Friday, December 30, 2016

Friday, December 23, 2016

A Christmas Story

A story of 20th Century America, first published in 2011 and now revised to accommodate a fresh perspective on the 21st...

It's said there’re only two seasons in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan: winter then a few days during July. And never bet the rent on July.

Flush with the enthusiasm of youth, to an aged local I once proclaimed my desire to live on the Range. With narrow grey eyes the old man drew a hard look down at the presumptuous kid and said, “Well…it's pretty nice up here. Winter’s kinda long, though.”

Undaunted by tall tales, Heather and I decided to see for ourselves. Christmas is for family but just this once we’d go off to the wilderness intent on creating a living gift of memory for just the two of us.

A friend of a friend rented cabins along the Montreal River, outside Ironwood. Arrangements were made.

Though decidedly rustic, nestled in the woods our cabin proved cozy and warm. With a Finnish sauna at our disposal and a waterfall on the river for added ambience, we'd be the only tenants for the duration and were game for winter adventure.

Our host provided snowshoes for use by guests. Temperatures headed lower as we set off downriver beside the Montreal, through skeletal trees over snow covered ground. Apart from the occasional deer track, we blazed trail. It'd already been a long day and after a while, Heather returned to the comfort of the cabin. I pressed forward alone, exhilarated.

In the forest, the blue half-light of winter leaves its mark on the soul. I hiked a fair piece until near dark and spent time upon a log, listening to the trickle of water over ice, the only sound in the world.

I returned to the cabin, path laid plain by the river through the woods, moonlight shining over all.

It was high time for a sauna, which sat maybe 100 feet across pure winter from the cabin. Inside, benches lined the room while tongue & groove cedar made for a tight seal. A metal basket filled with Lake Superior cobbles adjoined a fireplace, already well stoked by our host. A bucket sat next to a spigot. We poured water over hot rock to raise the temperature beyond steady reckoning, then indulged in the physical and spiritual cleansing of a proper Finnish sauna.

Tradition dictates a roll in the snow upon leaving the sauna. Sated with the heat, I left my shoes and clothes for Heather to carry and stepped naked out into a universe of ice beneath shimmering stars. Breath suspended in the frigid air, I hurled myself onto the snow and rolled over exactly once, just about the most deliriously bracing movement of my life.

I yelled, “Goodness gracious!!” (or words to that effect) and actually beat Heather back to the sanctuary of the cabin.

We bundled together to sit awhile, gazing at the wilderness outside our window. The next day was Christmas Eve. We slept like contented children, secure in the knowledge that whatever further gifts winter had in store for us, we’d be on the receiving end come morning.


Snow depth is inconsistent in the forest and travel proved easy. We found Bobcat Lake asleep beneath a blanket of white then pressed deeper through the Ottawa to a high vista over the woods and a creek that meanders through tamarack swamp.

The top of the ridge was covered with animal tracks and at its edge, snow was tamped to a bright sheen. From there a well worn slide ran all the way down the precipice, across the frozen creek below and ended in a black hole of open water in the ice. Thick waterproof fur covering layers of seasonal fat, a pair of otters amused themselves by climbing the long way up the hill, then sliding back down all the way to that hole in the ice.

As a kid, I'd been taught that 'play' was one of the signal things that separates humans from animals. What we don't know about animals is a lot. Hell, what we don't know about us is a lot. Lacking the otter’s fur coat and layers of winter fat if not their sense of play, we soon left them to their games atop that windblown ridge.

Our next stop was the mouth of the Presque Isle River at Lake Superior. County 519 was plowed clear but at the South Boundary Road all such industry ended. Unbroken snow on the road into the park proved that no one had recently preceded us. Icy crust scraped the undercarriage of our battered old Subaru as we made our way in to where the trail leads down to the falls.

All was ice and snow, a world frosted over in white. My beloved river ran high and roily. Most of it pushed angrily beneath a shifting, groaning ceiling of ice. Never had we seen treachery and beauty so freely interwoven. A dangerous river along its lower reaches, the Presque Isle that day invited disaster, as even the slightest misstep meant certain death followed by burial at sea.

We explored thoroughly, if ever careful of our step. The hour grew late. As we hiked back up to our car, a wicked cold wind increased its grip on the wild world. Light flurries turned to moderate snow.

