "Be Prepared" might be the motto of Boy Scouts, but it was decades of professional expertise that enabled me to translate hurried preparation into steady workflow into ambitious finished product, while on cascading deadline.

I picked up a well used Mamiya outfit dirt cheap, to cover my ass. Bought the Toy Canon on Labor Day super discount Big Box retail special, because whatever its many virtues, film doesn't do 'live'.

Following the initial fieldwork and pressed by the somewhat balky used Mamiya, I splurged on a RZ67 Pro II D, figuring that sometime later I'd invest in a digital back and transition to high end digital capture. But while on the road in 2012, Mamiya merged with Leaf and the new company discontinued film cameras and their component digital backs altogether. My spiffy new outfit became a "Legacy" product and of no further long term use to me.

Once again, the revolution I'd ridden my entire life bit down hard on my future.

Then the Incredible Shrinking Kodak promptly dropped the 120mm film I preferred for my still new Mamiya. I bought the last of that too and kept right on shooting.

About the first of this year, with only a bit of outdated stock left on hand and apparently flat out of tolerable options, I shut it down.

It'd been a great run, overstuffed with marvels large and small. Time in the field often consisted of robust days & nights spent weeks on end, fully engaged with magnificent places most folk don't even know exist much less ever spend quality time at.

Working all those years with film altered and enriched my perspective on life. Fieldwork informed my daily approach to the real world and our place upon it in ways I'm sure I don't even recognise. I'm much the better man for that.

But they say all good things must come to an end. And that time for film is now.

Wolverine Mohawk, Keweenaw County MI. 2012   From 4x5 transparency film

I opted to scan the 4x5's only once I'd finished the fieldwork, so as not to unnecessarily stress my discontinued commercial scanner and risk the entire effort.

This summer, I finally secured high res digital copies of my entire 4x5 library. After a bit more organizational legerdemain, soon the film will rest in a safe deposit box.

Now it's come time to see if I might convert the remaining value of the scanner into something within spittin' distance of a new Mac, as I bought my mildly souped up G3 some years ago, just months prior to Apple's announcement of the switch to Intel chips, which immediately rendered that great tool essentially obsolete too.

Woodspur School, Ontonagon County MI 2012   From 4x5 transparency film


During April of 2012, a mighty curious thing occurred. As usual I missed it, though this time due to an excused absence.

For the first time maybe ever and hot on the heels of my medium format digital dreams being dashed, Nikon introduced a DSLR with capture capability approaching that of the digital back I'd hoped to someday own.  And for many thousands of dollars less than it would've cost me to make the now obsolete Mamiya at least temporarily digitally functional.

So while you can't always get what you want, at least occasionally what you need most comes unexpectedly rolling right down the pike and it's only for you to remain sufficiently dexterous to pick it up, should that happen.

And remember my old Bolex?

Well, the Nikon comes with pretty reasonable HD movie making capability built right in. A culturally, technologically active format and rough equivalent to 16mm film. It's only just the last few years I've let my longtime dream of shooting motion pictures slip away. Just didn't seem in the cards, you know?

Now it turns out that dream is one of the few threads in this narrative that ain't yet been made obsolete, one way or the other.

Which means maybe there's time left after all, for this prologue to become symphony...

Gogebic County, MI. 2011   From 4x5 transparency film


As I write this, a bountiful crop of late season seed falls from the variety of herbs and native plants in Heather's garden, one little miracle after another, singly to the ground.

Mourning Doves make their annual transition from overhead wires, garage roofs and our fading sunflower patch to be like little chickens with sweet voices, contentedly pecking over the abundance. Hummingbirds are recently arrived.

Autumn is on the cusp. Critters gauge the season and go about their business accordingly. It's fast approaching what's long been my favorite time to shoot, as light wanes closer to perfect with declination. Soon all the world will glow, even through the height of day.

Houghton County, MI. 2011   From 4x5 transparency film

I wish I walked in the wild with wolves and bears as eagles rode a brisk autumn breeze, all of us gathered together with purpose at the edge of the world's great freshwater sea, beneath an azure sky. But this'll do for now.

