Friday, March 21, 2014

Creative Destruction

There's not an abandoned place I've been to that doesn't cry failure, one way or the other.

Ramshackle schools are especially resonant. Where once there'd been prosperity and hope and people sufficient to build them, today there's only ruin.

After a while, patterns emerge. Then you sometimes wonder how they didn't know better, that it came to this?

Having done what I do a good long while now, anger over the way things too often were and the way things too often are is mostly kept to low simmer, lest I'd have been overcooked well before now.

Then at the very start of this project I visited Ontonagon:

Every time I'd been to Ontonagon, there was the Mill.

For as long as most folk still living had been alive, there was the Mill. Through good times and bad, whether belching at full capacity or near silent with layoffs, in Ontonagon there was the Mill.

Suddenly, there wasn't.

I captured a few images and of necessity moved quickly on, figuring I'd learn more later. It wasn't until near the end of the fieldwork that I did. During my presentation at the Porkies, I asked those assembled what happened to the Mill.

And for the only time during all the fieldwork, even considering the Penokees and North Hibbing and the Painesville School besides, I grew furious.

Because what's true is that if we're still not smarter than to let things come to this, we'll likely fail...

Job Creators (Revised)

I used to like to go to work,
but they shut it down.
I got a right to go to work,
but there's no work here to be found.
And they say
we're gonna have to pay what's owed,
we're gonna have to reap from some seed that's been sowed.

Ontonagon, MI -- October 2011

There'd been a paper mill at Ontonagon MI for something like 90 years. In large part, that's why the community survived the 20th Century when so many other towns around the U.P. didn't.

Ontonagon MI, October 2012

Smurfit Stone Corporation owned this mill, though they didn't build it and merely bought in late in the game. Right up to the end, the operation at Ontonagon turned a regular profit and was said to be the only paper plant in the State of Michigan to meet or exceed air & water quality standards.

After years of aggressively acquiring of other paper companies, Smurfit Stone found itself saddled with crushing debt. When the economy collapsed the Company resorted to Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection, seeking legal relief from it's bad decisions. This reinvention included closing the mill at Ontonagon, the largest employer in the County.

At the time, financial analysts at Credit Suisse wrote that this & another closure in Montana was good business, as the resultant lack of ready supply would help push prices up for packaging materials, thus increasing Company profit.

President and Chief Operating Officer of the Company Steve Klinger agreed, saying:

"These decisions were made to ensure the Company's long-term growth and profitability and do not reflect on the hard work and commitment of the employees at the Ontonagon mill."

With news of the closing, the community rolled up its collective sleeves and went to work, trying to line up investors to buy the facility. In Bankruptcy Court, the good citizens of Ontonagon petitioned the judge to prohibit the Company from destroying the plant and with it, perhaps their town.

"We don't want stimulus money. We don't want handouts. We have potential investors. All we want is for these people to have the right to make a decent living", wrote one.

Their pleas went unmet.

Smurfit Stone exited bankruptcy and promptly sold the mill at Ontonagon to a Canadian salvage company. 90 years of community investment in blood, sweat and tears, sold for scrap.

Two days later, Smurfit Stone announced it had sold itself to yet another paper company. As part of the deal, ex-CEO Patrick Moore received 59.5 million dollars. General counsel Craig Hunt was entitled to 9 million if he found himself unemployed. Senior V.P. Steven Strickland copped nearly 7 million.

Nice work, if 'ya can get it.

Today, where once beat the economic lifeblood of Ontonagon, there're only acres upon acres of mostly empty field surrounded by a high fence topped with barbed wire. This fallow ground is kept watch over by private security, hired by the Company to  protect its remaining interests in Ontonagon, whatever in the world those might be.

What's true is this:

According to law, Smurfit Stone owned the mill at Ontonagon. It was theirs to do with as they pleased, for whatever reasons they chose. And it was widely considered only good business for them to do what they did.

