Thursday, January 31, 2013

There's Writing in these Woods

Our family’s three-generation ties with northern Ontario's Algoma District connect with a land baron from Michigan, Bill Weston, who likely acquired over 100,000 acres of prime Ontario timberland during the 1930s and 40s. Using his own bulldozers he saw to the cutting of access roads into the bush. At that time within easy recall of the pioneer era, private road-making on wild land easily earned regard as a kind of public works. With the 4,860-mile-long TransCanada Highway under construction, Mr. Weston believed the province or municipalities in all their capability should assume upkeep of his new roads. Ranting in the faces of public officials whom he sought out in their offices did not further his cause, so Weston, rumored to carry a two-bitted axe in his car, became his own road patrolman. A mighty figure with a booming voice, he would order hunters or hikers off whichever of his roads. Any repeat encounter was enhanced with the axe, which according to legend he could twirl overhead and hurl like a tomahawk, or with a loaded rifle. In such characters as this has a stereotype of American (especially United States rather than Canadian) male been upheld even into our era.

Offsetting his talent for confrontations, Bill Weston was credited with a great and talkative charm in business dealings and in hosting visitors at the rockbound point of land on the northeastern shore of Lake Superior where he and his wife Ellen had a several-room log cabin with outbuildings. The guests were especially drawn there by curiosity about Bill, Ellen and her sumptuous Sunday dinners of chicken, roast beef and wild game. Lounging time after dinner would have harkened back to so many camp and cave basking scenes, everyone stranded in place by a stomach-full of edible bounty, listening while Bill Weston reeled off his considerable bundle of hunting and lumbering yarns.

During World War II, demand grew for spruce and birch wood for use in military aircraft, notable examples the British de Havilland Mosquito and the Hawker Hurricane. Birch plywood was used in the Mosquito, one of the fastest-flying, most utilized planes of the British Royal Air Force. Spruce spars and ribs were particularly wanted for training aircraft, with at least fourteen Canadian manufacturers such as Montreal’s Canadian Car and Foundry Company, MacDonald Brothers Aircraft Company in Winnipeg, Fleet Aircraft of Fort Erie, Ontario and U.S. factories in at least seventeen states. Weston set to work in the all-too-typical manner of a tycoon who stands to make great wealth off a resource whether lumber or mineral. He stripped sections of his forest of their trees, never tolerating any worker who stood up to him to challenge his methods or his limits. He became a millionaire.

A small amount of archived correspondence with Abitibi Power and Paper Ltd. from the early 1950s shows William J. Weston and Son doing business in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario from a post office box. A return address for William Weston is a room at the Windsor Hotel in the Sault. Pulpwood by this time is the topic, especially spruce and balsam fir, in a Truck Purchase Agreement, indicating a truckload of logs, from 1951. One letter dated March 1954 show the public, take-charge aspect of Bill Weston as he expresses his concern for a number of unemployed men near Lake Superior’s Batchawana Bay, whose yield of cut logs lies stacked along the Pancake River. The response from Abitibi expressed regret that Weston’s letter hadn’t come two or three months earlier, explaining that the company is already in danger of exceeding its assignment to local timber cutters. This exchange would seem to presage the Westons’ subsequent sell-off of lands exhausted of any wood product.

Celebratory living that included trips to Florida at the height of the tourist season along with the war’s end had cut severely into his wealth by the 1950s and 60s. He was driven into selling off parcels of land at hardly more than $15 an acre. Notorious fits of temper increased as his fortune, influence and bodily strength eroded. Weston’s son in his twenties was reportedly found murdered by a bullet from the rear out on the land. Rumors divided the blame between offended Weston and Son employees and Bill Weston himself.

I remember the Weston cabin in the mid-1970s. It lay about five kilometers from Pancake Bay, Ontario, log walls painted a golden-sand color, the boarded-up window frames cherry-red. An iron dinner bell stood on a post near the lake-facing entrance above decorous, rock-bordered pathways. The yard was a meadow of daisies, fireweed and the escaped carnation that Ellen Weston called Sweet Williams. I even found a pink form of turtlehead there, a member of the figwort plant family native to the southern United States—did Ellen or Bill transplant it out of delight with the reptile face the flower presents?

