Wednesday, January 29, 2014

King Copper -- Nonesuch (Revisited & Revised)

Throughout this Odyssey, I've referred to the always shifting promise of future prosperity offered by resource extractors in exchange for us letting them take the last of the region's minerals today as a lie.

That's not politics, that's the truth.

Better than 170 year's worth of evidence in support of this hard truth litters Superior's basin, perhaps no place in the region more vividly and readily accessible than on the Keweenaw Copper Range and the Gogebic Iron Range.

At some point and no matter how desperate the times, we must stop buying into the lie. Now that what's left of the copper and the iron is down to the last of it and if we buy in one more time there'll never again be a choice to be made, the time to stand fast against the siren song of profit is now.

Since we'll spend February revisiting the Porkies, it's appropriate that I offer up Nonesuch as Exhibit A of how some of the hardest working folk there ever were found themselves way down the pecking order when it came to resource extraction and the wealth outsiders glean from the landscape through the sweat and pain and labor and hopes of people who then prove every bit as disposable as is iron or copper.

And who in the long run matter less than either, when it comes to profits.

Don't believe me? Fine. There's no good reason to take my word for anything and with dozens of sites scattered across the region, you can go see for yourself.

So next time you're near the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness, take a worthy side trip.

Because these days the Park conducts regularly scheduled tours of Nonesuch, a bustling town of 300 or so hardworking souls and their families that once shook the ancient hills and blackened the sky with the sights, sounds & smells of a promised, lasting prosperity.

And which today is no more...

Image courtesy of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources

The special relationship between copper and people across the Superior region dates back at least 7,000 years because geology made it easy.

Ordinarily underground, around the lake and significantly along the Keweenaw Fault, this easily worked metal was found on or just under the ground; casually discovered, easily accessed and put to handy use. Many of our most famous historic mines were first dug on prehistoric pits and those were first dug with tools of stone often lashed with hide to wood.

By the middle 1800’s, much of the Upper Peninsula was being stripped of its great forests. By the turn of the century, what was left by the lumbermen fell to the axe of folk that moved in after. Notable were miners, who needed wood not only to fuel the fires of industry but to warm hearth & home.

Before long the landscape that once and again nurtures wilderness resembled post-nuclear catastrophe. But at the time, it looked only like progress.

During the great copper era of the 19th Century, dozens of working mines dotted the region and if you add the wildcatters and unnamed speculations, the number climbs exponentially from there. Despite the tens of millions of 1880’s dollars invested and the mountains of material hauled from the ground through the heroic toil of thousands of mostly immigrant miners, only a rare handful of operations ever sustained any profit at all.

That brings us to Nonesuch.

Located at the southeast corner of the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, Nonesuch operated in fits and starts under five different owners roughly from 1867 to 1912. Its prime years were 1879-1881, when the mine is said to have returned a profit, however marginal.

The town built to support the mine peaked at perhaps 300 souls. Though little is known of cultural life specific to Nonesuch, there was a school, a boarding house, stores, a stagecoach stop and other trappings of small town community. Still, life for the workers and their families was hard and not just by modern standards. Nonesuch lost its post office in 1887, when the machinery at the mine was disassembled and shipped away to other, more likely ventures.

While some folk stayed on and though the Calumet & Hecla Mining Company later dropped some 200 tons of equipment at Nonesuch to try again, it was all downhill from there.

The town of Nonesuch as it appears today

When I first went in to Nonesuch, the site was privately owned and thoroughly abandoned. A friend said: “Watch for the sharp turn in the South Boundary Road. There’s short gravel to park on, behind the trees. Walk the old road and when the trail hangs a left, turn right and go down the hill. Keep your eyes open.”

Our eyes were soon wide open because what litters that steep hill blanketed with dense forest are sights like this:

Huge dark stones mortared into thick, towering walls rise through obscurity in a wilderness that’s worked for more than 100 years to reclaim those stones for its own.

It’s hard to overstate the case for how special this place is. Walking the trail down that hill to catch first sight of the ruins of the Nonesuch mine is akin to an explorer being caught unawares by remnants of a great race of builders, with only mysterious works of stone as evidence of their existence.

The problem at Nonesuch was that unlike most of the rest of the Keweenaw where copper was found in thick veins or even in boulders on the surface, here the commodity is particularly fine and all but inseparable from within a bed of sandstone and underlying shale. The customary method of separating copper from poor rock in a stamp mill didn't work with Nonesuch copper.