No sooner did we make it out of the park and back onto the easy going of 519 than the car coughed and balked, some seventeen miles from the nearest phone and with winter bearing down hard. We were reasonably well prepared, the backseat piled high with winter clothes just in case. Though the car grew worse with every passing mile, we managed to limp all the way back to Ironwood. Where late in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, smack dab in the middle of the region’s only busy intersection, the old Subaru sputtered and died. No amount of coaxing made it start again.

We stood beside the car in the street, feckless and perplexed. The wind grew stronger still and the temperature plummeted. A State Trooper stopped traffic and helped get us out of harm’s way. He stayed with us while we tried to come up with a plan. Time was short, what with the region's slender services shutting down by the minute as people hurried home for their holiday.

Amidst a steady stream of last minute Christmas shoppers, Heather and I worked the pay phones in front of the local Kmart. A car dealer in Hurley stayed open late to provide a tow. A used car lot with the only rentals on the Range agreed to remain open until Heather secured the lone taxi that worked the area to get there. Strangers offered help and advice. Everyone bent over backwards to assure we’d be safe.

The mechanic said he’d never seen a carburetor so badly frozen. Somewhere along the way I’d purchased fuel with excessive moisture content and the brutal weather proved more than the car could withstand. Once thawed they’d fix it, though with the holiday falling on a weekend that wouldn’t be ‘til three days later and a full day after our cabin was spoken for by others.

Still, everyone agreed that had the car died just an hour before it did, there was no telling how or whether we’d have made it out of the woods alive.

Heather arrived at the mechanic's driving a well-used, mid-seventies land yacht; a lifeboat to us. We guided the beast back to our Christmas cabin. Here our host offered us the comfort of his mother’s home for the additional night, as she was away for the holiday.

We’d made reservations at a local ski lodge for Christmas dinner. Warm in the cabin and bathed in relief over a narrow escape, we made ready for our big date.

Outside, things continued to deteriorate.

In the woods it’s sometimes tough to tell just how bad the weather is. Full dark when we left the cabin, we’d traveled only a bit when we realized we were again adrift on the storm. This time in seventeen degrees below zero with a forty-five mile an hour wind hurling snow every which way through a world of howling fury.

Out on the highway, visibility proved nil. The red glow of brake lights flickering through a whiteout brought us to a halt. A four car pileup had the road completely closed. Emergency crews were at the scene. We sat and waited, land yacht rocking side to side in the wind, heater pumping to the max.

Discretion finally recognized as being the better part of valor, I doubled back and picked my way through side streets towards Hurley, hoping to find refuge on Christmas Eve.

There was a restaurant in Hurley called Walter’s Café, one of the periodic attempts to bring fine dining to the Range. Things being what they are it didn't last and that's a long time gone now. But on that night so many years past, the windows on Walter’s Café glittered festively and inside two winter weary travelers were served a Christmas feast for which Walter should forever be proud.

When we left the Café, a full moon hung in the sky south of Hurley, while just to the north roared the Beast. The Superior snow machine was on full bore. Beyond the woods the demarcation between comfort and risk stood plain in the night. We returned to our cabin and spent the last of Christmas Eve in front of a crackling fire, music of the season playing softly, a bit of fine wine and gifts exchanged between us. Outside, winter raged.

In the best tradition of the northwoods, no one is a stranger in time of need and all folk are neighbors, never more so than when thrown to the mercy of the wild. That year, two hapless tourists could hardly have been more grateful for gifts so freely given.

If the most precious gift of all is giving and Christmas is the special season set aside for that, then we were made rich that Christmas Eve.


Over the decades since then, America seems to have been made cruel. Never more so than today, when it's widely acceptable to mock tenderness for weakness, treat compassion as the province of fools and when so many of us embrace righteous meanness as if that could ever be a proper aspect the American character.

I believe different. I believe as I was first taught and as life went on to teach me, that if Americans are at all a special breed it's in no small part because as a nation of immigrants each of us or our kin have all, at one time or another, been strangers to this great land. And none of us would be here today but that each successive generation in turn received some sort of helping hand from those who came before.

