Friday, February 21, 2014

The Porcupine Mountains, Part 3

These are incredibly challenging times for artists. The Democratization of all Media has made for a chaotic, undifferentiated cultural marketplace that's devalued intellectual property to the extent that you can now buy a novel for less than an order of fast food fries.

In addition to having to sell themselves cheap, most creatives hold down 'real jobs', while working at their art as best they can. That's not gotten any easier, what with these being the hardest stinkin' times since the Great stinkin' Depression.

So maybe it's high time to do something for yourself and your work.

Opportunities for artistic residencies exist throughout this land and across the great, big world beyond. Some offer contemplative isolation in remote places. Others feature vibrant cross-cultural conversation in big cities. These residency programs come in packages large and small, whether publicly supported, privately funded or a collaborative combination of the two. Taken together, they favor every sort of creative effort.

All exist to serve you, the dreamer. The aspirant. The artist.

Among those things that've pleased me most during this project is that other creatives have applied for artistic residency at the Porcupine Mountains, inspired by my experience at Dan's Cabin.

Because as it turned out, my residency was among the finest, most productive two weeks of my life and that's the sort of thing that simply must be shared.

So do yourself a favor. Give it a shot.

If not to the program at the Porkies, then Google for one that suits you and apply there. Should the first time not bear fruit, try again. If you've been applying for years at one program, switch up and try another.

What's true is that great art came out of the last Depression. Art that helped make the world a better place.

Today the culture at large needs you more than ever, even if the wages don't reflect that. And there are all sorts of fine folk just like in the Porkies, ready and willing to share a personal commitment with you.

As an artist your only choice is to either keep at it or give up, there's no third way.

Never give up.

Creative Conversation (Revised)

Many people act like they expect to live forever. But they won't.

Others spend their lives creating things that might.

So artists offer their song to the wind and the wind carries the best of them to an unknown place where echo is the only currency of trade and whether or not their offering lasts, they'll never know it either way.

What's true is that art informs us, whether for a moment or forever.

It shows us who our we are, how we see our lives and culture and our neighbors too, so that we might better understand what it is to be human and better define our own place in the cosmos, having shared.

Creativity is a conversation as essential to human wellbeing as are earth, air, water and sky. Without its saving graces, we'd be a poor race indeed.

And from the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness of Michigan, a diverse group of dedicated folk devote their best efforts to assure that conversation thrives.

For two weeks during October of 2012, I reveled in a residency at Dan's Cabin, courtesy of the Artists in Residence Program  sponsored by the Friends of the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness

While there I led the ideal artist's life -- near the only time in my life I've been at liberty to do that, for whatever length of time. As direct result I accomplished some my best work ever.

And as is true of most of this Odyssey, where I've gone you can too.

Burdened by regular jobs, cultural noise and myriad sundry demands, tempted by handy distractions like T.V., Facebook and blogs, many artists yearn for an opportunity to submerse themselves in their work.

That opportunity is here.

Yeah, it's in the wilderness and maybe that's wholly outside your experience, much less comfort level. I get that.

So here's the gig:

Nestled in a splendid grove of hemlock a mere quarter mile from the road, your fellow creatives have built a comfortable, sturdy cabin reserved for you.

Outside, the real world rules and a creek runs by. Inside there's a comfy bed, a well equipped kitchen, ample working space and a wood burning stove for warmth, with everything framed by a wide expanse of windows that let the wild woods shine in, day and night.

And you're welcome to bring someone along whether for companionship or courage, should either suit you.

What the place lacks is phone, Internet, T.V., radio and all the distractions of contemporary life. There're resorts charging big money to rent that sort of liberty for even a single night.

On that table is a journal kept by a succession of residents for the benefit of those who follow. It's quite the read. Artists use their stay at Dan's Cabin for everything from relaxation to adventure, from quiet contemplation to life altering self-discovery.

While there, they also accomplish fundamental work.

Out your door is a well maintained trail system cut more than 87 miles through 60,000 acres of wildness, offering prospects that range from remote waterfalls to accessible vistas.

Then there're the pristine beaches of Superior, where folk hunt agates or swim or simply spend a relaxing afternoon beneath a warming sun.