From this cabin Bill Weston wandered forth on a night of lashing rain, thunder, and gale-driven surf, per legend. He may have been sleep-walking or visiting the privy, but one of his slippers was found far along the twisting, one-lane Weston Road. He had forced his way between soggy evergreen boughs, over logs and onto lakeside cliffs, where searchers found his body in remnants of pajamas by daylight, not balled up in hypothermia but stretched out with a reaching arm, posed like a fallen tyrant or hero depending on point of view.

From Michigan Ellen Weston had written a kindly response to my parents, uncle and aunt when, in about 1969, they mailed her an inquiry about selling her land to them, explaining that too many years of happy memories tied her to the place forever so she could never bring herself to sell it. The following year my elders purchased thirteen acres further along Weston Road from a subsequent U.S.-based landowner who had given in to Bill Weston’s charms in a prior year, buying those acres of regenerated spruce, fir, cedar, maple and yellow birch for a late-life retreat against his wife’s wishes.

A photo of Bill and Ellen Weston, the caption dating it from about 1957, is tucked in a recent directory of Weston Road landowners. Bill appears massive in the trunk and the hands, one arm tucked around Ellen, his demeanor potentially affable, potentially a little testy. Ellen in her period-looking floral print dress and pearl earrings looks pleased and pert. I tend to suspect that the scrap of bygone legend about Ellen in later years sleeping with a butcher knife under her pillow for protection against Bill is hype or an exaggeration based on gossip about Mr. Weston’s observable decline. 

In fall 2009 the meadowy former Weston yard bristled with pathless forest. Cabin and sheds had been burned by the subsequent landowner or moved off for other use. The stone foundation of a forgotten pumphouse could be stumbled upon under cover of salmonberry shoots. I traced our way back to Weston Road via a lingering colonnade of balsam firs that used to line the driveway since the driveway itself, along with its wooden gate, had vanished. Given space, nutrients and adequate moisture, the forest still re-stakes itself inside of one human generation, a new tree generation over-writing the marks of times before. When buildings fall and the chunks are swallowed by decay it's up to us to remember the best and worst about who led us to those places or tutored us in local custom.

Here were some lines of a poem about the dead that I wrote in memory of my dad, Werner W. Beyer, who found that ragged region of entangled cedars and regenerating spruce, fir and birch and enabled our childhood and legacy there:  

"but where--but anywhere?--do they still occupy, entire? 
Isn't it true that some we thought dispersed repair, re-focus 
for some use, but mostly scatter, taught in their extreme fragility
to shun the thrashing embattlement of limbs, the opportunism
of rootlets forcing their whims in thrall to self?
And so our call, our merest sibilance of leaves: this hypnotic forest..."


The excerpt is from a longer poem titled 'Graduation' and is included in the above card whose photo was shot in October along Weston's old road, now deep in forest belonging mainly to private owners. Research and consultation surrounding this present writing clued me in that in the heyday of his lumbering operation a lot of the Pancake Bay region may have been stumps rotting in vast clearings. What we encountered in the late 1960s and early 70s was, unbeknownst to us three awed kids at least, second-growth given the absence of giant pines which signify primeval forest in the boreal region including the Lake Superior north shore. The largest pines, found when I was young near cliffs along that lake shore, may I suppose be hold-overs from the 1930s, too hemmed-in by rock then to get at or too small, and left to clothe the coastline in their maturity.


Enjoying childhood and adulthood year after year in the same area, I've continued to make paintings either of emblematic plants and shoreline scenery without compare in my own memory, or of astounding birds that I'd never been privileged to see till I became the owner of a spotting scope and then only in certain seasons. Examples are the harebell above or the long-tailed ducks, watercolors sold as originals and on cards.

Every era and every career within it is a part of succession, the usually-orderly replacement of generation by generation, or soil layer by soil layer, where, in the words of my own poem 'God Surfaces and Bares Rejoinders:'       There's writing in these woods
since we tore up the moss that hoods it.
Some corresponds to other writing
just come to light on rock, in camp, while
some, a jot, is left without reply
apparent anywhere.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Backstage with Prospects of Eco-Upheaval