What's true is that for America to actually be that shining city on a hill we so like to brag on, we must every day work collectively to create a lasting light that illuminates the miserable universe of human darkness.

Otherwise we'll all face winter alone and stuck on thin ice, at the mercy of the storm…

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Water is Life

At the farthest reaches of Hunter's Point where Lake Superior meets Copper Harbor, the big lake runs into the harbor, then out, then back again – life in constant regenerative motion. You can see it. Sit quietly and you can hear it, especially during the transition, when the big lake reverses course. That throws a hush over the entire natural world and the absence of sound alerts every sense that a momentous event is upon you.

On the hardest rock edges between land and sea where humans simply can't survive, life thrives...

I stand with Standing Rock. We all do. Even those who don't know it.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Panning for Gold -- Year after Year

Ontonagon County MI, 2015

For most of my adult life I've enjoyed two autumns every year. The first in the Northwoods, then later on the prairie. That's a gift I've always appreciated. Never more so than this year, when it didn't happen.

I panned the October prairie for gold but it proved an unusual season. Uncommonly warm and wet, this year autumn on the grasslands slowly fell fallow brown.

On the other hand, we picked our last cucumber just prior to Thanksgiving, cut the final rosebuds after and our first really hard freeze is yet to arrive, so there's that. A trio of Dark-eyed Juncos down from the great northern forest has worked the stubble of our garden for the better part of three weeks. Most years, it's more like three days.

The world changes and it's only we who don't change with it.

Reviewing that slender stack of brown prairie images had me longing for better times spent in other places during richer years. That sent me back in my catalog to September of 2015, where I found a cache of uncollected work captured primarily on and around the Gogebic Range, about my favorite place in the world.

Rarely has the disparate character of the two landscapes seemed plainer to me, maybe because I didn't see them back to back as always and yearn for what I cannot have. At any rate, the contrast between these two places I call home – captured beneath similarly long light in the same (relative) season - is particularly stunning as this winter sets in. An awful lot's happened, in the course of that year.

What's called meteorological winter is now upon us. Though it promises to be long and cold, the countdown to solstice is set. Time counts and keeps counting. So before the world turns yet again, I thought to take a look back.

After all, that's what photography's for, right? To capture a moment of light and then hold to it as if suspended in amber for all time, or at least to the end of our days.

September, 2015

Keweenaw County, MI

Ontonagon County, MI

Iron County, WI

Iron County, WI

This next image is of a geologically significant place. Hidden in short woods just off Gile, WI. That's an actual split in the world:

Iron County, MI

October, 2016 McHenry County, IL

My boyhood creek runs through this prairie that rolls over rubble hills left by the last great glacier. Once a channelized, agricultural drainage ditch, it's since been restored to a natural meander by good people who care for the Earth. The overall benefits of that caring are rarely more evident than amidst these oak savanna islands once again afloat on a sea of grass…

Thursday, November 10, 2016

In Remembrance

First published on November 10th, 2011

Some years ago when I was sitting on the beach at Whitefish Point just north of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, a couple of old men ambled past and stood close together on the sand hard by the shore. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop but couldn’t help overhearing what passed between them, which was far more than mere words.

These men spent their lives as mariners on Superior. They spoke of the big lake as a woman, spoke of her with reverence, awe and regret. In old age these men still both loved and feared the lake. Even though the day was bright and calm, with the surface of Superior as placid and blue as ever it gets, their conversation turned mostly upon hard times spent trying to escape their love’s final embrace.

I recall those old men sometimes, when sitting beside Superior in her many moods. But I think of them always on November 10th, which was the date in 1975 when the Edmund Fitzgerald went down with all hands.

No one knows for certain why the Fitzgerald sank, though the question continues to be asked because that’s what we do -- we try to impose a sense of certainty upon an uncertain world. We do that so we might fool ourselves into believing that our constructs provide some final measure of control over a world utterly indifferent to human concern. That’s bald conceit. What’s true is that Lake Superior is big and men are small and sometimes we can’t survive its embrace no matter how mighty our lifeboat.

