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.

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