By the time I'm again a photographer, the glories of autumn will be given way to winter's icy breath, with nearly everything locked in slumber that looks a lot like death but mostly isn't.

Somehow that seems appropriate, all things considered.

I'd like to think this pending commitment to keep Riding the Imaging Revolution into the winter of my career will mark the final time I'm forced to dance or be made irrelevant in the name of progress.

I'd like to think my remaining productive years will be spent digging deep into a still young technology. That'd allow me to combine the necessarily rigorous formality of image capture on large format film with the amazing dexterity of digital capture, just to see what comes of the effort.

I'd prefer my full attention be devoted to demonstrating that this new way of doing old things isn't simply that but is rather a new thing altogether, with inherent opportunities undreamt of while image capture remained caught in film's web of chemical limitations, which hard boundaries nevertheless once served to enrich artistry in that now obsolete medium.

Those limitations presented creativity the opportunity to flourish within an organic structure. No such boundaries exist in digital capture, or here on the Internet for that matter, though both the shiny new toy and its delivery system of choice surely possess a boatload of their own.

There is only to press steadily and creatively upon them, for to find out what those boundaries are.

And I can't tell you how much I'd like to think it's smooth sailing from here 'cause the Democratization of All Media ridden in on a tsunami of technological revolution has finally offered me something resembling safe harbor, at an affordable price.

But I'll not bet the rent on that, no matter how blue the autumn sky.

Lake Superior, 2012   From 4x5 transparency film

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Riding the Imaging Revolution, Part 1

Fayette, MI. 2001 -- from 4x5 transparency film


What's past is prologue...

That's from Shakespeare's 'The Tempest'. Both the quote & the title of the play seem particularly apt when considering my photographic career, which of late I've had ample cause to do.

Though I'd occasionally used a Brownie camera as a kid, I began my professional relationship with film in 1975. A robust era in the film business, today reduced to a half-remembered Age of Dinosaurs who embraced their own extinction.

In '75, Chicago was a global center for commercial & industrial motion pictures, nearly all of it shot on 16mm film. I found a job in a film lab close to home then a couple years later at a facility downtown, which was by volume among the top ten 16mm labs in the world.

Taking advantage of the free processing and workprint that came with the job, I bought a used Bolex outfit and figured my career path for set. There were plenty of ways to make a living, provided you could put film in the can on time, on budget and to spec.

In 1982, Sony introduced its Betacam Video Format. Kodak quickly discontinued the film stock I favored for the Bolex. I picked up a Nikon F from a co-worker and transitioned from motion to still photography, grudgingly. Not so long after, the lab I'd worked for closed, it's owners unable to adapt to changing technology.

I took a job at a commercial photo lab, the newest version of a nearly 80 year old operation and a regional powerhouse. The lab had evolved from Kaufman & Fabray, who'd served as Official Photographers of Chicago's fabled 1933 World's Fair, called A Century of Progress.

A library of original Kaufman & Fabray large format negatives (complete with catalogue prints), was faithfully kept in the 3rd floor office suites. Employees enjoyed access to the collection. It was in that cloistered space where I received my first deep exposure to the wonders of large format film, especially as applied to architectural photography.

Generations of professional experience and craft informed the operation. Each and every day my knowledge of film, both in theory and in practice, grew.

All in all, it was a good gig.

In 1990, Kodak's Premier Image Enhancement System hit the market and the digital revolution in commercial photography was upon us.

By the time Cymbolic Science introduced its LightJet 2000 digital photographic printer at PMA 1995, Beta Unit 2 was already up and running where I worked. The boss invited a cadre of other lab owners over for a special demonstration. That day a new way of doing old things was greeted with great enthusiasm, fueled at least as much by free liquor as by any informed optimism over the future of the industry, I should think.

