Sunday, September 30, 2012

In the North Woods

        I am writing this at our cabin near the North Shore of Lake Superior, not far from the Canadian border.  Even though our cabin is fewer than four miles outside of the villiage of Grand Marais, Minnesota (pop. 1200) at the bottom of the glacial escarpment, it seems out in the woods.  Yes, neighboring houses are only a short walk away.  But when you're sitting on the porch, you can't see them, only woods and meadow.  This is a place that's about as far as you can get from 1890's industrial Pittsburgh.
The front porch of the cabin in December.

      This morning I took my border collie Viggo for a walk to "his" field, where he can blow off steam and destroy some sticks.  As we walked down the narrow driveway by the woods, I heard little crunching noises.  At first I thought it might be an animal hidden in the trees.  However, upon closer inspection, I realized that it was the sound of frosted leaves falling from shrub trees.  It's the kind of sound you'd never hear in the city, especially in Homestead when the mill was running.
Viggo puzzles over the noises in the trees.

      Up here, the smallest sounds seem amplified.  Last night when Viggo went out at 11 p.m., I heard something crunching around in the woods.  My concern was that it could be the bear that sometimes comes through on nocturnal ramblings.  Then I heard three weird, high-pitched cries come from up the hill.  The neighbors in that direction have chickens, dogs, and horses, but it sounded like none of these.  I suspect it might have been a great horned owl, an impression supported by my finding the head and wings of a ruffed grouse in Viggo's field.  Whatever it was, it made a spooky sound.  Viggo heard it too and hastily completed his bedtime oblations.

      The spookiest sound I've heard here has been the song of a wolf pack in the distance.  This has happened several times during the night this spring and summer, although not during this visit.  The seemingly mournful howling sends both thrills and shivers down my spine.  So primeval!  I've seen two of these creatures on trips to the North Shore.  In both cases, I saw them in the distance as I was driving.  At first, they looked like big German shepherds, but as I got closer, I realized that they were not dogs, but wolves.  The first one was large and black, a magnificent animal. (I can understand why people fear wolves, but not why some want to wipe them from the face of the Earth by any possible means. But that's another story.)
What big eyes you have!  The better to see you with. What big teeth you have! The better to, er, grin at you.. . .

Since the arrival of the Europeans, the ways of making a living here in the North Country have usually involved lots of work for minimal return.  First came the trappers in the 1700s.  After collecting animal skins (mostly beaver pelts to be made into hats) all summer, the trappers would rendezvous at Grand Portage, near what's now the Canadian border.  They would be paid for the skins, which would then be shipped via voyageur canoe to points east, then by ship to Europe.
My German cousin Hanne and I dressed as voyageurs at the Grand Portage lodge.
     In the mid-1800s the economy shifted to fishing.  Many Scandinavian immigrants took up the livelihood they had in the old country, establishing tiny villages like Hovland.  They'd stay in these harbor towns during the summer, going out daily into Lake Superior to catch herring, lake trout, and whitefish.  When the lake froze over, they moved into larger towns, where their children could be schooled.
Hovland today, with fishing cabins (one derelict) on the big lake.

      Then,  in the 1880s came the loggers, who clear-cut the virgin forests of northern Minnesota to build the towns and cities further south.  About the same time, iron ore mining on the Mesabi Range began.  The harbor towns on Lake Superior were the outlets for these commodities to be transported to the big Great Lakes ports.
       The land on which our cabin is built was a dairy farm in the early 1900s.  Huge piles of glacial boulders testify to the backbreaking work involved in clearing the fields for grazing land.  They, too, clear-cut the land, but since then, parches of woodland have sprung up between the houses and cabins.
By the late 1800s, Minnesota’s lumber industry was cutting 2.3 billion board feet of white pine per year. In 1911 the state began regulating the industry--after most of the virgin forests were gone.

      Trapping, logging, mining, fishing, subsitence farming: all very dangerous jobs, like steelmaking.  The difference is that the former all have something to do with using, or in some cases, abusing the land and water.  Working in a mill takes the steelworker completely out of the natural world.  The noises, the heat, the odors inside the gigantic mill buildings are nothing like those of the North Woods.
The completely fabricated environment of the open hearth furnace.

     As a child, I did not understand why my grandfather George Busch, the retired master machinist, spent so much time tending the flowers in the backyard and the vegetables in a vacant corner lot.  I do now.  Gardening is an activity that demands direct interaction with the soil and plant life.  Planting, tending, and harvesting get the gardener in touch with the change of seasons and cycles of nature, a pleasure that industrial work does not allow.
Grandpa Busch with prized azalea.
     On the North Shore today the economy is largely based on tourism.  Many people, long in city pent, feel the need to come to a place free of an all-encompassing human-made environment.  Yesterday, the North Shore was swarming with folks coming to look at the fall foliage.  Vehicles with license plate from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowas, and Ontario lined the streets and filled the roads around town.
        Ironically, in large part it was my parents' and grandparents' income, direct and indirect, from the Homestead Works, that allowed my family to build this getaway in the North Woods.  My mother would recognize many furnishings from her house in Munhall, but she and her mother were very urban persons.  I think they'd prefer to stay in town.  My father and his mother would enjoy seeing or hearing the many animals that live here: chipmunks, squirrels, grouse, songbirds, raptors, ravens, deer, foxes, bears, wolves.

       But the ones who would really love it here are my grandfathers.  Neither of them were outdoorsmen, but both spent their retirement years working the land.  On the day I was born, my grandfather Katilius bought a 100-acre farm in Butler Country, escaping smoky Homestead to return to his family's occupation in the old country, farming.
       I can see Grandpa Busch in the rocker by the table where I'm writing, looking out on the hillside of evergreens, smiling contentedly  Standing between us is Grandpa Katilius fiddling a Lithuanian dance tune, thinking of his homeland that looks so much like northern Minnesota.
Northern Minnesota or Lithuania?

I tap my foot in time to the music, grateful for the legacy they've bequeathed. . .and happy for the chance to enjoy the North Woods that they never got to experience.
Aurora borealis with scrub spruce, Cook County, Minnesota

"I've stood in some mighty-mouthed hollow That's plumb-full of hush to the brim; I've watched the big, husky sun wallow In crimson and gold, and grow dim, Till the moon set the pearly peaks gleaming, And the stars tumbled out, neck and crop, And I've thought that I surely was dreaming, With the peace o' the world piled on top."  Robert Service, "The Spell of the Yukon"