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.

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