We hunted in a drizzle so light that when ducking under a fir bough, the duff was dry. Under a seamless gray sky, damp air buoyed an aroma of grounded September leaves.
In the atmospheric stillness, I heard trees dripping accumulated mist. The only other sound was the panting of the dogs when they circled back into earshot. The color was loudest — sumac so red it appeared lit from within. The full range of hues possessed a vigor that can’t be matched on cloudless days. Perhaps it was the sheen of rain, like spit on a marble floor or agates in an aquarium.
Next day, I ambled down to Secret Lake to pick cranberries. Calm water sparkled in generous, low-angle sunshine, and fat red berries were plentiful. I knelt in sphagnum moss at the shoreline and plucked two or three fruits at a swipe, making satisfying plunks in the bottom of a pail. Repetitive motion that promised rewards was a tonic. Enveloped in a bubble of peace and contentment, I actually felt hugged.
Next morning on that same shore, I caught the first bittersweet glimpse of winter. Under low overcast, the water was black and near freezing. Light snow dusted yellow tamarack and deep green spruce. To the north, a narrow rent in the cloud deck revealed a slash of blue sky — the final exit of autumn?
Late in the day, sunlight briefly peeked through a flat shelf of gray cloud, and the tamaracks blushed a luminous gold. From faraway I heard a burst of raven speech, as if to say, “Look! Look!”
Returning to the house, I broke off two small, dead aspen trunks and dragged them to the cabin. I bucked them into sticks with a Swede saw in fewer than three minutes and owned two armloads of dry wood. It was enough to heat the house for the frosty evening, and I felt blessed to be able to pluck “free” energy almost as casually as you might pick up a newspaper or a cup of coffee on an urban street corner.
At nightfall, I hurried to set up my telescope before another mass of forecast cloud rolled in. Our target was a faint comet, and I quickly located it in the constellation Corona Borealis. This easy find was possible because our remote sky is almost as dark and transparent as a sky can be. At 54x magnification, the comet was a fuzzy, elongated ball.
Ten minutes later, clouds rolled overhead, and as I was packing up the telescope, I heard wolves howling far off to the southwest. Much nearer, a barred owl hooted in counterpoint.
All of these gratifications transpired about 10 air miles from an iron mine and taconite plant, just north of Minnesota’s Iron Range where I was born. My father was a miner. I’m a native. I’m not a “pack sacker,” nor a member of some “elite.”
I’ve held blue-collar jobs my entire working life — construction labor, farm labor, logging, public utilities work, firefighting. It’s true that I’ve had some books published, but financially that has been a paying hobby, akin to selling homemade jelly or hand-carved duck decoys, and in some cases less lucrative. My writing has exerted a measure of influence, or so I like to believe, but my career has been close to my father’s.
I mention this because the regional (and national) debate over copper-nickel sulfide mining in northeastern Minnesota has recently taken an even nastier turn than has been customary, highlighting personal origins and clan affiliations as causes for faith or skepticism. Name-calling and personal vilification have always been part of the American political discourse — witness the diatribes exchanged between Jefferson and Hamilton, not to mention the poisonous rhetoric before, during and after the Civil War or during the 2016 election campaign — and despite shibboleths about “Minnesota Nice,” we are no exception.
The conflict between jobs and environment, rural townships and cities, heavy industry and tourism are cast in stark relief in the six counties of northeastern Minnesota, now charged by a catalyst of copper-nickel.
It’s beautiful country, and a local proverb states: “If not for mosquitoes and winter, there’d be 2 million people living between Duluth and the Ontario border.”
Maybe, if they could make a living or portage money in with them. An unstated part of the proverb: three cheers for bugs and subzero mornings.
Proponents of sulfide mining tout economic development and jobs. Two local politicians mentioned in opinion pieces for a local paper that after 135 years of iron mining, northeastern Minnesota is still a nice place, with “really good water” protected by “great environmental laws” that “are enforced.”
Well, no. The Minntac tailings basin discharge of contaminated water from taconite processing has been in violation of its permit specifications for over two decades, and those same two politicians have been instrumental in blocking enforcement of the law. They also legislated a study by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to research a fresh sulfates standard for those discharges and how they may affect wild rice production — a major issue for American Indians and environmentalists. However, when the proposed new standards appeared, the Iron Range legislators launched a misinformation campaign around their own mandate, stating that local governments would be bankrupted trying to meet the standard in their treated sewage effluent. Not true.
Such tactics compromise the reputation of Minnesota as an environmentally responsible state, and they bode ill for the oft-cited claim that for copper-nickel — a significantly dangerous form of mining — “we will do it right.” As we have with taconite tailings?
Still, it is beautiful country. All mining — nonrenewable, unsustainable — creates an ecological sacrifice zone, and fortunately, the Range iron-ore deposits constitute a relatively small area of relatively benign air and water discharges. Though the footprints of proposed copper-nickel mining and processing facilities are also relatively small, they present a definite threat to water resources, including both the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and eventually Lake Superior. The worldwide history of sulfide mining in wet ecosystems is horrendous, and there is no new technology to mitigate the contamination. Damage lingers for centuries. The cost? Nobody knows. Can such a multigenerational commitment even be maintained? Nobody knows.
In the mid-19th century, Alexander von Humboldt, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and other naturalists — perhaps the first champions of what would later be termed “ecology” — realized the potential for industrial growth to seriously compromise living systems. They embraced and celebrated the science of their time, but also expressed uneasiness at the clinical, empirical approach of the scientific method.
Thoreau, in his voluminous journal, combined meticulous observation with paeans — precise numbers with poetry. He and Emerson noted that people, obviously needful of an economic infrastructure, would only protect what they loved. So besides themselves, their families and friends, and enough material security to live comfortably, what else would they love?
Opponents of sulfide mining in Minnesota, usually at pains to make distinctions between that and iron mining, tout the threat to watersheds, the foundation upon which the boreal forest ecosystem depends and human health as well. We are, of course, as reliant upon water as any pine, deer or loon. The main arguments may be summarized as “don’t soil your own nest.”
Especially in reference to the Boundary Waters, they also express love. Proponents of copper-nickel also express that sentiment, with many swearing that if they thought such mining would damage the wilderness jewel, they too would denounce it.
No one has a monopoly on righteousness. Sometimes it seems the dispute is about which goose will lay the most golden eggs. We are, after all, self-interested beings.
We pride ourselves on our progress and knowledge, and I suspect that Thoreau, if returned to life, would be both horrified and heartened. Horrified at the industrial transformation of the continent he foresaw, and heartened that many millions now profess to share his ethos and that it’s not as bad as it could be; unexploited places still exist.
Herbert Spencer, another 19th century philosopher-naturalist, wrote: “The great aim of education is not knowledge, but action.” To know is to act, and to act is to live — action is a reason to be in the world. For many, action translates into stewardship. As the dominant, most demanding species on the planet, and an agent of extinction for others, we have a responsibility — as most religions assert — to expand our circle of affection.
If we will protect only what we love, then a central question for Minnesotans and all other humans is: What do you love? Because the rest will wither away.
Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is the author of “Ghosts of the Fireground” and other books.