Superior serves as grave to untold thousands of human souls, from native peoples plucked out of canoes to Voyageurs caught between safe harbors, from pleasure seekers run afoul of sudden weather to seasoned crews serving aboard the mightiest ships men can construct. So please take a moment out of your busy day to remember those souls lost and to consider, however briefly, that no matter the might of human industry, it’s never greater than a speck of dust in the eye of a storm…

“If they’d put fifteen more miles behind her…”

Whitefish Bay, from a vintage 35mm transparency

Friday, November 4, 2016

I digress...

                                                                                    Credit: In Your Face Radio

An estimated 57.5% of eligible voters chose to exercise their franchise during the 2012 Presidential election. That means "some 93 million eligible citizens did not vote".

What's true is that fascism didn't rise in 1930's Germany because fascism was strong. Fascism is a coward's way, it's never strong. Fascism infected Germany then near laid waste to the world because a critical number of German people surrendered to fear, anger and resentment. That made their democracy weak.

Think on that, whether you intend this year to vote in anger or with a pox on both their houses shrug, don't plan to vote at all. Or worse, figure to waste your franchise to vote for a candidate that cannot win and thus serve the needs of your own moral vanity at the expense of your neighbors and country.

Think hard on 1930's Germany. It  echoes resurgent cross the American landscape these days, disguised as patriotism promising greatness and growing fat off terminal discontent. The stench of fear turns the air rancid. And with that, moral equivalence is made to seem like reason.

Think on these things then vote like your life, your liberty and the pursuit of your happiness depend on you simply showing up and choosing to do the right thing. Truth is, they do. They always do.

We've come too far to turn back. The time to sow the wretched ground of fear, exclusion and misogyny with salt so to purge those poisons from the greater American landscape e'en unto the last generation is now. The opportunity is at hand. History demands it. Woe be the world if we don't take it.

Get off your ass and vote, damn it.

And in the event you can't be bothered, at the very least never again dare let anyone hear you whine about the state of things in America.

Because you'll have surrendered the right, no matter how inalienable.

Friday, October 7, 2016


For pretty much the entirety of my adult life I've reaped the benefit of two autumns every year – first in the Northwoods, later a second on the prairie. That won't happen this year. Here's hoping absence really does make the heart grow fonder, eh?

Regardless, it's high time I take care of some long overdue business.

When politicians prattle about "small business owners", it never sounds like they're talking about real people and when reduced to public policy abstraction, mostly they aren't. Well, the two rural enterprises featured below aren't just operated by genuine American folk. They're run so well and by such good people that over the years, the owners have become my friends.

I'm here today to honor the bravery, resilience and most of all the sheer American heart of these most enterprising citizens and to recommend that you give them your business, should the opportunity arise.

A place to stay…

When young, the whole point of our annual treks from the prairie to the Ottawa National Forest and the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness was always to revel in the great woods, which one does best by living in them. So we disdained motels. I've pictures from 1978 of Heather and me bathing in Bobcat Lake, using more or less biodegradable camp soap, as it was then called. Sorry, you don't get to see those images but geez Louise we were once young and fit.

In time and especially during those trips that stayed cold and wet, when the need for a shower turned desperate we'd emerge bedraggled from the wilderness and take a room at the nearest motel. Sometimes we'd not even bother to sleep in the room and instead returned to camp refreshed. We were that resolute.

Later, when the point of my trips was to fish, I stayed in an oddly built place more hotel than motel but central to everywhere I wanted to be. Though he locked the lobby door at ten and didn't reopen it until eight the next morning, the old man who owned it lent me a key so I could chase fish as I pleased. That relationship lasted until he died.

Eventually, large format gear made it essential to have somewhere secure and dry to stow it. For maybe thirty years now, in Bessemer that place is the Traveler's Motel, owned & operated by Donna and Mike Maslanka.

Of my many happy memories made there, maybe my favorite is the day during the Odyssey when, following a brutal stretch of travel and after having borne terrible witness to the biggest, ugliest-assed iron hole in the whole world, I drastically changed course in northern Minnesota. Reliant only on sheer will and my Gazetteer to get me the hell out of there, I raced south through the 'North Star State', headed east to Duluth and held on tight across the length of northernmost Wisconsin, until finally making it to Michigan.

When at last I got to Bessemer and Traveler's, Donna and Mike were on their porch taking the evening sun with a glass of wine. I shared the story of my troubled day and the long, long drive. They welcomed me like I'd just returned safely home. Which of course, in a very real sense I had.