All along the way, few demonstrated any understanding of the threat to their livelihood wrought by radical technological change. Maybe they were blinded by all the spiffy new toys, I dunno. But having seen firsthand what video did to an entire industry built on 16mm film and in so short a time, I lobbied hard to join the 'Electronic Imaging Department' and did.

Then early in '96 I bought a used Linhof along with a great Zeiss lens, knowing full well that the camera was already obsolete in effect, if not actual fact. With free processing still a job perk and by printing for myself after hours, I learned how best to use it.


Spietz, Switzerland 1996 -- from 4x5 transparency film


That powerhouse of a commercial lab closed in 2000, victim to an imaging revolution it'd been quick to embrace. I was the last tech standing.

For a few years I contracted with a smaller lab in Milwaukee, mostly as a freelance Lenticular designer. Lenticular was then a high-end graphics product and hellaciously difficult to master. For a bit, I was among the best in the Midwest. At least until mediocre product came flooding in for pennies on the dollar from across the Eastern Rim, after which my expertise didn't count for beans.

I kept shooting and retired the Nikon altogether, to work exclusively with 4x5 transparency.

Then, the morning I was scheduled to press the flesh at an imaging convention, I sat riveted instead in front of my TV as the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed into history. Downtown Chicago was mostly evacuated and that day's convention was cancelled. The following day I trudged to McCormick Place, which massive space was crammed to the rafters with the latest digital gizmos.

I didn't know it at the time, but 9/11 marked the end of my commercial career.

Despite the President's admonition that we all keep spending, marketing money dried right up. Contracts already negotiated went unsigned. When the lab in Milwaukee went under, I bought their only lightly used IqSmart 2 scanner and kept right on shooting 4x5 transparency, crafting fine art giclĂ©e prints from high res scans.

Of course, I'd hoped all along that when the inevitable end came, there'd be some few years yet when large format image capture on film would benefit from a boutique status it so richly deserved, while craftsmen and aesthetes and other interested parties could properly lay the old lady down proud.

But, alas.

Which brings us to the original purpose of this Search for Perfect Light...

Upson, WI. 2012 -- from 4x5 transparency film



To be continued...

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Rat

You might cross paths with all manner of beasties while in the Northwoods; from Pileated Woodpeckers to porcupine, from cougar to glow worm, from beaver to bear and a host of creatures between.

The rim of forest around Superior remains a last refuge for other nations fallen before Manifest Destiny’s march to glory.  Though some now exist only in memory, critters like raccoons & coyotes emigrated to our cities and today prosper on bountiful refuse.  Others tentatively return to their former range as wildness fills in scars left by mining and logging.  Some species managed to hang on in spite of us, deep in the woods, keeping well out of our way and passing life much the same as since they first claimed their niche in the wild.

Encounters between man and beast are often frightening and occasionally dangerous.

Though civilization may have bred from us the habit of engaging animals on mutual terms instead of strictly our own, the owl still bewitches through its power of observation, the bear intimidates with indomitable character and the wolf employs native intelligence to survive centuries of slaughter waged against it because while we’re often unknowing and fearful, the wolf is rarely so.

Wander the wilds of Superior long enough and there’s no surprise left at peoples presumptions. Disneyland it’s not, though some folk seem to think it is.

In full dark, I once heard a lady at a neighboring campsite exclaim, “Look!  He’s just like a kitty!” as she hand fed bread into the toothy mouth of a fully potent, rabies vulnerable skunk come to beg.

Encounters between people & wildlife are likely not so different now than they’ve been for ages, which is to say they remain unpredictable. Critters aren’t much changed. We are.  And sometimes, there’s the rub…


Taken from a vintage 35mm transparency

It was a crisp blue morning at the edge of Superior.

Cool and breezy, the air stung with freshness.  We’d finished breakfast and cleaned up, a perfect time to take a seat.  A couple of yards beyond our tent, the land pitched near to straight down maybe a hundred feet or more to meet the shore of the freshwater sea with only eroding earth between.  I sat comfortably at camp and looked out over the water from sublime vantage.