In January the reluctant body stands up from the driver's seat of the car and remembers its muscles which, in some people, may whisper faint, forgettable pleas for vigorous use, even now in this dim set-back time and place. In the North, which can still be bitter cold this time of year, you know your face will blaze and chill and deaden, your nose will seep onto your upper lip and your ears, if you forgot a woolen hat, will smart with need for the hood on your jacket. These are the January conditions that most people loathe and flee from or hide indoors from; winter like this is considered deadly. Of course it is deadly, for beings with no defenses against it. Those of us who thrive in subarctic cold somehow trouble ourselves to hold heat against our skins or generate heat by metabolism or artifice. If we stand up in the doorway and then get moving by our own initiative, walking or jogging or pedaling uphill, we know that we're starting cold and dry, then maybe a little footsore or muscle-sore or wind-burnt, but soon, despite what we first felt, we'll be popping sweat down the grooves of our bodies and will maybe, before long, be opening snaps, buttons and zippers for fresh cool air. This cause-and-effect won't fail, we're reminded, as long as we're alive. And despite the ferocious heat that may have disgusted us for hours and days last summer, the old earth is still capable of bringing us a short stint of January freezing, when the sun is so far to the south that we seem to be backstage from the main brunt of the world's happenings.

Backstage is somehow my habit and preference. Where there's a reputation for arctic chill there tend to be way fewer people, though they do pass through. This past week a 60-page booklet came in the mail from the non-profit organization Negative Population Growth: The Best of NPG - Celebrating 40 Years of Working Towards a Sustainable U.S. Population. I've been a member of NPG for years because the loss of open fields and pastures, bird and wild-animal habitat has grieved me all my conscious life, wherever I have lived, and I automatically reject the bias of governments and industrialists that the earth and economy are all about consumer values for people and the bias that 'life', in the language of groups who fight legal abortion, is ultimately symbolized by a human baby. The 'Right to life' catchphrase implies that trees, reptiles, birds, furry wild animals, beetles, soil microbes and fish are not life, but unborn human babies equal life-at-large and have the pre-eminent right to life because we're all human, and how could we be biased against ourselves and God who favors us. I have never known if most right-to-life activists are confident that the more babies are brought into the world the more we are blessed by literally every addition.

But since the social movement to officially promote quality of life over an ever-increasing quantity of lives squeezed into cities and countryside is still an untouchable topic to American political leaders, the leaders and the people they most listen to seem to entertain a false vision of a planet earth ever-growing in soils and surface area, along with the burden of our cities and agriculture and mining, or a vision of no life but what's fenced in by sanction of the major industry and whatever else is able to take harmless root through the cracks. Apparently a majority of people are comfortable in some similar vision of a world without the wild and free-ranging, since that's not a part of their experience or a conduit to their imagination. At any rate, Americans and people elsewhere refuse to entertain thoughts of what kind of policy it would take to humanely stop our take-over of nature's support systems via unlimited population growth, which leads either to co-opting of the support systems or to their overwhelming by alien, synthetic chemistries.

Out of many available measures of population explosion in the United States I cite NPG, from one of its posters produced in 2011, saying that the 2010 census counted 308 million people in the U.S. as of April 1st, 2010. In 2011 the count had grown to 311 million. Another NPG poster of 2011 showed that U.S. population arrived at 100 million in the year 1915, which was 139 years after the founding of the nation in 1776. But it took a much shorter 52 years, between 1915 and 1967, for the numbers to double to 200 million. After that it took only 39 years to reach the new bench mark of 300 million. Many of us living now are likely to see these numbers attain 400 million or even 500 million, with all the predictable cutting down and paving over of forest and prairie, water shortages made especially dire by long droughts and heat waves, and extinctions of life forms given little worth by everyday people and organizations to whom 'urgent' has a whole host of other meanings. It appears that reversals of population growth, at least in American society, are not possible unless brought about by disaster like warfare, plague, storm or  seismic cataclysm such as what might come of ever more fracking in ever more places out of ever more demand for natural gas.

So much shortage could be alleviated by reining in the demand for whatever we're worried about, just as so much excess could be relieved by cutting back on the agents (people) who drive that over-abundance. Two examples of over-abundance are atmospheric carbon and unemployed workers. If we had fewer people to house, employ and manufacture for, fewer people jetting and gas-pedaling over the skies and continents, we would have less combustion and less threat from an upset carbon balance in the atmosphere. If we had fewer people going broke and hungry where resources have been exhausted and competing for jobs in markets that formerly had well-matched ratios of workers to jobs, we would have less economic desperation. As my friend Laura said, a child could grasp this kind of common sense. But all that American policymakers seem to be able to recommend are schemes for 'more'--energy generation whether it's fossil or renewable, jobs, funds--ever more of everything for ever more people as if there's no way of breaking those cycles based on more for more people, to produce more for more people. The more-and-more cycles will break down sooner or later at one or more weak point, such as available water, or capacity to contain carbon, or maybe, in the case of earth's surface, weight-bearing ability over the zones undermined by fracking.