What's also true is this:

The Company didn't build that mill, they just bought it. And once they decided to abandon the place, by any reasonable moral standard if anyone had right of ownership over that mill, it was the community of Ontonagon, as theirs was a generational investment that can't be measured in dollars.

Now prime lakefront land on Superior stands fallow, apparently held in local hands but under restrictive covenants, future disposition undetermined.

An ex-employee told me there'll never be housing built on the land as before the environmental laws of the last few decades, lime and other toxins inherent to the milling process were dumped onsite.

If true, that creates both one more manmade wilderness on Superior's shore and leaves another sure sign of the legacy bequeathed by Capital when given free reign over our resources. Which along with a wide variety of poisons has left an entire region in poverty and despair.

What advocates for 'Job Creators' seem to resolutely ignore is that while (for example) a paper plant processes lumber down to salable product, without a community of workers it'd process nothing, ever.

Without workers, there'd never have been a mill in Ontonagon. Without workers there'd never have been product to sell to finance the debt Smurfit Stone used to acquire other paper companies and dig itself so deep into the hole t it could only resort to creative destruction as a last, best resort to reap profit from its investment.

Without those workers from this community absorbed a fatal hit to ensure some other operation could never come into Ontonagon and freely compete, the executives of Smurfit Stone wouldn't have emerged from bankruptcy able to sell to another company and secure great piles of personal wealth for themselves in the bargain.

As of the 2000 Census, the median annual income of the 786 households in Ontonagon stood at $28,300.  You can bet both the number of households and the income has shrunk since. At any rate, that's chump change, for those who managed to manage this place right into dust.

The good citizens of Ontonagon didn't want charity. They didn't ask for a handout. They simply asked for the chance to keep their town alive by maintaining a facility it's onetime owner no longer cared to own.

They never had a chance.

Creative destruction, the Job Creators call that. They say it's a good and proper thing and reflects the best of who we are. They say without we leave the Invisible Hand do its thing, we'd no longer be America.

I say that's just foul history repeating itself -- with honest, hardworking folk getting hosed over & over & over again in the bargain.

And the only real difference between this mill at Ontonagon and the Wolverine Mohawk or Nonesuch or the Cliff location or dozens of other similar sites, left by Capital to crumble where once they stood?

This being the 21st Century and not the 20th, the Company recycled its mistakes for cold cash on the barrelhead.

Which means that 100 years from now no one like me will ever stand near the fabled Ontonagon River amidst the mysterious ruins of long abandoned promises and have the opportunity to wonder...

How is it they didn't know better, than to let it come to this?

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Porcupine Mountains, Part 4 -- Fresh Content

Resident Artifacts

I've spent the greater portion of my photographic career in pursuit of what's left behind by those who've come before.

I do that primarily because what's hidden by the obscurity of a wild landscape always surprises & interests me. A sense of discovery coupled with mystery is often especially keen.

For instance, someone once casually mentioned an abandoned railroad grade cut through the woods, on which Heather and I then proceeded to take our old Subaru out for a drive. The grade was narrow and steep and once on it, the only way out was to keep right on going, no matter how or where it ended. Had we come to a collapsed bridge over a river, that car might still be in the woods and decades from now someone could be amazed by it, much like I was once amazed by this...

On our drive along the middle of nowhere, we came across a once fine white house standing hard by the old grade. Long unlived in and with the forest fast encroaching, it was easy to imagine that when the trains still ran, that house possessed a clear purpose since obscured by disuse. By the time we found it, the place was the province only of ghosts and they sang for us that day.

Eventually, we returned to blacktop without having to walk out.

Over the years, I've fallen in love with the geometry of wreckage, which I believe makes for powerful, resonant imagery. It used to be there were only a relative few of us working that rough-edged territory. Recently, digital shooters everywhere have  taken up the cause. These days, Detroit draws photographers from all over the world.

Some folk call that "ruin porn" and sometimes, that's exactly what it is.

The definition turns largely on creative purpose. Some photographers have a ready sense of exactly what they're up to and why. Many don't. Mostly, you can see the difference between the two in their images.