After which you might choose to bathe in the wonder of twilight as seen from the edge of the world's greatest inland sea and later marvel as the Milky Way blankets the sky one star at a time, an exquisite filigree undimmed by light pollution.

And being a creative, you will work, as the spirit moves.

Maybe you think it all seems daunting. That you're too utterly urban to risk the real world or it's too distant or maybe you're too old to engage it or that your particular creative effort is an unlikely fit for the program.

What's true is that artists grow excuses like an untended garden grows weeds.

The Residency's hosted a rich array of artists whose work runs the gamut. Writers. Photographers. Poets. A filmmaker. Sculptors, painters, composers, graphic artists and musicians. Ceramicists and a glass artist. Printmakers and more.

That includes an octogenarian painter, a ceramicist in from Australia and an installation sculptor who traveled from Tokyo. So there's that.

What these folk share is a commitment to creative effort and the rewards earned when willing to take a leap of faith in oneself. What they have in common is that they took a chance.

Did I mention the built in audience?

In return for Residency, your obligation is to donate a piece of work inspired by your stay and to give a public presentation during it -- the audience for which is involved, informed and friendly.

Can a working artist ask for more?

Yeah, the deadline for 2014 entry is March 31st and you might think that leaves little time to prepare.

All the same, most working artists have their best work compiled and at hand. So putting together a proper presentation takes at most a bit of judicious consideration and just a few hours time. I'm here to tell you that a modest if well considered effort expended late in the winter of 2012 paid off for me in spades come that autumn...

These last few years of fieldwork sparked by specific creative purpose then informed across a magnificent landscape populated by a diverse, indomitable people have indelibly informed me.

And with that, whatever light I possess is edged closer to lastingly perfect. A proper source of warmth for blood run thin once my day's grown long.

Of all the miles over all the months across country grand & hard, of the people, places, sights, sounds and smells, of the incredible history freely mixed with triumph and misery and truth and lies and glimpses of a regional future with promise unlimited -- even considering all that and more -- it's likely that my two weeks spent as a guest at Dan's Cabin will be the time I treasure most through the years.

So do yourself a favor; consider applying for an artist's residency  at the Porcupine Mountains. Do it for your work. Do it for yourself.

Put your very best effort on the line for something uncommon.

Again, click here, to stop procrastinating and get started.

And by all means please share this link with other creatives of all inclination everywhere, whether via Google or Twitter or Facebook or good old fashioned word of mouth.

Because creative conversation is the name of the game and you never can tell where that'll lead...

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Porcupine Mountains, Part 2

To me, one of the most stunning developments in American politics over the last 40 years or so is the indiscriminate hatred of government that drives so much of our freshly populist political rhetoric.

That used to be merely the province of hippies, malcontents and other outsiders. Regular folk and mainstream opinion countered that desultory view with determination born of an innately positive attitude and approach that had been passed down to them across generations.

Today, demagogues that relentlessly peddle this new delivered wisdom want us to buy into the silly notion that an outright rejection of our Government is a core value of the American character.

Self-destructive stuff and nonsense, is what that is. Long ago, Mr. Lincoln said: "A house divided against itself cannot stand" and he was right. He's still right.

Mind you, I'm not saying folk should just blindly trust their government, American or otherwise. Far from it. Anyone who came of age after the 1950's knows damned well that's unwise. But American government belongs to all of us, just the same. And we must each take full responsibility for it, as the ongoing American Experiment in liberty requires collaboration among free citizens or it fails.

It's hard to counter delivered wisdom, especially when pandering to people's fears and despair is so effective.

But if you're tired of all the gloom & doom relentlessly tossed your way and would like a short shot of real evidence that when people of good will partner with their government things still work the way they're supposed to, or if you've come to believe such things are no longer possible, you need look no farther than the Porcupine Mountains for proof positive that the shrieking fear mongers who so beset the public conversation these days are feeding you a steaming pile of of hooey.

Because there, in a region ravaged by hard times, Americans continue to make things better for all of us by partnering with their government and working together for common cause...

A People and Their Government at Work (Revised)

In the arena of contemporary public discourse, American government and government workers are routinely disrespected. How and why that happened doesn't much concern us here.

