Blowing and Drifting - Christopher Tassava

Syndicate content
Life in and around Northfield, Minnesota.
Updated: 33 min 7 sec ago

Jim Harrison and Yooper Literature

Wed, 06/27/2018 - 7:03pm

I’d never read anything by Jim Harrison until he died a few years ago and my Yooper news alert drew my attention to this amazing essay in the New York Times on his love of the U.P. Till I read that piece – which describes some of Harrison’s favorite places in da Yoop, including my beloved Copper Country – I don’t think I’d ever read much serious, non-historical writing (however brief) about the Upper Peninsula, and I remember being impressed and touched that a real writer like Jim Harrison – who wrote the novella Legends of the Fall and then the screenplay for the movie starring Brad Pitt! – had loved the place.

That Times essay was occasioned by the release of a compilation of five novellas by Harrison about an Everyman named Brown Dog, who’s a sort of woodsman with few needs, fewer goals, and a habit, if not quite a penchant, for adventure. He’s a very U.P. character. Though I didn’t know any one person exactly like B.D., I knew a lot of people who were a lot like him: satisfied being underemployed but happy to cut pulp and fix cars, lovers of fishing and hunting and the outdoors, given to a little more drinking than might be healthy, not too interested in leaving the region…

Even more than Brown Dog himself, I loved Harrison’s evocation of the U.P. as a place. Early in the collection, Brown Dog says that 49º is the perfect temperature (and that 49 mph is the perfect speed). I agree! 49º means spring or fall, means wearing the same clothes indoors and out with no need to put on or take off a jacket, means new life arriving or old life leaving, means proximity to snow if not quite snow itself.

B.D. also loves the second-growth forests and the little creeks that run inevitably to the big lakes, and especially the swamps. The U.P. – like northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, two places I love, and apparently like Finland, a place I love even though I’ve never visited – is a land of swamps.

If anything, too little of the Brown Dog novellas are set in the snowy winters that sets da Yoop apart from even the northern end of the Lower Peninsula, or the western tip of Lake Superior. The seasons deeply affect Brown Dog’s life (he can’t wait for the trout opener), for sure, but he never really lives through a bad good winter. Maybe that’s because Harrison and Brown Dog knew the eastern and south-central parts of the U.P. better than the northwestern parts. But Harrison and Brown Dog did appreciate, with a good healthy sense of U.P. humor, what snow means up dere:

I happened to finish the novellas – which ramble picaresquely over a decade of Brown Dog’s life – just as the Copper Country suffered massive flooding that laid waste to roads, hillsides, businesses, houses. The disaster was probably the biggest in the Copper Country’s history, with $100 million in damage (but thankfully just one death). I like to imagine Brown Dog would have driven his shitty car over from Escanaba to Houghton to help out with the cleanup, maybe asking for no more payment than a couple six packs.

Categories: Citizens

Rediscovering Minnesota before the United States

Sat, 06/02/2018 - 7:25pm

When I was a kid growing up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I was fascinated by the fact that the U.P. had not always been part of the United States, much less part of Michigan. Visiting the reconstructed Fort Michimilimackinac at the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula and Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island in the channel between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, I loved learning that this territory had been France, Britain, and Canada before it was the United States — and though nobody really dwelt on it, that the land had belonged to the Ottawa and Ojibwa before any white men showed up.

As I grew up, my interest in the U.P.’s history shifted from the 18th and early 19th centuries to the region’s industrial golden age between roughly the Civil War and World War II, when the U.P. furnished the copper and iron that the burgeoning American economy needed, and when the area’s population was as large, diverse, and affluent as it had ever been or would ever be. In those years, I lived first in Ironwood at the far western tip of the U.P., a town that had been the biggest city in the Gogebic Iron Range, and later in Hancock at the southern end of the glorious Keweenaw Peninsula, in the heart of the Copper Country. Both Ironwood and Hancock were hollowed-out, depressed, and depressing towns that had lost half or more of their boom-time populations by the time I lived there.