Whereas folks who have been named 'technological optimists' argue that society is re-making itself on a series of new models that free us from dependence on nature and therefore from worry about what all that we're depleting--who, I wonder, would prefer to live in a totally contrived setting where every substance taken in by the body has been made or re-made by the devices of industry and there's no choice of escape from all that? Maybe the technological optimists would embrace things like desalinized water piped into underground bunkers or orbiting outer-space cities as the sum total of modern living. But maybe, after having done so, these people would also be seen to have withered, physically and in terms of cosmic awareness. Their life support systems would in all likelihood be ultra-expensive to build and keep going, and just maybe flawed in terms of supposed independence of natural resources. Vast majorities of traditionally earth-loving ordinary people with a streak of stewardship for nature would be shut out by lack of funding and lack of inclination. What in any case would happen would be a process of severe attrition in societies the world over, and new segregation of surviving peoples based on whatever modes of living had become their best option. All of the above is likely to happen, too, given the intractable resistance of so many people to plan, or to come into a balance with the other creatures who vary our kingdom and still enchant so many of us who use our eyes, ears and bodies for getting out at least somewhat the way our ancestors did.

Maybe, though, we who are probably the majority will prevail, those many of us of all ages who thrill at glimpsed evidence that the wild is still with us, claiming footholds in our cities. We breathe with a moment's contentment to remember sections of wild land that are yet out there, though sadly stranded from each other. In spite of the days when our vision was submerged in ghettos of impersonal  chain-store shopping places and one-way corridors of concrete, and when every slice of bare ground seemed for sale or foreclosed, there are individual people, or teams, staking out and politicizing a beach or a tongue of wooded land for a wild species like the spoon-billed sandpiper that is in danger of dying out. There are condors and whooping cranes suddenly, on an old migration route, where no one expected the joyous surprise of the sighting. There are new park lands, ocean sanctuaries, and dazzling encounters with the wild that make dried little hearts electric as never before with fellowship. There are nature centers established and local sanctuaries created where a toxic pond sat a generation ago. There comes a rush of tears at the realization that what we love, that is not ourselves yet is in ourselves, merits the love and is likewise held in hearts residing far away or just over the hill and our joint love engenders an epic feat of salvation whereby, yet again, there's a wild community, big or small, where anyone can go  for re-invigoration.

I continue in my fear for the loss of open spaces. The more people on earth, the less space or opportunity for seeing the raw earth and weather in their grandeur devoid of our mess-making. With NPG and the other organizations working to establish a population policy I often wonder what's been achieved, since we still have limitless expanding numbers of people to this day, driven by higher fertility among the native-born but most of all by immigration and births to immigrants. The writing put out by these organizations attests as much as ever to no-end-in-sight population explosion and almost never cites any real successes borne of lobbying and other organized efforts, many of which started during the 1960s and 70s.  However, one of NPG's forum papers quoted in the booklet refers to the American feminists who met at Seneca Falls, New York back in 1848 on behalf of women's suffrage. Little did they know, the paper said, that the women's right to vote would be enacted only after seventy-two years of campaigning for it. Could the campaign for a population policy probably take at least as long?

Obstacles, or deadly compartmentalization, persist in the minds of the folks who set up the schemes for protecting wild plants, creatures and natural wonders. What are so many community leaders afraid of in the notion of a stabilized human population--that if any society isn't growing it's dying? That their conventionally-minded donors will be scandalized? That there can never be such a thing as replacement levels of birth matched with death rates, and that each rate isn't capable of adjustment?  I agree with the NPG writers' critique against so many environmental organizations for refusing, out of some kind of repugnance, to connect land conservation and protection of wild species with a mandate to contain the exponential crowding and consumption by too many people till a brutal die-back sets in and there is no more water or cropland because we've maxed out the use of what's left; most of the wildlife will be long gone by the time our kind is living stacked in numberless concrete apartment blocks or in an unbounded sprawl of recycled-material huts. In fact, whenever I make any gesture of support for a measure to protect the climate or wild lands, I plan to add a comment urging the need for that organization to build alliances with groups advocating lower human fertility and better family planning.