What's true is that a constituency exists for each taxpayer's penny spent, for everything the government spends those on. From warheads and surveillance to corporate welfare. From education and environmental remediation and public health, to the critical research necessary when trying to transition an entire civilization over to sustainable against a fast ticking resource clock.

Our inability to make government function wisely and at optimal efficiency leads us to a conversation where government itself seems rendered unsustainable. Save that almost everyone who yells "Cut!" is yelling about cutting yours not theirs.

So there'll always be some form of government left to deliver theirs, if not yours.

When fueled by the populist righteousness the democratization of all media has unleashed in us, the nuance of real life is too often obscured and our public conversation fails.

Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park is a landscape eminently suited to the restoration of healthy human perspective.

It's prudent to remember that your liberty to visit was first secured through direct government response to local citizen advocacy, while today an ongoing and robust public/private partnership smooths your way.

Without government & government workers, it'd be just you alone against nearly a hundred square miles of undifferentiated, cut over northern stump field turned to slowly evolving desert, like out in the Kingston Plains. It's unlikely you'd ever think to go there or even guess this exists, much less be able to launch a boat on it or snap a picture when someone does:

The real world stays open 24/7, so folk wander the Porkies day and night through the seasons. It's impossible to tell exactly how many people visit the place during any given year. Something upwards of 300,000, best guess.

And they come from all over the world.

There're day trippers, trekkers, skiers and kayakers. Families with picnic baskets next to beach blankets. Fishermen and other dreamers. Hunters, bird watchers and gatherers of berries. Collectors of solitude, busloads of school kids, devoted travelers and casual tourists alike.

And during a few short weeks in autumn, the Porkies play host to flocks of migrating photographers who descend on the landscape like hundreds of busily clicking starlings, only to flee south again when leaves fall to a wet north wind.

So the Park employs 35 workers to provide for the education, amusement, comfort and safety of all comers.

That's 12 full time paid staff and 23 part time paid staff to ride herd on better than 300,000 of us let loose over 60,000 acres of otherwise inaccessible wildness, open to us 24 hours a day, 360 days a year.

These 35 government workers maintain 87 miles of mostly backcountry trail. They clean toilets, cut grass, respond courteously to every inquiry and rescue the careless. They fix what we break, replace what can't be fixed as budget allows and otherwise faithfully serve the needs of everyone who visits.

They do all this and oversee the natural health of the place too.

Being so near the Visitor Center during my stay at Dan's Cabin offered the opportunity to interact with Park staff far more than is usual for me, as my home turf of the Presque Isle is something of a lonely outpost by comparison. Near the end of my residency, I took advantage of one of the fine interpretive programs regularly offered by the Park.

Which is how I came to spend a bit of quality time with Lynette Score, government worker...

When traveling the Northwoods, many people hope to see a bear. The Porkies are a good place for that, as bears roam throughout the Park. But most times, bears know you're there before you do and head the other way. Typically, any easy way to turn the odds of a sighting in your favor invariably courts disaster for both you and them.

Near the end a damp, chill afternoon, Lynette greeted me and two other travelers at a trailhead, then led us into the woods to get up close and personal with the next best thing:

That's a split trunk Birch and one-time winter home to a bear. It's located not far from the road, but you'd never know it's there and in all my years bustering 'round the woods, I'd not stumbled across the like or I might've tried sleeping there myself during some mystic summer night of my youth.

In command of her subject and thoroughly engaging, Lynnette said this was likely the den of a mother bear, as those need to approach winter's rest with far greater care than do their male counterparts. After all, it's the female bear that carries the considerable burden of ursine reproduction, a truly extraordinary process that Lynette explained in terms easily understood.

On the other hand, guys being guys whatever the species, male bears sleep pretty much wherever. They might fall asleep up in the branches of a tree or just lay down atop a depression in the earth  and nod off, only later to be covered by a blanket of snow.

Take this little guy, who made his den smack dab in the middle of what in full winter becomes a groomed, cross-country ski trail and for a while at least, slept right through all the traffic that passed over him. With the discovery of the den, Park staff ceased grooming and rerouted the ski trail, though a trail cam later captured the bear's early emergence on a too warm day in March -- mighty wet but apparently none the worse for wear.