That direct experience of living in busted towns colored by outlook on life, for sure, but also impelled me to study — in college and in grad school — how any why American capitalism works this way, in cycles of brief, amazing nooms that create something out of nothing, and the long, sad busts that see the something fade back almost to nothing. In pursuing those questions by focusing on World War II , my former interests in the political and social history of the the 17th/18th centuries all but faded away.

Since moving back to Minnesota, and especially since moving to Northfield, where the annual commemoration of the defeat of Jesse James’ raiding gang is literally a town holiday, I have started rediscovering these older interests, though: the efforts by whites from Lewis & Clark to Zebulon Pike to tie the Old Northwest into the new republic at the beginning of the 19th century, the subsequent “settlement” of Minnesota by whites in the middle of that century, the conversion of pre-contact forests and prairies to farmland, the Dakota Wars that coincided with the Civil War…

These revived interests matched perfectly with a new book by historian Theodore Catton, Rainy Lake House: Twilight of Empire on the Northern Frontier, which tells the amazing and sad story of white colonization of the lands between the western end of Lake Superior and the Red River Valley – what’s now the U.P., Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ontario, and Manitoba. (My friend Michael Allen – a professor of history at Northwestern University – sent me the book, thinking correctly that I’d love it.)

Much of the story was generally familiar, from the ways that France, Britain, and the new U.S. drew Indians into the fur trade and then into land swindles to the competition among those three countries – empires – over the Old Northwest and the peoples in them: the Ottawa, Ojibwa, and Lakota nations; traders, settlers, and soldiers from each country; the mixed métis of Canada.

Some of the story was less familiar to me, such as the incredibly difficult, lucrative, and destructive fur industry; the efforts through the middle of the 19th c. to launch new colonies in Canada; and the out-of-placeness of the métis who were neither French-Canadian nor Indian. And some of the story was wholly new, such as the bizarre forms of society on the frontier (many white traders had two families: a white family back east in Montreal or Toronto and an Indian wife and family in some fort or factory deep in the interior) or the sad life of John Tanner, a white man who’d been kidnapped by Indians as a child and grew up as a sort of white Indian but who was not accepted either as an American or as an Indian.

Tanner’s story is the core of Rainy Lake House, and Catton tells the story well, using Tanner’s upbringing in Ojibwa culture and maturation as a skilled hunter and trapper to show how the Indian nations adapted – or failed to adapt – to the expansion of the British in the north and the Americans to the south. Tanner was an enigma to almost everyone who met him, not least to the wife who tried to murder him. Tanner’s near-mortal injury led to his meeting the curmudgeonly, frustrated Canadian doctor and fur trader John McLoughlin and the ambitious American army officer and explorer Stephen Long. Working on opposite sides of the grand game to control the fur territories, McLoughlin and Long reflected, enacted, and created the economic, political, and cultural views on the exploitation and settlement of what was then and is still now a remote and thinly settled region.

As much as I enjoyed Catton’s skillful triple biography of these three men, I enjoyed even more his subtle sketching of the places where they lived, places I know a little bit now through my winter bike riding – the forests and swamps between Ely and International Falls, Minnesota or the plains along the Red River south of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Leaving aside the ultimately sad, if riveting, narratives about the various ways that Tanner, McLoughlin, and Long contributed to “settling” the Old Northwest, I was fascinated by the simple fact that any travel in this area required insanely arduous travel by foot or canoe. A few miles of fatbiking in January in northern Minnesota pales in comparison to the seasonal treks of the voyeageurs between what’s now far-northeastern Minnesota and Montreal, or the endless roving by the Ojibwa and Ottawa across their homelands.

I highly recommend Rainy Lake House to anyone interested in the history of Minnesota or the Upper Midwest, in the history of the early American Republic, or in the history of American Indians. The book reads like a much shorter work than its heft suggests, and any reader will come away with a new appreciation for the complexities of the 19th c. frontier, a place that was both a deeply multicultural society (though not an egalitarian one) and an ecosystem transformed by political, economic, and cultural pressures.

Categories: Citizens