Thursday, June 19, 2014

Lessons from an Ancient Giizhik Forest

Last Friday, the Kinomaage (Earth Shows Us the Way) class I teach took a field trip to the southern shores of Michigan's Upper Peninsula into the Garden Peninsula to visit both the windfarm and, more importantly, Snail Shell Harbor at Fayette.  With rural orchards, farm land, forests rooted in limestone, and land surrounded by michi-gami (Lake Michigan), the area is picturesque and welcoming.  This quiet, out of the way place also, interestingly, in many ways represents a hub for Manifest Destiny both past and present.

The Garden Peninsula itself has a long human history and is only across the bay from the Stonington Peninsula where another ancient history is found with marine fossils 400-500 million years old lining the michi-gami shores.  The Stonington is also home to one of the oldest known trails in the Upper Peninsula, the Bay de Noc - Grand Island trail, that connects Lake Superior with Lake Michigan and has been used by Indigenous nations for time immemorial to travel from one great lake to the other - it travels, technically, between the two largest freshwater lakes in the world.  The Stonington is also known as a bird migration route and as the jumping off point for monarch butterflies on their journey to Mexico.  The Garden shares these migration features as well.

In terms of officialdom, the iron ore industry is the human history most celebrated on this Peninsula.  The Michigan Department of Natural Resources runs the Fayette State Park, promoted as home to the former iron smelting village of Fayette.  Founded in 1867, Fayette lasted for around only 20 years, yet it is the primary human history celebrated at Fayette.  Amidst the houses, tools, and display boards celebrating this feat of Manifest Destiny nestle two display boards of other significance.  One tiny paragraph states that artifacts have been found dating human presence here to at least 3000 years ago, when Snail Shell Harbor was evidently used as a summer residence.  The other, slightly larger display stuck in a dark corner of the visitor center, discusses the giizhik (cedar) trees of Fayette and states that "an ancient forest ecosystem" unique in the world lives on the limestone cliffs of Snail Shell Harbor and supports a giizhik forest in which a typical cedar tree is at least 900 years old.  Both of these bits of information are not highlighted in any way.  In fact, they are lost among the factoids detailing every scrap of history from the smelting village, historical minutiae that go so far down as to ask people not to disturb the slag heap where industrial wastes were thrown along the beach (near, of course, where the low-paid, low-status workers lived) in order to protect this supposedly valuable piece of history.

This is not to mention that the oldest giizhik in the park is said to be over 1,400 years old.  Something that seems thrown in as a mere aside to the, evidently, more important things.

The giizhik forest at Fayette was old when Columbus landed.  Yet it is the Columbian legacy that is celebrated at Fayette and not the people or the forest who predated him by millenia.

Walking in that forest is nothing short of an experience, if you are mindful of its antiquity.  In class the previous weeks, we'd discussed, read and watched material on the nature of plants.  This included the Mother Tree concept under research by British Columbian botanists.  The Mother Tree concept is related to what Indigenous peoples have said all along - the forests are connected to each other underground with "Mother Trees" actively nurturing all.  This connection is formed through the plant roots in unity with mycorrizhal fungi.  Thus, when we walk through an ancient forest such as the one at Fayette, we are walking through age-old connections, with elders who knew our ancestors, who knew what life was like prior to colonization.  What must these elders have thought of a smelting village such as Fayette?  Stinky.  Noisy.  Destructive.  The hardwood forests destroyed to fire the kilns.  The limestone mined to process the ore.  And yet, it was a mere blip, an eye blink, in the history of the forest.  And it is this blink of an eye that the DNR chooses to celebrate.

In many ways, the village of Fayette represents a hub of Manifest Destiny Past.  Iron ore from the Jackson Mine further north in Negaunee was shipped via rail to Escanaba and by boat to Fayette for processing.  Most of the ore was made into Bessemer steel and used mostly to build railroads.  In this small nugget of history we have the takeover of an entire continent.

The Jackson Mine did not just appear magically.  It was opened only after the original inhabitants, the Anishinaabe, were pressured into signing away their homeland in the mid-1800s.  With the fur trade declining in the early nineteenth century, thus rendering the wilderness of the Northwoods no longer economically profitable, an expedition set forth in 1820 to assess the monetary wealth that could be made by converting the region's forests into timber and sucking dry the bowels of the Earth.  The 1820 Cass Expedition determined that "timber" and ores offered much potential profit.  This expedition, surveilling the Anishinaabe homeland without their consent, was sent to evaluate how much the Anishinaabe homeland was worth to the Americans.  It was a predatory mission that returned with the goal of obtaining access to the forests and minerals of Anishinaabe territory.  This directly resulted in the treaties of the mid-1800s wherein the Anishinaabe signed away millions of acres of rich land and were confined to small areas of land we now call reservations.  The results of this and similar policies have been horrific both in terms of loss of human life, cultural practices, and ecological health.