Chipmunks crisscrossed the worst of the precipice, small enough to hustle about on sure trails where we’d find only the most treacherous footing.  They darted through camp and raided each promising spot to claim some piece of valuable scrap we didn’t even know we’d missed.  They’re shameless beggars and sometimes come right up to you, looking for a handout then streaking away should anything suddenly startle.

We keep a clean camp and don't 'feed the animals' but this is a battle well and fully lost, so we routinely carry unsalted nuts for these little friends.  They fill their cheeks until puffed like furry balloons, then run off to secure their treasure for some later hour of need.

Taken from a vintage 35mm transparency

I was lost in reverie when a short movement at the edge of the cliff caught my attention.  I focused on the spot as a creature’s nose cautiously peeked above the rim.

I’ve never seen a healthier rat.

This was no over-bred clump of whiteness living for rat chow and the lab technician’s knife.  Neither was it the black scourge of history, stealthy and disease ridden, stealing the plague and darkness into our lives. Instead, this little critter was alert as a bird and clean as a housecat.  It's hair almost yellow, the rat’s bright pink nose wrinkled with the brisk air to send shivers down its whiskers as it read the breeze.

Rats scared me as a boy because I’d had my share of surprise encounters with vile looking and aggressive rodents.  I sat very still.

The rat was fully engaged and soon relaxed, as I posed it no threat.  It sat up on its hindquarters and carefully cleaned itself, taking due diligence to assure its smooth fur was immaculate.  It glistened in the morning sun.  I watched the little fellow’s tongue and paws work every inch of its plump body.  After a while, the rat turned its back to me and disappeared back down the hill.

I should have known.  I did know and was still surprised.

What’s true is that there’s nothing intrinsically evil or unwholesome about any species of living being. It is what it is and all that it is remains well outside those reductions of philosophical convenience we apply to it.  Whatever moral or esthetic character we choose to ascribe to animals is simply us looking at the world through a narrow prism of vanity and finding only our own pallid reflection.

I supposed I knew the rat.  I’d thought it a scurrying, nasty beast with gleaming red eyes and fierce disposition.  I’d bought in to human nightmare.


The visitor at camp that morning reminded me that it was we who first made and continue to nurture the rat of our fears.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Standing Our Ground -- Patriotism & the Penokee Hills

Gogebic County MI, from 120mm transparency

Since before collective memory, we've relied on human ingenuity to help protect us from the vicissitudes of the real world. As much or more than curiosity or even creative thought, we lean primarily on a happy talent for construct to carve from the Earth and sustain for ourselves what’s then called civilization.

A raven possesses both curiosity and creative thought. He might think a thing but if he can’t build it, for him the night is forever dark, his nest remains subject to the wind and for life he relies only on wit & wing, as when those fail he promptly dies. The raven will never be us.

No matter how well or how poorly we translate abstract concepts of ethics and morality into lasting law for the benefit of the world's people, it's the comfort and relative security provided by our construct that allows us to indulge the effort. And so far as that construct's removed us from direct contact with the living, breathing landscape from which civilization is built and maintained, our ingenuity fails.

American liberty came to flower during a time when our idea of the real world was neatly summed up in a single word: inexhaustible.

Passenger pigeons rained from the sky. Egret feathers traveled around the world, detached from Egret wings. Rivers were sewers. Northern forests fell to rebuild Chicago after the fire, so Chicagoans could later use steel made from iron scabbed from the earth to construct the modern skyscraper. Of those we created modern cities, which in turn recreated us in myriad ways, often without our being aware or with anything better than our tacit consent.

We moved ever farther away from the landscape that sustains us and in the bargain, too many of us learned a casual disrespect for life itself.

What's true is that nothing earthly is inexhaustible and our notion of things turned out to be wrong.

What's true is that today the only resource standing between the continued viability of our construct and its eventual failure is the same human ingenuity that through unintended consequence created the problem to begin with.

Keweenaw County MI, from 120mm transparency

I set off on this Odyssey carrying a preconceived notion.