But where there’s a resource to be tapped, human ingenuity is brought to bear.

During the 1880’s, the Nonesuch Syndicate engaged in a radical process to recover copper by dissolving host rock in harsh chemicals, to cull metal from waste. Though the process later went on to great success, this first attempt failed.

Evidence remains of the chemical leaching process tried at Nonesuch

In the ‘Copper Handbook of 1902', Horace Stevens wrote of Nonesuch:

“Discovered in 1865, the mine was first opened in 1867, since which time it has swallowed several large fortunes, and has yielded the insignificant amount of 180 tons 1,072 pounds of refined copper from one of the richest beds of copper-bearing rock ever opened.

“The copper is there -- millions and millions of pounds of it, not worth a penny a ton in the mine. Someday the problem will be solved and a new crop of millionaires made from Nonesuch.”

And that, as they say, was that. I suppose those millions and millions of pounds of copper are still there. For certain, no new crop of millionaires has been made from it.

Today Nonesuch is protected by the Michigan DNR and the Keweenaw National Historic Park, which combined efforts help protect the last vestiges of regional cultural heritage before those are swallowed by time made harsher through abandonment and neglect.

There’s never been a complete archeological survey taken at Nonesuch. Consider please, that the removal of artifacts at this or any historical site is the destruction of knowledge.  Not merely a crime by law, it’s a crime against our living cultural heritage.

So when you visit Nonesuch, be content to stand in awe of what the industry of our forebears left in their stead and of how the wilderness reclaims it now, right before your eyes. Sit quietly beside those sentinel walls amidst towering trees. Try to imagine what the place was like at its height -- the stench of caustic chemicals in the air, the sounds of axmen making constant fuel from dwindling timber, the persistent pounding of a stamp mill shaking the hill upon which it’s still perched and everywhere the sweat of labor and lives spent to little or no profitable end.

But most of all, listen for the voices of children. Life at Nonesuch wasn’t unrelieved, especially for them. 125 years ago, children ran this hill between these stone walls and down by the river the air rang with laughter.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Snow Job (Updated & Revised)

No sooner had I hit the road in 20111 than the roiling contention fueled by a regionally renewed push for resource extraction came front and center.

In October of that year I attended a meeting in Melon Wi and committed to join other artists in an educational exhibition named Penokee - Explore the Iron Hills, in response to a politically connected GTAC's ambition to render twenty-two miles of wild Gogebic Range into a giant, gaping hole in the ground.

Then six weeks into the fieldwork came perhaps the most serendipitous 24 hours of the entire gig.

Across the Basin, outside interests freshly covet the region's resources and are again shamelessly exploiting hard times to press an old argument that's long since been disproved. These days it's not just our iron and copper we're expected to sell cheap, but heavy metals and even precious metals too. Nearly all of which is found within spittin' distance of Superior's invaluable supply of fresh water.

And we're not to be too particular about what it takes to extract those resources, as were expected to gut hard won environmental regulations that might stand in the way as part of the bargain.

Everywhere, this raw exploitation of folk's despair feeds division, anger and fear.

Hard times are no stranger to the Superior region and sadly, there're always outsiders eager to swoop in and  make a few bucks off of that. Then once their appetite for what's ours is satisfied they leave, taking the resources and the money and hope they once peddled with them, leaving only crushing poverty and desolation behind...

At the end of September I told of the afternoon when winter rudely intruded upon autumn to provide a stark reminder of seasons turning. After that the region enjoyed an extended period of unusually mild and stable weather, which lasted into November. Then six weeks to the day of autumn having first taken a hard turn, winter kicked the door in.

Just prior, long light streamed through late season woods stripped bare.

Through most of the year the great northern wilderness is an obscurity. Thick understory built up around uncountable trees arrayed beneath a nearly impenetrable canopy of green makes the forest appear as a single entity, when in fact it’s nothing of the sort. Instead, the northwoods is a massive chorus of rough and tumble harmony, individual voices raised together with life and death freely intermingled, for three consecutive seasons the former feeding on the latter in a riot of opportunistic appetite.

With the last of autumn that chorus of life grows ever more unbalanced as trees shed leaves, brisk winds strip the place of its veil and all things weak or dying fall finally to the ground in a clutter.

The occasional dilapidated building, groups of browsing deer, long abandoned cars, cranky red squirrels, hard rock outcroppings, pileated woodpeckers and old gnarled trees -- all stand revealed as distinguishable from the whole. If anything, the chorus then becomes richer for its transparency.