By sheer coincidence, Traveler's Motel is just down the bluff from what once was my Uncle John's farm and only a short distance from the final resting place of my UP ancestors. But what matters to you is that Traveler's other sign reads "Squeaky clean rooms". That's no idle boast and I've seen how hard Donna works to keep it true.

Donna and Mike are native to the region, young sweethearts that got married and raised a fine daughter in the midst of a hard land, on the strength of a successful local enterprise. That's a notable life, especially considering the catastrophic failure rate of small, tourist dependent businesses on the Range. They come, they go. But thankfully for visitors to the western UP, Traveler's stays on.

…enough to eat.

Used to be, the Range was dotted with great diners. From Red's in Wakefield to the legendary Scotty's on the road to Ironwood, we took advantage of them all.

Those days are gone. The spot once occupied by the creaky old Bessemer Café's been an empty lot for…I dunno, has to be near forty years. Still, I'd my first fresh walleye dinner in a rural café and relished the best perch fish fry of my life in a hewn log restaurant out at Black River Harbor, a business burnt down so long ago now that few even remember it was there. It's tough, making a living selling good food at prices locals can afford.

Out of Bessemer toward Black River Harbor is the Black River Valley Pub. A few years ago it failed too but now due to the indomitable nature of its present owner and the way she honors her family's heritage, today the place positively thrives.

Like my own family they may have started as miners on the Gogebic, but Kris Rigoni comes from a strong family tradition of good food. Her father's a baker; he makes the great dinner rolls served at the Pub. Two sisters, a brother and her nephew are chefs/cooks. Kris' robust, Wednesday night all-you-can eat spaghetti is based on her grandmother's recipe and Heather tells me her Hungarian mushroom soup is about as good as that gets.

Kris' day starts at the gym or with a run, then she gets down to business. Preparation begins at 11:30 for a 4:00 open and her typical work day stretches anywhere from twelve to fourteen hours. I've marveled as Kris works the grill for Friday night whitefish fry, when the parking lot's full to overflowing from beginning to end. Once a widespread local tradition, hers is the only fresh fish fry I know of that today remains on the Range.

Not to mention that as a teen Kris waitressed at Scotty's. That'd be about when Johnny, Heather and I frequented the place. For all I know it was she who served us that night, when after my trip to the emergency room we took refuge at Scotty's to discuss our limited options during the night of the bear.

Kris Rigoni purchased the failed Black River Pub during a time of national economic crisis. I'm in awe of the bravery that took. I once asked her why she'd do that and her answer was at once both simple and complex. She couldn't find work as a scratch baker because local bakeries are often under such economic pressure that they're compelled to buy and sell commercial product instead of hiring local labor.

Black River Valley Pub's given Kris the opportunity to labor mightily so that at the end of their day, others who work hard or play hard choose to come and see her, both for comfort and community. More than just a place to eat good food at a fair price, the warmth and hospitality Kris brings to her job simply can't be faked. That too sounds a lot like family, to me.

Because I camped and fished, I always believed the peak travel season on the Range ran spring through fall. I was wrong. From color season to snow melt is when most local businesses make their nut for the year. First come the hunters, followed by leaf peepers and late in fall, steelhead fishermen. Then winter sets in, when snowmobilers and skiers hold the fort until spring when the seasons of life begin again.

No politician will keep these good folk going. That kind of thing's on us. It's always on us, small business owners being our neighbors no matter where we live and finally, our friends.

So if you're thinking of a trip up north this year, by all means stay at Donna's, eat at Kris'. And if you weren't thinking of heading north, then think again. You could do a whole lot worse in the Superior wilderness and would be hard pressed to do much better anywhere, anytime.

And for all you digital imagers out there, the long light that typically bathes the Northwoods starting in October and lasting through November is simply the most perfect light I've ever seen…


Notes From the (very small) Field…

Or, in honor of my favorite season, this month we're offering two for the price of one.

Perhaps I should've better engaged any number of important tasks this past summer. Instead I spent much of it in close observation of life on our little patch of prairie. In any year featuring more regular business I'd have been on the Superior Basin multiple times. This is no ordinary year. Still, when not in direct touch with the real world I wither.