At any rate, if the work is to have lasting value you'd best first come to grips with the fact that you're picking over the remnants of people's lives and livelihoods and learn to treat that with respect.

My stay in splendid isolation at Dan's Cabin was a deeply personal experience. While there, I found things to share with you and earned things to keep just for me. That spoke directly to my purpose at the time, which was both professional and private, depending on the moment.

In the cabin there's a journal kept by the artists in residence, for the residents that follow. It's a great read and often strictly personal. I did my part and poured myself into it. I'd not intended to share any of that with you.

But the farther removed I am from the immediate experience, the greater the resonance of it grows in me and the longer we're on this trip together, the more I think it appropriate to share pieces of what I'd thought I wouldn't.

So here're some edited excerpts from the better than 5,000 words I committed to that journal mostly by lamplight, and a few other things scavenged from my residency besides...

From the Journal

Day Five

It's occurred to me that while there'll surely be other writers/photographers to stay in this splendid cabin after me, it's possible -- perhaps even likely -- that I'll be the last to capture this place on film.

I went up to Lake of the Clouds before dawn yesterday morning on the hope that the coming storm would bleed the sky red. It didn't. So I never took the cameras from the bag 'cause the harsh light just plain sucked.

But that didn't stop the cadre of digital shooters, lined up shoulder to shoulder. Shutters clicked away like a swarm of angry beetles. Bad light? Fix it later.

And I wondered if any of these shooters know that it's on them to create a new aesthetic for their new medium, as the once rigorous craft of capturing light to inform content -- intended to capture the authenticity of a given moment in time -- is fast passing from the world.

What'll replace that aesthetic I can't guess and I'd guess that neither can those digital shooters busily collecting pixels up on the escarpment, to be altered later in Photoshop and turned into what they wanted to see, not what they actually saw.

But you'd like to think the thought's at least crossed their minds...

Day 9

It rained overnight & again late this morning. Hadn't planned to, but as I again awoke a couple hours before sunrise I headed up to Lake of the Clouds in hopes that the valley would be filled with mist. It wasn't.

Had the place near to myself though. The last week's been tough on autumn color as gale force winds knocked it to the ground and the forest floor is littered with brittle golden death. Man, just let the season slide past peak and all the amateurs skitter away. Truth is, the fun's just starting.

The rain came again, more persistently. S'okay. I needed to do laundry anyway so went into Ontonagon and treated myself to a proper sit down lunch while the clothes dried.

Even though the thermometer says it's a bit warmer today than yesterday, the moisture's lent a bite to the air & after lunch I repaired to the cabin intending to hunker down.

That didn't last.

Quite unexpectedly, the rain stopped the wind died and the clouds thinned just enough so that the light became perfect. I hurried down to where the Little Union joins its big sister & for about an hour or so proceeded to do what should be among the most sublime landscape work of the trip to date.

And isn't that the advantage of residency? When the moment came, I was here. Not somewheres else, not on the road, not holed up in a motel 'cause of the rain.

Then the magic hour passed & I returned to the cabin to reshoot the fungi I'd worked the other day. As an old Indian friend used to say: "Everything's better when wet".

A very good day...

Day 12

So at night I've been practicing my Barred Owl call, which used to be fairly good. Apparently not anymore, as I've drawn no owl response. However, every time I do it some tiny critter in the woods near the cabin goes apoplectic.

"Alarm! Alarm!" it chirps.

I don't recognise the voice. Maybe it's a Red Squirrel, a little bird or even a mouse with operatic lungs, I dunno. But making so much noise when you think an owl is near doesn't seem like sound survival strategy to me. Having had no luck with the owls, I'll desist, as all I seem to be doing is disturbing some poor neighbor's sleep...

A couple of days ago I learned through the Ironwood Daily Globe that I'd be doing a reading as part of my presentation. I'd forgotten I'd promised one of those. That being the case, I figured I'd better write something to read. Which is how I spent Day 10 -- sitting at the table writing.