Image courtesy of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources

And while I know a bit about bears, it was Lynette who clued me in to the disagreement over whether or not they're true hibernators, because bears confound our necessarily reductive scientific criteria for that by occasionally waking up.

Like when some hapless intern is sent into a den and checks the hibernation temperature of a bear via insertion of an anal thermometer...

Lynette offered the opinion that whether bears aren't true hibernators or are the most adept practitioners of it, the bear shows us that the wonder of Nature resists efforts at reduction.

Of course, she was right.

During these hard times and especially considering her expertise, young Lynette Score might well have accepted full time employment downstate. Instead she chose to take her chances and work part time in the Porkies, hoping to make a home and build a career serving people and a landscape better suited to bears than to most humans.

Would that more of us had that kind of moxie or shared that level of commitment.

And from now on, whenever some cackling demagogue appropriates government workers as excuse to constrain a people's government down to the narrowest of selfish purpose, Lynette and her co-workers who've chosen tough careers in public service at publicly funded Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park will be among the folk I think of first.


Significantly, the Porkies benefits greatly from a working public/private partnership through which citizens and their government together put shoulders to the load and achieve common goals.

Having worked my way right through my residency, I was well & truly done and it was only on the last full day when finally I took all things easy.

Late that morning I stopped by the Folk School for a bit of business, but mostly for the warmth of friendly company. There I chatted while everyone else in the room busily made for themselves pretty much from scratch a traditional Finnish stringed instrument, called the kantele.

Later, they'd learn to play it.

Friends of the Porkies thrives on a deep loam of citizen advocacy and appropriate government response. As the Artist's Residency is one result of that, I came to know this fine organization far better than I previously had.

It's like a big old backwoods Hemlock. The landscape might be hard but the Hemlock rises tall and sturdy just the same, with roots spread wide and the whole of the thing essential to the forest's continuing health, as new life invariably springs from old.

First there's the famous Porcupine Mountains Folk School from which the artist's program, Dan's Cabin and a host of other good things stem.

Like the annual Porcupine Mountains Music Festival that attracts both talent and audience from far and wide.

Then, should you care to see what a top drawer workshop overseen by a diverse cooperative of dedicated creatives looks like, go here.

Across all the miles we've traveled together on this Odyssey, I've kept a special watch for sustainable practices because it's only through those that the region will ever escape the historically destructive cycle of boom & bust.

Turns out, the Superior region is a veritable Petri dish of those.

Prime among them is the personal partnership forged over time between concerned private citizens and their government, to advocate for ancient Kag wadjiw. That's a distinctly American relationship that assures a unique landscape and the people who live on it not merely survive but thrive, so that all of us are the better for it.

I'm the better for that partnership.

And if you're a working creative, please drop by next week to learn how you might be too...

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Porcupine Mountains Wilderness, Part 1

Following my stay at Dan's Cabin courtesy of the Artist in Residence Program run by the Friends of the Porkies, it became my business to do everything I can whenever I can to promote the interests of the place and of its most devoted Friends.

It's an ancient landscape that encourages profoundly personal connections that last a lifetime. My love for the place trails all the way back to the quick dimming years of my largely misspent youth. My adventures there gave me something precious to hold on to year after year and you'd think things couldn't get much more connected than that.

But during the penultimate trip of the fieldwork and due in no small part to the people who serve this magnificent land, I found much, much more. Through those couple of weeks spent as a guest in splendid isolation, the land and its people enriched me in ways I could never have anticipated.

With a new year's Artist in Residence Program submissions deadline approaching, the steep hills still shrouded in snow, Superior blanketed with an expanse of ice greater than she's seen in years and no end soon in sight, the time is ripe to dig back in to one of the most splendid places on the Superior Basin.

And to honor those good, hardy folk who devote their lives to its continued wellbeing. Because through their labors they honor the real world that sustains us.

So if you've never been to Superior's Porcupine Mountains, this is the year you should go. If you're an old lover of the place, start dreaming now of spring and making plans. And if you're an artist in need of solace and support, awash in an undifferentiated landscape of noise, read on over the next month or so while I fill you in on what riches to look forward to, gleaned during a visit to one of the region's authentic and lasting treasures...

