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.

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