Absence from the landscape I love best encouraged me to look closer at my native prairie than I have in a long time. There was a lot to see and no small share of good news. Like life in general, one only has to look.

In past years, Heather's Blazing Star carried only a couple of blooms. This year it threw more than a dozen and little Blazing Star babies are already in place for next spring. It's finally happy and that made us happy too. No less so because that meant Heather let me harvest one for work…

Despite their ongoing troubles, we hosted more Monarchs than any season since we've been here. By the time those reach us in late summer and early fall, some are already near a thousand miles into the perilous journey to their winter home in Mexico. Starting in August we saw bright, healthy Monarchs most every day through September and even a few stragglers this week including no fewer than three earlier today. I get that's basically meaningless in the great Monarch scheme of things, but still.

There were numerous Swallowtails, both Black and Tiger. Dozens of tiny Skippers danced daily in the sun, including the only Spotted Skipper I've ever seen. Commas, Red Admirals and Painted Ladies regularly visited. Whites and Sulphurs as well, more of the latter than I've seen since my youth.

We allowed one of our garden boxes to go wild and were gobsmacked by the richness that brought. Maybe a dozen varieties of bees and wasps, including a Great Golden Wasp and a host of active spiders working deep cover beneath all. The highlight was a Great Black Wasp, the first of those I've seen since I was a kid. It started with a single massive male and in time his family grew to five. Who knew that oregano left to flower was such an attraction?

Great Black Wasps are non-aggressive because they don't colonize so haven't any turf to protect. That's some wisdom to live by, eh? I miss the Great Blacks, now that the season's turned.

And because we grow sunflowers for Goldfinches, we've a clutch of mighty happy field mice too, which hardly goes unnoticed. This young Cooper's Hawk spent a full forty minutes on the prowl and never seemed to mind us watching:

But the very best news? It was a bad year for Culex mosquitoes, around these parts a prime distributor of West Nile virus. That meant for the first time in more than a decade, Blue Jays and Crows were again a living presence upon the prairie. Those are ancestral voices I've since come to associate primarily with the Northwoods and happily, they brought a bit of that joy down here to me. Long may our new residents live.

Anyway summer's over, whether up north or here. Most of our visitors are gone, with residents preparing to lay low. During my exceptionally purple adolescence, autumn was a season for richly indulgent melancholy. Annual visits to the great northern wilderness fixed that in me. Now I'll get to see if that took.

Over the last two weeks, hummingbirds down from the north have daily visited our feeder. The Monarchs continue to come then go, intermittently now. I expect the first overhead skeins of raucous Sandhill Cranes any day.

What's sure is that up north, autumn is already ablaze. That means soon, the prairie will turn golden. There're already hints of that in the trees. Indian grass will wave beneath ever lengthening light cast from soft blue skies. Willows will weep yellow tears. Cattails and milkweed will throw their seed to the wind while Woolly Bear caterpillars take desperate chances along blacktop roads. Even now the field mice cache sunflower seed like they know there's no tomorrow.

Then once all that seasonal glory is well spent and perched just at the edge of fleeting memory -- when the more mindful among us have done all we can to prepare -- winter will come roaring down from the north, sure as hell.

And so long as I needn't spend it weeping for my country, that'll be all right by me...

Friday, August 26, 2016

Revolution, 2016

The Superior Basin is loaded with field-to-table farmers, hunters and fisher folk. For the majority of those, that's just what comes of being born to multigenerational poverty in rural isolation. Like most people everywhere always, of necessity they play life's hand as dealt the best they can.

The same punishing remoteness that makes so many young locals desperate to escape nonetheless draws a steady stream of refugees to it. For them this modern approximation of an old way of life is a choice. These include all manner of people from neo-hippies to alt-right malcontents who for their own reasons reject the too often mutually exclusive demands of everyday American life.

For still others, the choice of life lived in accommodation with a difficult place represents a profound personal commitment to blaze trail toward a more sustainable future, so that the rest of us might follow. Which happy thought brings me to Claire Hintz, smiling in Mexican mud…

Spring, 2013

Elsewhere Farm is on the far reaches of the Bayfield Peninsula, down a piece from Cornucopia. My visit there in 2013 was intended as the first stop for a suite of essays on the cultural, economic, intellectual and artisanal progress of the greater region, with Ashland and Northland College serving as nexus for the narrative.

