Part 1: early July to mid-August
Part 2: mid-June to early July*
Part 3: mid-May to mid-June (to come)
Part 4: Traditional Ways, mid-August (to come)
It’s been a long summer, and awful quiet here on the blog. I plan to write about everything I did that’s worth writing about—but for various reasons I’m going to tackle it in approximately reverse order. So this is the first of a few posts to get the blog up to date, but it mostly covers July and August.
When I braked two years of traveling momentum to settle down and live on this little peninsula on Lake Superior, I planned to start feeling at home. You wouldn’t guess it from how long I’ve blown around all-anyhow on the winds, but getting into a deep relationship with a place is a project I’ve had in mind for a long, long time, and that I’ve planned to dedicate a lot of my life’s time and effort to.
From what I can remember and what I’ve been told about my early childhood, I’ve always cared about nature from a place somewhere deep within the core of my being. But for a long time, I’ve cared about nature in the abstract, the concept of nature, nature of the whole world. That’s nice of me I suppose, but you can give a concept all the love you can muster, and all you’ll get back is this unfulfilled feeling that you’re not quite loving it right, that you’ve never really met it. For all the rhetoric I heard in college about how young people were our bright hope to save the environment, I felt less of a rise and a flame from four years of that than from a single night visiting home and going with my brother to the forty feral acres known as Warder hiding in our childhood suburb, with a tiny pond where we’d grown up catching frogs and a white pine we climbed and called the Ivory Tower.
In those days things mattered to me. I would defend the land. There was a vacant lot a few addresses up the street from me when I was about ten, filled with scraggly young forest and underbrush. One day a sign appeared in front of it declaring it was to be the site of a new house. This was unthinkable to me, and I wrote impassioned if regrettably sappy letters in defense of the trees and the deer to the builders and left them in the mailbox there. The house got built, of course, and presumably the deer walked a hundred yards or so to Warder and its adjoining forest, and I learned a few lessons. But the point is that this little chunk of barely-wilderness mattered to me, because it was what I had, and it was where I was.
I’ve made passing friends with some lands since then—the neighborhood mountains of Sanae in Korea’s Gangwon Province, temples and shrines clinging to their feet; South Minneapolis with its buzzing diversity of cultures and people I liked hanging out with. But there hasn’t really been anywhere that I would passionately defend. (Perfunctorily defend, sure. I can shout protest slogans with the best of them.) I’ve known for a long time that people do have such relationships with places; it only takes the barest knowledge of American Indian activism or the slightest acquaintance with Wendell Berry’s writing to know that. And I wanted that relationship. But it’s been so long since I felt it that when I finally moved here to the shores of the Greatest Lake, I no longer quite believed that it was something I could ever experience. Perhaps that passion belonged to the naivety of childhood. I might find a place I could physically live, and I might find its scenery pretty, and that would be that.
I’m happy to report that while I’ve been away from the keyboard this summer, much of what I’ve been doing is proving myself wrong on that count.
I think when I moved here, many people who know me and my peripatetic ways figured this was one more stop along the way as I kept “rolling nowhere”. And some may be harboring a suspicion that I came here to drop out from society. That is, that I’ve moved to a place far from any human activity worth noticing, so I can have a virgin wilderness setting where I can play out my back-to-nature idealism.
Well, far from it. If you live in Madison or Minneapolis and only know this place because your family took you here on vacation once or twice when you were a kid, you might be forgiven for thinking that the Chequamegon Bay is a constant idyll where nothing of importance ever happens and people lounge by the lakeshore all summer languorously sipping New Glarus. But that wonderful happyland can only be seen for a few days at a time and through a series of acts of willful ignorance. For people who live here, as anywhere, this is a place of lots of different people all wanting various different things out of life, atop a land with a spirit of its own and a bedazzlingly complicated human and non-human history lodged in the soil.