The evening before winter arrived, I attended a public hearing at Gogebic Community College. Held by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to publicly discuss Orvana’s proposed Copperwood mine, you’d think a meeting like that might’ve included at least a question or two about the environmental impact of a mine, but you’d be wrong.

Scheduled for three hours it lasted 80 minutes, if that. No pointed questions proffered, no apologies offered. It was a pep rally pure and simple, no bones about it...

What do we need? Jobs! When do we need them? Now!

The toy Canon sat on my lap. I might've brought you some of the cheerleading but as the evening progressed from a pro-mining litany delivered up by region-wide officialdom (attendance apparently mandatory) to a succession of everyday citizens pleading the Company's case, absurdity blurred to tragicomedy to outright tragedy and these good citizens deserve to stand for their hard choice outside the idle gaze and snap judgments of Internet gawkers.

Old men, most wistful some still fierce, leaned heavily upon a yearning nostalgia for a poorly remembered past. Businessmen rose to speak, desperate to stay in business even if only for another few years. Educators, burdened by damage done to youth through unrelieved rural poverty and a field of opportunity gone barren, reveled in optimism tinged with desperation.

“We want our kids to stay here” was the common refrain.

At the last there rose an American mother, stoic but barely dry eyed as she offered a Song of Depression.

She lamented that not only is the region depressed, we are depressed, with heads low and shoulders stooped, weighted down by cruel fate and hard history made crueler because men make history and are crueler than fate. She sang that the Copperwood mine could serve as a new beginning, a wellspring of revitalization, a turning of this dark season into a brighter tomorrow for our children, our culture and community -- together in a great and magnificent land for generations to call home.

What's true is that Copperwood is slated to last a mere 14 years. What's true is that by then, children conceived during the first flush season of desperate hope will be looking to their final years at A.D. Johnston High School and to the inevitable closure of the Copperwood mine precisely when they’ll most need some hope of their first good job in order to remain in the region.

Everything else aside, that’s the thing about mining: whether copper or iron, gold or iridium, they ain’t making any more.

Once the resource is tapped, transformed into a marketable commodity and sold off to China to be repurchased by us in some other form, our resource is just gone. Then everything dependent upon it goes away and quickly too. A few short years of cash in hand is insufficient to pin an entire future on and there’s ample proof of that already, everywhere around Superior.

I left the meeting and returned to the motel. Then overnight, winter came.

The forest is a wonder, flush with the first snow of the season. The chorus of life falls to a hush so low you can hear the snow fall. Superior is so great that it makes its own weather. Bands of lake effect snow flew across the Range, a little here and a whole bunch there.

As it happened, I headed off into the whole bunch.

It was hard, honest work in a splendid place. Shooting made nettlesome by squalls, I spent as much time watching a shy flock of American Coots that’d taken refuge on Bobcat Lake as the first ice of the season formed than I did actually working.

After a few hours it became only prudent to head towards safer haven rather than farther away. Eight inches down and mine the only track on forest service roads wasn't simply an enticing gift, it was also an invitation for the wildness to demonstrate once again its indifference to every human concern.

Along the hilly ribbon of glorified two-lane that allows a corridor of wind to slice through the forest between Marenisco and Wakefield, I drove briefly in near whiteout. Only a few other working folk shared the road, because work is what people do and where it takes us we must go.

Even eagles hunkered down...

Meanwhile, hard rock was covered in soft white while deer and Coots and red squirrels and even the millions of trees murmured on, knowing that short of dying there’s nothing can be done but to remain resolute in the face of a long winter's wild, with its sure hard times and roiled discontent.

That, and provided we mustn’t eat our own bodies to survive in the meantime, to take comfort in the fact that a season once turned desperate must inevitably turn back 'round again.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The 51st of These United States (Updated)

When you're busy doing nothing but hurtling forward, ever forward, you tend to forget where you've been. One of the advantages of mounting a retrospective is that now I've the chance to go back and have a good look at what I've done. September 2011 seems a long time ago.

It turns out that what I wrote then about the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is more true than I'd expected and can be said about most of the rest of the Superior Basin as well, Canada included.

So maybe when dreamers are busy dreaming of their freedoms, instead of merely imagining the formation of a new and separate State that'd better serve the interests of local community, a new and separate country should be considered.