After many years exploring southern Superior's crumbling mines, abandoned towns, wrecked schools and the ruined homes of people who carried with them the hope of an American Dream fulfilled, I knew the history of the place and its repeated cycles of boom & bust.

Always, it goes like this:

Prosperity is promised by outsiders in exchange for whatever resource is elsewhere currently in high demand. Once that resource gets carted away, so too does the wealth and often after only a staggeringly few short years.

Then a desolated landscape, multigenerational poverty and lasting cultural despair is the payoff for what remains of people who once gambled everything and lost. Over and over and over again.

Across the Superior Basin, the only thing still inexhaustible is this continuing tale of woe, delivered in the service of an apparently inexhaustible lie.

Iron County WI, from 120mm transparency

I also knew that outside interests were again peddling the same promises as before, angling to take advantage of both a favorable market and a desperate people whose lives and livelihoods are today largely dependent on a regenerative, mostly healthy landscape.

The Eagle Mine near Marquette, to be constructed atop the watershed of multiple wild rivers. The Copperwood Mine, dug into hard by Superior's shore. There're dozens more, all around the Basin.

And of course, there's GTAC's ambition to reduce the last of the ancient Gogebic Range to repositioned ruble because a mining baron safely ensconced in Florida and with private wealth sufficient to purchase a State Legislature covets the poor quality ore still hidden by the last of the Range.

Seems there's yet more wealth begging extraction from what's now called the Penokee Hills.

No matter that the watershed scheduled for desolation wends its way through to one of the world's finest remaining freshwater estuaries and from there to the depths of Superior, where slowly, inexorably it feeds the other Great Lakes.

Which when taken together hold some 21% of global freshwater supply.

And should it turn out badly for this American landscape that even now defines and sustains a robust people? Well, that's what taxpayer funded perpetual maintenance is for, after all.

So stop the whining and start the mining, because if we still desire an American Dream as dreamt in the 19th and 20th Centuries and still embrace progress as defined by inexhaustible, then we leave ourselves no choice but to take our chances, Devil take the hindmost.

Planet of the Apes -- Keweenaw County MI, from 120mm transparency

I knew all this and more.

Shortly into this Odyssey, when a woman burdened by years of despair and with tears staining her all-American cheeks broke down in public to plead the case for Copperwood on the promise of a mere fourteen years unspecified relative prosperity and in the hope that such meager payout might somehow enable her children to remain on the land, what I already knew held sadly true.

Then as we traveled across the Basin to see firsthand the flower of inexhaustible ambition come to inevitably rotten fruit, the mill at Ontonagon that'd turned a profit while meeting current environmental standards was purposefully ruined.

Recourse to law or truth or what's simply common stinking sense right didn't hold the day, as wealth had ready access to more and better resources than did the good people of Ontonagon.

Old angers in me freshened.

This wasn't history, but future history being writ. With the real world and common folk again the hindmost, it was all just the same. Were I younger, anger at such sheer illogic in the service of naked greed might've consumed me.

Ontonagon MI, from the Toy Canon

I'm not so young as that.

Besides, by that time in this search for perfect light, we'd actually found some. And it's more than just a desperate glint in a dreamy prospector's eye.

Across the Basin we've met folk who with ingenuity and even greater generosity of spirit labor to break new trail and demonstrate that a magnificent and magnificently difficult real world needn't be casually destroyed in order that survivors of the destruction might barely prosper.

More about that later. For today it's sufficient to say that the region need no longer submit to economic terrorism leveled against it by outsiders. With reasonable local alternatives at hand and more in the pipeline, this chain of broken promise leading mostly to human misery can itself be broken.

Provided we stand our ground right here, right now.

Gogebic County MI, from 120mm transparency

The dictionary definition of "patriotism" is deceptively simple: Devotion to one's county.

On Independence Day we celebrate those first patriots of the United States, who at terrible risk to their lives, liberties and fortunes threw off the yoke of tyranny by rejecting those laws designed to enforce it. With that we were made free to create a prosperous new country better suited to a self-determined people powered by new ideas.