Note: you can read what I wrote sitting at that table during Day 10 by going here. Scroll down to "A Landscape of Perspective".

This image was taken by a dear friend who visited with me on the day of my presentation. I figured it too precious by half to ever show. But what the hell...

Day 13

Last Full Day.

O.K. then.

Woke slow, purposefully. It was raining, a bit.

Eventually went down to the Folk School to get a copy of the book 'Dan's Cabin' by Karen Berg. Stayed for a while to chat. Awfully nice folk, these are. And smart like nobody's business, too.

Rain stopped, no wind. Heavy overcast. Walked the Union Spring Trail 'cause Bob Wild said there're a couple old cars at what once was a lumber camp & there are, but only pieces. Sure am glad I didn't haul my gear in. Only the second time in two weeks I went walking with just the Toy Canon in tow.

Shot my way back from Ontonagon -- creek mouths & the blue house about midway between here & there. Intended to make an early day of it but as I approached the Park that changed.

One of the things I love about the Bessemer Bluffs of the Gogebic Range is that occasionally the sky drops down so low that the tops of the hills are shrouded with clouds. So it was this evening at Lake of the Clouds. I ran up there one last time & hot damn, it finally paid off. Mist rolled over the cliffs and through the valley. I've waited 30 years to catch that with pro gear. I was the only shooter there.

Made it back to the cabin at dusk. The woods soft & still. Struck a fire in the ring & devoured a piece of seared cow flesh.

Tomorrow I'll work my way down the South Boundary Road & depending, maybe even stop @ the Presque Isle to see if there're any more Steelhead with my name on them.

I think it likely that I've done some of the best work of my life, these past two weeks. It's what I needed to do, 'cause who wants to bring a decades' long creative craft to a close by moping & putzing around?

One more night & a wakeup & I'm out of here. I've no desire to leave save for that I must & the cabin isn't mine, though from here on some bit of my spirit will help inform this place too.

Note: There's frequent mention in the Journal of a nighttime skittering across the Cabin's roof.

Likewise, I've heard the visitor in the roof. Neither do I know what it is. But unlike some, I don't care. I figure as long as this fine place isn't being damaged the critters are welcome, whoever they are.

To you digital imagers who follow -- remember, it's on you to establish a new aesthetic for your new medium. Sure, you can keep trying to do what photographers like me have done for more than 100 years, but the authenticity of light is today rendered irrelevant and there's no good reason for you to pursue it further by working backwards into the past.

Consider instead what filmmaker and documentarian Werner Herzog calls "Ecstatic Truth".

Pursue that with your wondrous new tools and you've the chance to achieve something great...

It's at or about the new moon & still heavily overcast. Not a hint of breeze. Through much of my stay I heard each individual leaf fall through the night air to strike an invisible earth. Now most are fallen and none fall tonight. Only the creek murmurs, refreshed by eight days or so of generally light but persistently periodic rain. The Little Union finally sounds happy.

All is dark, silent & still. A right & proper night, to call it a career.

My chapter of this profoundly inspiring narrative is drawn to a close.

Your turn.

Live it large.


Finally, the same dear friend who took that picture of me also captured a few bits of video during my presentation at the Visitor's Center. I viewed it once immediately after the fact, then not again until I started gathering the material for this post.

Despite the relative roughness of the video, regardless of the fact that 14 months of road food made me resemble a backwoods Santa and even considering my positively relentless use of the word "alright" as some sorta verbal bridge, I've decided to share some of it with you.

My presentation lasted better than an hour. It began with my reading of A Landscape of Perspective, followed by a slide presentation similar to this.

Then I winged it. I'd not known I could talk so long off the cuff at such a stretch, though that'd probably not surprise some of my friends.

As it happened, the question & answer period turned on local issues and proved so lively that we ran overtime. You won't see that here, though later this month I'll repost the essay that came from it, as that continues to have lasting resonance not only to the region but for the nation at large, as we assess what hard times have wrought & why with a mind to moving forward and making this country better for all who love it.

In the meantime, here're a couple artifacts of me...