Because what's true is that the rewards, burdens, opportunities and challenges inherent to life lived in this Superior region aren't beholden to any boundary save its own rich and difficult geography...

Along the Underwood Grade, Gogebic County, MI

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan has long been treated as the suspect cousin with special skills who only gets his seat at the family table for so long as his skills are needed and when they’re not his invitation gets somehow lost in the mail and everybody happily eats without him. But let some war effort require iron, or the price of copper rise and the mosquitoes of outside interests swarm the place like it’s the first warm blood of the season.

When not being exploited for its inexhaustible resources, the region is mostly ignored by the State Capital in Lansing and periodically some local will launch a campaign for the U.P. (as it’s known) to secede from the State of Michigan and become the State of Cloverland, which is a terrible name for a State, or the State of Superior, which isn't.

To look at a map, the Upper Peninsula is no part of Michigan at all, connected only by the Mackinac Bridge. If that disappeared into fog roiling the Straits of Mackinac the only thing bordering the U.P that isn't Lake Superior would be Wisconsin, who had her chance to claim this land but didn't much want it then and can’t have it now.

The late John Voelker, a splendid writer and Michigan Supreme Court Justice said “The best thing that could happen to the U.P. would be for someone to bomb the bridge”. Judge Voelker was no one’s fool, though if uttered today his thoughts on the Mighty Mac would earn the good judge a visit from the NSA right quick.

Wisconsin shills herself as The Northwoods with its supper clubs, family resorts, fishing guides and shops that hawk "genuine" Indian moccasins to tourists. But to cross the Mississippi watershed divide is to leave all that behind and enter a world apart. In the U.P. those gravel roads that lead to placid resorts down below are fire lanes and logging roads leading mostly to nowhere but unrepentant wilds.

Depending on your point of view, Upper Michigan is a place of long shadow, hard rock and forest so deep it’s a national treasure in need of preservation. or a towering resource perennially crying out for harvesting right down to the nub.

The Northwoods is a tough, glorious place with a distinctly checkered past.

To look at it today you wouldn't think that not so long ago as the raven flies damned near every tree in the Upper Peninsula was cut down. Or that cougar and wolves were trapped out. Eagles were nearly gone too. Or that the ridges now dressed in autumn’s finest were stripped bare save for dozens of mines throwing smoke to the sky, while stamp mills pounded stone to separate copper from poor rock and shook the earth like giants walking.

And the towns that grew to support the industry, towns with names like Iron Belt and Bessemer, these swarmed over with immigrants who brought their own rich customs, which were made new in a new place. Notably, those included the Finns with their saunas and the Cornish with their pasties and thank goodness for both.

You’d never guess the region was once honeycombed by rails that led all the way to places like Chicago. Now the trains and their tracks and the people they brought and the wealth they carried away are nearly all vanished, rails recycled and grades converted to snowmobile trails or simply gone fallow, reclaimed by a resurgent wildness that poverty and indifference and even occasional dedication allowed to heal.

Marquette, the biggest city in the U.P., can be reached only by two-lane.

The Gogebic/Iron County Airport briefly lost its lone commercial flight service then replaced it, courtesy of a Federal government program called Essential Air Service, created to mitigate the effects of airline deregulation on rural communities across the nation. That program comes under near constant attack by those who argue the Feds have no business interfering with business, but to date the good folk in the region have managed to escape being deregulated into complete and utter isolation by the Free Marketeers.

And so it goes.

I was talking to a man and his wife, who live on a splendid spit of land they rightly call their own. He said:

It’s right there in the deed. I own the land but don’t own the minerals beneath it. Some mining company owns those. They can come and put me off my own land for ‘fair market value’.

A friend told me that’s true of most everyone up here who 'owns' some piece of God’s green earth -- bought and paid for in blood, sweat, tears & cold hard cash. Does this make these folk squatters on their own land?  Tenant Farmers who don’t farm?

Whatever the appropriate word or phrase, it’d be particularly American you betcha. A word that allows us to pretend we're free, while at the same time reminding us we're not.

One thing’s certain, these citizens can’t be called “landowners”. Not when some company is preemptively partnered with government in order to put them off their own land by simple writ as needs arise. And it’s not like the mining company pays the property taxes either. Which would seem only fair, considering.

I suppose that’s emblematic of the central dilemma we’ll explore together over the next year or so, when we’re not otherwise telling tall tales and having fun in the woods.