The Lake Superior Binational Forum at Northland had been kind to me along my way. I wanted to return the favor. And whether in Canada or the States, I knew no other Superior community in so vigorous pursuit of a sustainable future as is this post-industrial patch of northernmost WI.

That brilliant spring afternoon at aptly named Elsewhere Farm, Claire Hintz fairly dazzled me with her combination of academic knowledge, applied intellect, insight, industry and courage.

It wasn't simply the efficient, 'low tech' greenhouse. Or that with a wave of her hand Farmer Claire purged from this prairie kid vestigial sodbuster notions about working wet land. It wasn't just the warm, inviting home filled with books and specialized paraphernalia, an environment that particularly suits me. Or the staggering amount of wealth Claire noted the locals ship from the region each and every year in trade for food made somewhere else, most often by person or persons unknown.

Not even the Icelandic chickens that make such good sense on so many levels I'm still gobsmacked they aren't more commonplace made my day. Normally, those alone would've sufficed.

As it happened I spent only that single afternoon in the field, officially the last of the Odyssey. Too ill to continue, the next morning I raced back to the prairie and so much for the remainder of 2013. Later, the Lake Superior Binational Forum got stripped of funding, as indicative of our times. I've not returned to the area since and wouldn't know what to write about it, today.

Because of all that and more, the application of high level learning mixed with pancultural common sense then with altogether rigorous determination sown upon the wilds of the Bayfield Peninsula for right reasons made Elsewhere Farm emblematic of the finest, most enduring aspects of our American character. In other words, exactly the sort of thing we collectively like to brag on as indicative of us, but too rarely do we engage the sustained hard work to fully realize. Except there Elsewhere Farms is, just the same.

So fresh and full of promise in spring of 2013, I trust Claire Hintz's orchard has since gone on to bear fruit accordingly. It's important work.


The Industrial Revolution that carried us to here took full flight on the notion of Earth as inexhaustible, thus unassailable in any meaningful way by our puny selves. That's the operative concept from which modern America and its attendant liberties sprang. Earth provides, we harvest then build and call it progress. By virtue of geology and an accident of timing the Superior Basin features a rich array of evidence that it's so.

Most everything we rely on for our lives and good fortune remains dependent on this idea that perpetual harvest makes for inevitable progress.  Even though we know better about nearly all things than we did in the 19th Century, when perpetual maintenance of an industrialized civilization was made our prime directive. And with the greater part of what we knew then since proven silly in light of what we know now, not the least being that human knowledge must be taken for provisional.

What's demonstrably true is we aren't nearly as smart as we like think and what's more, never were.

Algerian Desert Art, Wikipedia Commons

This spring introduced me to the phrase Slow Food. It's generations since most folk in the States had to run down their food at any speed and at first, the term confounded me. Turns out Slow Food's a fresh label slapped on an old idea in the hope overwhelmed consumers pause to reconsider its ancient wisdom anew.

It's strange to me that a concept so fundamental as the first seed sown or the first beast nurtured by humans to make for slower food requires rebranding to maintain relevance, especially in these our hard times. Whatever plant or critter those might've been, today through this transaction of longstanding one is unlikely to know the other at a glance, for what they've each become. Not plant or beast or human too and never again, I suppose.

On faith I'd like to take the essential idea of food and its production as at least second nature to the species by now but apparently, alas. Real food gets renamed Slow Food as cultural Kryptonite to Fast Food and the plainly unsustainable era of human life that label represents. It's a strange world we've made, with Kryptonite aplenty but no Superman in sight. And so it goes.

Back when we were just apprentice Masters of the World, Thomas Jefferson believed mastodons still roamed the American West, though he'd mistakenly thought them mammoths. 

As perhaps the prime intellectual architect of the American Experiment and for his time a mighty bright man all around, Jefferson knew there'd been mammoths/mastodons. But until late in his own life, he didn't know near enough to ever imagine them gone.

Thomas Jefferson, extinction denier so necessarily a believer in mastodon inexhaustibility, died on July 4th 1826. A mere fourteen years later Douglas Houghton marked the birth of the nation by blowing La Roche Verde to smithereens. Steeped in raw opportunity and driven by abject ignorance, America's rush to her industrialized future was officially on.