As the smelter at Fayette mowed down the hardwood forests in its area and mined the limestone for its processing, the material it produced for railroad building helped export Manifest Destiny across what we now know as the United States.  The railroads built of Bessemer steel entered the homelands of the Dakota and Lakota and related nations, the homes of the Cheyenne and Kiowa, the Ute and Apache.  The railroads bisected the homelands of these Indigenous nations as well as of our other relations such as the buffalo.  The trains brought in recreational hunters who killed for the pure joy they found in ending another life.  Species populations declined.  Some became extinct, never to walk fly, or crawl our planet again.  Near the end of the nineteenth century, those same railroads stole away the children of entire nations in order to obliterate Native languages, cultures, and land knowledge.

And all of this can be found at Fayette...if you read between the lines.  And if you notice what is not being celebrated.

Fayette represents Manifest Destiny Past.

The Heritage Windfarm north of Fayette on the Garden Peninsula represents Manifest Destiny Present.

Consisting of 14 wind turbines spread out over a large swath of land, the windfarm is situated in the middle of a major bird migration flyway.  The Michigan DNR has been supportive of placing the Heritage Windfarm on the Garden.  The US Fish and Wildlife Service has opposed the windfarm because of the bird migration, particularly the large migrations that occur at night.  The USFWS also cites considerable concern over the migizi (bald eagle) population in the area, estimating that about one eagle each year will be killed by the turbines.  This concern is based on daytime observations of bird activity in the area and does not include the limited nighttime studies that have been done. 

Interestingly, just today, news was announced that the Obama Administration is in hot water over its granting leniency to windpower companies and their killing of eagles, a federal offense.  According to the Associated Press, "An AP investigation last year documented dozens of eagle deaths at wind farms, findings later confirmed by federal biologists. Each one is a violation of federal law, but the Obama administration to date has prosecuted only one company, Duke Energy Corp., for killing 14 eagles and 149 other birds at two Wyoming wind farms" (  Thus while a private citizen may be hauled into court and prosecuted as a felon for possessing an eagle feather, wind power companies can kill eagles each year and not face criminal prosecution, according to the Obama Administration.  Another AP reports states, "More than 573,000 birds are killed by the country's wind farms each year, including 83,000 hunting birds such as hawks, falcons and eagles, according to an estimate published in March in the peer-reviewed Wildlife Society Bulletin" (

To return to the Heritage Windfarm, however, the power being generated on the rural Garden is not for use in the area.  Although the company's literature says it can power 7000 homes (equivalent, it says, to half the households in Delta County where the windfarm is located), there are at least 125,000 households in the Upper Peninsula alone requiring a windfarm 17 times larger.  Such a windfarm would be bigger even than the 30-mile, 20,000 square acre windfarm with 125+ wind turbines along Batchawana Bay near Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario (across the Lake from Bay Mills).  If we continue to refuse to reduce our electrical consumption, are we willing to sacrifice our landscape in such a manner?  Do we even have the right to do this?

The power from Heritage, though, is not staying in the local area.  Like most other mega-energy projects, the electricity generated by the Heritage windfarm is being transported out via high-voltage transmission lines - the railroads of the Electronic Age.  The health impacts of stray voltage, high electromagnetic frequencies, and the regular application of herbicides are disregarded as profits mount from an ever-increasing demand for electricity to power our electronics.  These high-voltage powerlines criss-cross rural/wilderness areas in a new form of resource colonization.  As John Mohawk asks in his essay "Technology As Enemy: A Short History,"  how will this technology shape our society? our planet? our survival? the survival of all our relations?  He ties his musings into a conversation with a Hopi guest who saw in the powerline webs of the Niagara Falls generating station a vision of the prophecy from his people when Spider Woman would return to the land near the end of this world and her web would be visible everywhere.

There are many lessons waiting on the Garden and at Fayette.  Lessons in Manifest Destiny and its impacts.  Lessons in what continues to be valued by the settler society today.  Lessons in how the colonization continues.

But more important than those lessons are the lessons not highlighted.  Lessons of how to live in such a manner that a giizhik can live to be over 1400 years old.  Lessons in how to enjoy the beauty of a place such as Snail Shell Harbor and not see, instead, fodder for an industrial furnace.  Lessons from a forest that is older than even the Anishinaabe presence in this area.  What can such a forest teach us if we only take the time to understand the murmurs of the moss, to feel the presence of the ancestors, to listen to the trees?  In understanding that we all of us, no matter our genetic origin, are now connected to this forest, we can perhaps come to understand exactly how we can live so that other forests such as this one can come to be once again.

As we prepared to leave from our discussion along the natural harbor, migizi flew over the giizhik-lined cliffs that rose shining in the sun just across the water.  What else could be left to say?  The Earth shows us the Way.