These people who live hard lives in splendid isolation, who sustenance hunt and fish, who burn wood and propane for heat and who invariably wave when you given the wide berth with your car as they walk the gravel shoulder of two-lane blacktop -- these people have always just wanted to be taken for what they honestly are, no more no less.

They've long since earned that respect from the rest of us and deserve no less, if for no other reason than that they so often represent the very best of what it means to be American.

Instead they just keep being taken. By outsiders who don’t live here permanent, 'cause they don't have what it takes and would never survive it if they tried.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Low Light

I readily admit, winter's no lover of mine.

Sure, it's starkly beautiful. But a winter's day is relentlessly short, too often cruel and frequently dark. While the added bulk required to be reasonably comfortable working the wild makes working the wild clumsy on all but the best winter days.

Besides, I've gone ice fishing exactly three times in my life and went through the ice twice for my trouble. So I'm leery of winter's tangle of sharp-edged wonder.

Scan from 120mm transparency, 2011

Anyway, the Linhof could be worked while wearing gloves. Fat chance of that with the Nikon, considering about a gazillion near microscopic buttons and the myriad settings that require their dexterous use.

The other day I realised I'd passed 100 posts, illustrated. Then I realised I'd not taken a break in 28 months. Or nearly three full years, taking into account the advance planning that went into the gig.

Then I knew what's ailed me of late. In addition to winter, I mean.

This blog was originally conceived as an extended road trip. A narrative that'd draw to a natural close after maybe a year, or at any rate once my stock of large format film was exhausted. The film's long gone and we've been off the road for quite the while now. And a creative workflow designed specifically to accommodate frequent travel is also exhausted.

It works against me, though narrative opportunity around the Basin remains robust.

What to do?

I thought, Well Hell, even bears get to hibernate.

But blogs don't. Hibernating blogs are quickly taken for dead. There's too much yet to do -- too many tales to tell, wild places to explore, people to meet, news being made and way too much to learn -- to be taken so soon for dead.

Skull of a Young Bear -- Digital capture from Nikon 800e, 2014

With that in mind, here's what'll happen while I transition over to full-fledged digital imagist and ready myself for the promise of spring:

For the remainder of this dark season, this search for perfect light will rely on reruns. Or, as a dear friend generously suggested, The Best Of...

Every so often I'll repost from among the entries of the last 28 months, accompanied by an introductory paragraph as to why I chose it. That way, I can go off to better focus on creative goals critical to my moving forward, while the all-seeing eye of the Internet won't think I've given it up altogether and completely shift its favorable gaze away to some more persistently pleading flicker.

Then about the time the woods awake and snowmelt compels fish to flood rivers in search of sustaining life, when bears again rummage hungrily about and trillium breaks through winter's detritus to reach for an inexorably warming sky, we'll come back live here too.

And be better prepared to again hit the road along Superior in the bargain, one would hope.

Image courtesy of Bob Wild and Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park

So toss a fresh log on the fire and put your up feet, winter's just begun. If you're inclined, consider where we've been and what we've seen. I'll prod you a bit to do that, in these coming months.

What's true is that around Superior today, even as antiquated argument is fanned afresh to flare old enmities hot once again, everywhere along the Basin they're good, honest folk laboring mightily to forge new ways to do old things so to devise and construct a more secure future for both people and place.

We'd be well advised to follow their lead. But the only way for us to do that is to see and to learn.

The reach of the Internet is awesome to behold.

I'm constantly surprised at who finds this work of mine and why. I'm grateful for every one of you who stops on by however briefly for whatever reason and am humbled by those who've taken the trouble to share with me what Superior and the hard land around it means to you.

Before I ever started this, I already knew Superior for a superior place.

And knew those who've lived on it and died on it and pillaged from it and protected it and those who struggle still to reach accommodation with a remarkably rich and difficult landscape for an authentically  superior people.

After all, some of those people are mine and the essence of Superior runs through them.

But I couldn't have guessed just how many other folk share in it too.

Even those who've never breathed Superior's cracklin' fresh air or walked the ancient woods or sat beneath a blanket of diamonds cast upon an obsidian sky, or stood right at the edge of a remarkable wild world to offer up a cautious toe to Superior's frigid embrace.

Turns out, the community of Superior reaches far beyond its basin. And being an active part of that robust community so enriches both me and my work that I'll not be giving up on it anytime soon.

Be warm, be well.

And by all means, think spring...

Scan from 120mm transparency, 2012