Knowledge is power unanswerable to wealth or political influence. It bows before no elite, not populist or intellectual or oligarch. No matter that once we took errant self-evidence as proper foundation upon which to build a great land of the free, home to the brave. Since 1776 and until the day we see fit to surrender our hard-earned liberty, what we do or don't do with this bounty of constantly refreshed knowledge rests squarely on each one of us.

By whatever label, the operative concept behind the global local food movement is that when you personally know where your food comes from, how it was made and who made it, you're vastly more likely to live better, longer. All the while contributing to a locally sustainable economy, a notion proven to float most folk's boats along their way. And you'll help stanch the critical bleeding of Earth's now demonstrably finite natural wealth in the bargain.

Because what Thomas Jefferson and the lineage of Nation builders who followed him along the trail of Manifest Destiny didn't know turned out to be a lot. Today, it's common knowledge that the Eden we depend on for our lives and the future of god's supposedly chosen children isn't inexhaustible after all.

Elsewhere Farms demonstrates yet again that the people of the Superior basin possess a generosity of spirit and individual industry that perpetually renews the power of the People. It reveals the politics of division pimped by demagogues of despair as a self-destructive indulgence. This spirit and willingness to work hard for no good money against daunting odds on a landscape that doesn't forgive and for a larger culture that doesn't much care gives lie to the raw cynicism these days driving entirely too much of the national conversation about the state of our American character.

Of course the real world's a scary place. It's why we've spent thousands of years building a civilization of increasingly complex walls, literal and figurative. How is that news to anyone?

Possessed of the talent and blessed with the means to incrementally insulate and provisionally secure ourselves from the vagaries of both nature and our neighbors, we do. But never kid yourself about who pays accrued interest on what and to whom for the pretense of keeping real world consequences at bay, or that the bill's not about to come due in full regardless.

Planet of the Apes

Every dollar not spent today will tomorrow save no one from the fast rising cost of our collective past. Not rich or poor, left or right, agitated, complacent or confused will be spared but that our massive accumulation of strictly theoretical wealth is now devoted to the real life pursuit of critical knowledge and its immediate, practical application.

Consider that, the next time some pandering yahoo grasping for political power whines about intellectual elites. Or scientific bias. Or when some pipsqueak politician in order to justify further reducing the People's share of the People's wealth claims that mere national debt is the most dire threat to the future of America's children.

The Mastodon is dead. So too, is Thomas Jefferson. And that is the news.

Yet critical lessons remain to be learned from the living legacy of each before the American Experiment can ever be fairly claimed a failure by anyone also interested in truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Or reasonable, contemporary facsimile.

Any revolution that can't feed itself over the long haul is doomed to fail, food security being essential to the effort. A far flung and still obscure but not inconsiderable number of your fellow Americans are currently working hard to help remedy that. They come from all corners and cut across every demographic, even if you neither know nor care that they exist.

The change many of you think you desire is already here, though probably not exactly as you'd like it. Tough beans. Evidence abounds. There is but to look, listen, learn and move forward as best we can, united in common cause and finally unbound from obsolete verities drawn of profound ignorance then purposefully evolved over time to best serve a wide variety of vested interests that mostly don't include you.

The facts of extinction proved so radically at odds with his notion of self that Thomas Jefferson could only reject self-evident truth. Evidence strongly suggests a lack of dark imagining is no longer at issue in the American body politic.

Among other things, the Boy Scouts of America taught me to Be Prepared.

So during this radical political season dominated by angry voices arguing over nettlesome choices while otherwise mainlining an apparently inexhaustible supply of toxic trivia, here's a suggestion for everyone thinking of voting for what's been labeled as righteous change but realistically promises only further division leading to deepening chaos:

If like most of us you're unable to feed yourself and your family, or to help feed your immediate neighborhood for the duration as needed, don't.

Truth is, you're woeful unprepared for what you think you want. As are the majority of your neighbors. All the good work now engaged by other citizens to better prepare our postindustrial grassroots for a healthier, more sustainable revolution notwithstanding.

Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it good and hard. And as HL Mencken suggested, you'd deserve it...