Twenty miles down the shore in either direction from my house are Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) reservations: Red Cliff to the north, Bad River to the southeast. Nor are they just off there in the reservation doing reservation things; elder Joe Rose of Bad River has fought numerous times against a string of industrial threats to the environment of the whole region by working with the county board and then by getting elected to it. (He’s about 83 now and shows no signs of slowing or mellowing.) Two miles over the water from Bayfield is Mooningwanekaaning, known in English as Madeline Island after the Christian name of Ikwesewe, an Anishinaabe cultural leader and wife of a French fur trader. According to Eddie Benton-Benai, it was about the year 900 when the Anishinaabe, then living on the shores of New Brunswick, were given a prophecy that they would need to begin a long migration to the west to the “land where food grows on water”. They stopped at six places along the way where they established sacred fires and villages; they spread into the lands along their path, reaching understandings or doing battle with the people living there already; they lost their way, found it again, and split into three groups (the Ottawa, Potawatomi, and Ojibwe). And five hundred years later, they established their seventh fire amid the land where the wild rice grows, on Mooningwanekaaning.1 Now the island is the only non-reservation place in Wisconsin with bilingual Ojibwe–English road signs.
The first Europeans to show up were Radisson and Groseillers back in 1660, here to start an outpost for the fur trade. They worked for France until France stiffed them on pay, then worked with the English to start an outfit you might have heard of, the Hudson’s Bay Company. As far as the European diaspora was concerned, this was fur country for 150 years, with all the shifting alliances, fortunes made and lost, and superlatively tough individuals that entailed.
Then in the 1880s the loggers came and made what’s still known as “the cutover”, a wholesale buzzcutting of all the area’s trees over a period of decades. The railroad came and built tremendous docks on the lake in Washburn, and lined off an area where thousands of logs floated in the water until they could be milled. Even today bringing up waterlogged Lake Superior logs, which have a size and denseness that trees don’t attain now, is a profitable business. The mill employed hundreds or thousands and burnt down repeatedly but was lucrative enough to rebuild over and over.
The giant lumber dock was the largest thing on the bay, but only for a few decades, until the eighty-foot-tall Oredock was built in Ashland in 1915 to load iron ore mined in the Gogebic Range just around the corner in Michigan. After its length was doubled to 1800 feet in 1925, it was the largest structure on the lake and the largest oredock in the entire country. For all I know it weighed more than the whole town of Ashland; I do know that it had a weight capacity of 110,000 tons.
Meanwhile just a bit inland, directly across the road from the house I live in now, DuPont in 1904 built a massive explosives plant. It started out making dynamite for demolitions, but when World War I started it quickly shifted production to the more warlike TNT, and from 1913 to 1918 the Barksdale Works produced more TNT than any other single facility in the world. Six thousand people worked there, in what, from the old photographs, appears to have been a massive industrial hellscape equipped with its own water tower, barracks for the workers, and several dedicated train tracks. Boyd Creek, a little jump-across-in-one-hop stream in the middle of it all where nitrates were washed or something, regularly flowed red. The plant stopped operations in the ’60s and was torn down in 1974, but even today DuPont is still paying for environmental cleanup, and traces of DNT in the groundwater—a precursor of TNT that instead of killing you in an explosion kills you with cancer—mean that even miles away from Washburn, DuPont pays to have the town’s water piped in to my house. The site is surrounded by a solid and serious fence and all that’s visible is forest. About half the time I bike down the road, deer scramble across it in front of me to get back to the TNT plant. Last night one almost ran into me in the dark.
And this is just the big-picture history of the region. Assuredly I could start poking into the history of each building or tract and find, say, that the dairy farm down the street has been in the family for over a century (this is probably not true) or that there’s a spot now covered with forest that was a longstanding Anishinaabe village site.
And it’s also only a fraction of what an old local, or even a curious-minded young one, could tell me about the history written on this land. It’s not just history, either—it leaves behind traces both obvious and subtle, from the behemoth concrete footing of the Ashland Oredock that still remains after the superstructure was torn down in 2012, to my house’s vestigial pumphouse now obsolete because the water’s being piped in instead, to the routes of the local snowmobile trails along the old train tracks. One day I hope to be, among other things, the kind of knowledgeable old fart who really knows the land he lives on. I have thirty years of catching up if I’m going to know this land anything like a person who grew up here does. I still don’t have any idea where the fishing holes are, for instance, or where good hunting can be had (without sneaking into the Barksdale Works). This summer has been full of remedial learning of at least the basics, a skeleton of knowledge that I can fill in as time goes by. For example, my housemate Jake is a hunter and fisher, and I plan to ask him to help me become one too this fall and winter. It’ll be years before I’m any good at that pursuit, I’m sure, but here I am starting.