The Porkies (Revised)

Though coincidentally home to porcupines, when viewed from the east this range of ancient mountains resembles a crouched Kag, or Porcupine. That's why they were first called Kag wadjiw by the Ojibwa.

The name stuck.

Due to years of citizen advocacy, this magnificent place was first secured as a park in 1945. With further protections since gained, the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness became the crown jewel of the Michigan State Parks system and today ranks among the finest relatively undisturbed landscapes on the Superior Basin. At its heart stands nearly 35,000 acres of virgin northern hardwood forest, said to be the largest such tract to remain in North America.

After near to twelve hours on the road and well past dark, on the first night of our first trip together to Superior, Heather and I arrived at the Presque Isle campground that marks the western end of the Porkies. We set up camp and devoured a stack of hastily prepared Bisquick pancakes slathered with rich currant jelly made by Heather's dad. Then we fell asleep to the whisper a big lake offers at its shore.

The next morning brought our first Northwoods lesson: leave a plastic jug of dough on the picnic table overnight and you'll then have to clean up after a critter savages the jug for to get at the bounty of tasty goo.

That morning also revealed that we'd pitched our tent at the forested edge of a high bluff looking roughly west over Superior, so it was all good.

Our relationship with the place now stretches near to 40 years and is indelibly personal.

In the Porkies Johnny, Heather and I bushwhacked over the hills searching for evidence of Copper Complex people, to no avail. Likewise our always half-hearted hunt for the crashed B-17, artifacts of which can be found in collections scattered throughout the region.

We didn't actually look for the legendary pictographs as told to Henry Schoolcraft by the Ojibwa shaman Chingwauk, but always hoped we'd somehow find them anyway. To date, no one has...

It was on the South Boundary Road at dusk where we encountered our first wild wolf, many years before those were properly reestablished and long before one could even imagine we'd be reengaged in killing them for sport, as we are again today.

This particular wolf worried over road kill just off the shoulder of the road.

We slowed and pulled alongside.

The wolf lifted its formidable head to address us with the most sentient eyes I've ever seen. In them was no sign of fear or aggression, though they fairly shone with awareness and make no mistake.

In response, Heather rolled up her window.

After a while the beast took a step back and drew itself in to the darkening wood. We left the wolf to its business and returned to camp exhilarated.

I've not again been so close to a wild wolf until autumn of 2012, during this Odyssey. To be sure it was under entirely different and unhappy circumstance, but again at the side of a road.

Heather and I spent half our honeymoon at the Presque Isle. On my 2nd night of marriage I managed to bounce a thankfully dull axe off the back of my hand. Heather fixed me then and the template for our continued wedded bliss was set.

Of all the fish I've ever tussled with, by far the finest of 'em swam the Presque Isle.

I once fought a fish upriver and down for more than forty minutes, tethered to only 6# test. Finally I gained the upper hand. At last I brought the behemoth to dark water at river's edge. In another moment, I'd need come to grips with a monster from the deep.

Then with a sharp thwipt no doubt heard all the way to Isle Royale, the line snapped. My knees shook while I used my left hand to pry loose my right from the rod. The name of the beast remains a mystery, but it's Promethean nature has never been in doubt.

Then there was the time the biggest Steelhead I've ever seen rose from beneath my feet as I retrieved a spinner through fast water while standing on an undercut shelf. I swear she never moved a muscle of her brightly colored flanks and was simply one with the current so that when the spinner reached just there she was there too, to kiss it softly as it passed. And the fight was on.

For... I dunno, maybe three seconds. Seemed like forever then as now, so amazing the sight and rich my memory of it.

Funny, how often fisher folk's greatest tales involve no fish at all or the one that got away. Best leave that to ponder for people who don't fish...

And did I mention that the South Boundary Road is my favorite drive anywhere? Miles of classic two lane blacktop rolling up and down and all throughout the naturally indistinct boundary between governmentally sanctioned wilderness and not.

The Porcupine Mountains Wilderness is wonderland. A complex, richly rare landscape ideally suited to adventure and quiet contemplation in turn and at your discretion.

It's for that and because I take the place so personally, that we'll spend some bit of time there over the next few weeks...