With America's natural resources taken for inexhaustible, the real world from which we constructed the American Promise and that today continues to sustain it wasn't accorded equal protection. No one imagined it'd ever be necessary.

Alger County MI, from 120mm transparency

The question of the Penokee Hills is one of American patriotism. Of devotion to one's country.

It's a question of whether the price of self-determination again requires we engage risk to reject tyranny, this time in defense of the land of liberty, thus doing what we might to make liberty inexhaustible by no longer pretending the real world that enables it is.

And in the bargain answering our responsibility to every generation.

Houghton County MI, from 120mm transparency

I can't answer that question for you. I can't presume to even advise.

What's true is this: accepting pennies on the dollar to scab the last poor quality iron from the ancient Gogebic Range and carry it away is no good investment in the future.

To allow that, we must believe that surrendering finite resources to the global market is worth whatever sacrifice is required.

To allow that, we must believe that the "land" in our land of liberty is simple metaphor, or inexhaustible, or of no consequence to a more secure and sustainable future.

To allow that, we must take history as merely the reflection of an inescapable future and must believe that human ingenuity's finally failed us.

Houghton County MI, from 120mm transparency

Recently, a handful of fired up young activists made a run to one of GTAC's deep woods work sites. They danced around and waved their arms, yelled, allegedly damaged some company equipment and allegedly stole a woman's phone. Some GTAC employees were frightened by the display. These activists chose not to make themselves readily identifiable to strangers, though locals present could tell who most of them were.

In response, a GTAC spokesmen compared these youthful American patriots to Al Qaeda terrorists.

At least we know GTAC's official opinion of these young citizen's patriotism. I can almost see the thought balloon above the guy's corporately sponsored head -- eyes wide, mouth contorted in reactionary disdain: This means war!

Well, I've got the news.

Counting a couple hundred years of skirmishes, this war on the land of the free & home of the brave now dates back something like 400 years. The battlefield stretches from sea to shining sea. The scars of war run wide and deep. Some may never heal, though chances are as yet fair that most will, should a truce be declared. As long as that's soon.

Alger County MI, from the Toy Canon

What's true is that much good has come from this war of attrition and no activist worthy of the name should ever forget it.

From its spoils we've set alight a flame of liberty recognizable the world over, for all people and through time. We've used the construct built of these spoils to end diseases, reach into space, gaze deep across the Universe, obliterate archaic cultural boundaries, dispense the sum of human knowledge to nearly everyone, lift the oppressed and destroy tyrants.

All to the point that our human ingenuity dazzles us like something akin to Biblical miracle cloaked in mystery  and handed down from on high.

But it's also true that nothing earthly is inexhaustible. That includes us and everything we make. We know that now. Or at least some of us do.

Across this Superior region, human ingenuity is turned full out towards living with as opposed to against this land that makes us free. Nothing this worthwhile comes easy. No healthy change so profound is achieved without some choose to reject it as radical. Or even illegal, depending.

Like it or not, it's on our watch that it's come to this. It's our opportunity to reconstruct the American Dream into a tangible, sustainable promise that offers something distinct from the old lie still being ferociously peddled by some.

All we must do to hold the day is stand our common ground against those who'd claim it for theirs alone, to do with as they please. Because a new promise is upon the place, but it needs fresh construct to protect it from the wind, to provide it the chance to grow.

So until that promise is secured, I'll fly my Gadsden on the 4th.

That's merely a symbolic action, sure. And this is only rhetoric, which is cheap, when far more than symbolism and rhetoric is what's called for. Resistance, is what's called for.

But it's a grand old flag all the same, emblematic of original American spirit, renewed today through shared purpose and entirely appropriate for patriots to plant atop any American common ground.

Including the Penokee Hills.

Atop the Penokee Hills -- Iron County WI, from 120mm transparency

And what history teaches is that sometimes, well-fired rhetoric hurled into a figurative dark sky is just the construct needed, to help banish night from a real world.

Happy Birthday, America.