The history I just gave you comes from time I’ve spent checking things out at the local historical museum, following up odd leads online, and biking down old railroad beds that have been devoid of tracks for forty or fifty years. (I made it from Howell Road a few miles outside Bayfield all the way through Washburn to Wedal Road, about seven miles, and also nine miles back up toward Wedal from Ashland, along these old lines, admiring what nature has been doing with them. They’re mostly still interpretable as trails, but it gets pretty rough biking through the marshy part and a little dodgy trespassing along the parts that have been turned into the driveways of dream homes.) But I’ve probably spent even more time enmeshing myself into the world of the present by making new friends.
There are a lot of good people here, and I keep meeting more of them. It helps that there’s a strong potluck culture. Just this summer a weekly moving potluck has been established on Mondays, sometimes down at the volleyball court, sometimes in various people’s houses, like the one last night at the home of some acquaintance-friends of mine who’ve built their own pizza oven in the backyard. Most of the folks I meet at the potlucks are here thanks to Northland College, which has been a hippie sanctum for decades (Richie, a local fixture who looks unassuming but can tell you just about anything about the area and helped popularize smelt netting here, came up to Northland from Georgia a few decades ago). But I meet others at the hardware store, while I’m picking berries at work, even in my house when my housemates, who grew up here, invite their friends over. In May I blogged about being lonely and figured my life would be that way for a while as I settled in; I missed my Twin Cities friends already and had a hard time imagining new friendships with a potential to be equally rich, even though I knew there were good people here. Now I’ve found some of them and I’m filling my life with them.
All that in the free time when I’m not picking berries. I started working at a local pick-your-own berry farm right after I got back from my last bout of traveling, and I’ve been at it pretty constantly since then. I’ve learned a lot about berries, though not as much as you might think, since I haven’t been planting new bushes or making decisions about the irrigation schedule. Mostly I’m just very familiar with the life cycles of raspberries and blueberries now.
And also with spotted-wing drosophila, the fruit fly that’s just changed berry farming here for the more difficult by bursting into the region with a “killer app”, an ovipositor that can lay eggs even in unripe fruit, something no other fruit fly around here can do. So far the best way to keep SWD from devastating your crop into a mass of sticky pulp is to get fruit out of the field as fast as possible, especially if it has SWD maggots in it. The easiest way to get fruit out of the field, if you’re a picker, is to eat it. At first I was a little uncomfortable eating a raspberry with a maggot in it, even if it is a tiny little thing a couple millimeters long. (And let me stress that I was never told I had to eat them.) But I soon figured, Well, the only thing it’s had to eat in its short life is raspberry pulp, so what’s the worst it can do to me? I can now report that it’s only after an SWD maggot has done a lot of damage over many days that a raspberry or a blueberry starts tasting really bad. (They turn vinegary as the sugar ferments into alcohol and then sours.)
So an accurate answer to someone who asks me, “What have you been doing since you got back from traveling?” would be, “Eating maggots.”
But I suppose it’s more informative to say that the reason I haven’t put aside the time to write here is that I’ve been doing so much catching up on what it means to be a part of this place. Summer is short here—there are eight months of the year that have seen snow here, and I’m not even positive September isn’t one too—and a lot happens. It’s important to seize it while it’s happening. At first I felt bad that I was out and about all the time and blogging never seemed to call to me. But I quickly decided that that, too, is part of getting to know this place more. Out here in the country, the seasons impose themselves on your life more firmly than they do in a city. Summer is, and always has been, the time to get off one’s ass and run around outside. Sure, a little reading is fine here and there, and maybe a smattering of writing if an idea really grabs you, but look, there are five or six months up here where sitting inside will be the norm. Sitting can wait its turn. It’s warm and there are berries, and the old railroad tracks will allow my bike down them.
So if you imagine that I’ve moved to permanent-vacation land, well, you’re only sort of right. Yes, I do intend, as much as possible, to enjoy every day as though I were on vacation. And yes, this place is astonishingly beautiful. It amuses me that I live in a place people drive hours to visit; I still giggle inwardly when I see a tourist taking a selfie with the Welcome to Ashland sign or walking down the streets of Washburn with an ice cream cone (tourists are known here as “conelickers”). But I have a job. And more importantly, a vacation is when you go away, and I’m not away out here. I’m right where I am—or getting there. Finally.
The Mishomis Book. 2010 (1988), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, Minn., pp. 94–102. ↩