Here is a vision, and it's not just my own:  it's of a time yet to come when our colossal problem of over-reach has inevitably been corrected, both by the ravages of nature and by a form of public awakening in which we rank everything alive, not just the human, as having sacred dignity, and nations or continents boast of their fame for having the most kinds of interrelated creatures to define and exalt this place, ours, that you really must visit, whether it has a chilly, hot or four-season climate. You should be freely able to see the fabric of the earth, the liquids and the solids in all their shimmering balance, for how they preceded us and are able to swallow us back.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Hulks and Flotsam -- the Old Urban but Ageless Rustic

Out at the edges of cities and between cities abandoned things beckon, as collectibles or as new metaphors for harvest by those who who link images, lyrics and sounds with commonplace memory. On a frozen Sunday morning far down Minnesota Point, one of the nose-to-nose barrier islands that surround the outlet of the St. Louis River into Lake Superior, two of us heard what others might have related to a haunting. We had walked the beach on the Duluth, Minnesota side as far as a washed-up spruce iced up against a birch, with icicles like a row of tusks helping bond them together. A surf rolled from the lake, with the sand undercut in a kind of terrace just about where these trees lay crosswise to the breaking waves. I said, 'Do you hear somebody shouting?' and we both did, exactly like a man's voice calling one word, yet always in the same tone from way out on the water; it never varied. It sounded like 'Help!' but, in the tones of an instructor rather than a desperate victim, admonitory rather than fear-filled. We might have been ignoring what we were supposed to be paying attention to. A little leaning over and listening proved the voice to be a suction sound every time a wave ebbed back from a scooped-out area beneath the lowermost tree trunk, from a little more than an arm's length away like the sound a heavy glass door on a public building makes sometimes as it opens and closes to the outside. When we returned and passed the same spot the sand had been re-contoured and the trees, my friend thought, moved a bit from where they were, and the sound had gone quiet though the waves were the same or bigger.

There used to be more people-activity, other than hikers and beach-goers, at the end of the point and the leavings are there in buildings I'd not examined so closely when I was last there. No car access anymore, unless you could count the fenced-in runway for small planes, extends all the way down there; but boats used to come and go from piers, including those of a long-gone village and trading post, and there is a deserted boat garage  made all of concrete, even the roof, with early 1900s-style stair-step blocks going up to a peak in a false front at each end. All the doors and windows gape open without a trace of glass, wood or framework left, and graffiti artists have been busy on the inside. Campfires have been enjoyed on the pure sand where a floor might or might not have once joined the walls. Over the door are some very faded block letters that can't all be read for sure but look something like this: U.S......DEPOT.

A stroll away into the pines you come across a two-hole privy with no door in the doorway, no glass in the window, but still a shabby wooden seat and the stump of a lid propped up on one of the holes, so it's usable. I'm advised that the concrete walls and roof are an old form of construction meant to protect against fires, so welding and other hot repair work must have gone on there, with boats being launched in and out to the Superior, Wisconsin shipping channel which the doorway is facing.

Way down at the sandy fingertip of this 7-mile-long isle are logs and entanglements of driftwood, some of it placed into the frame for a tepee. A camper's tarp has likely clothed it before. One horizontal log bears a phantom word in magic marker: Help!

A short ways back toward Duluth is a brick silo, all fenced around for some reason to keep people out, though people do have full access to the boat garage and toilet. The bottom is open like a fireplace; the top is broken away and open to the skies. This was a lighthouse dating to 1855, though at an original fifty feet in height it must have surpassed the trees which may have enclosed it when it was active. In the same vicinity are white pines, elsewhere on the island and everywhere on the mainland seen as trees in the towering, single-masted sense of the word, grown to the height of a two-story house but in shrub form, with many trunks, for no reason we can guess except for a wish to diverge and find new forms or express an adaptation.

In the leafy seasons of the year much of Minnesota Point beyond the city park is matted and ragged with poison ivy, courtesy no doubt of extensive public works that brought dredged-out fill into the Twin Ports and their shipping lanes from other places where poison ivy is native. Along the spine of the point in winter, poison ivy stalks bristle with pale berries serving as forbidding markers to anyone with a dread of the plant. This place has its parallels with the central Indiana of my childhood, a poison-ivy-ridden zone of intermittent farming, especially with the tract of land to our south where the then-owner, rumored to own a junkyard, had left an Airstream office trailer that a fire had gutted, a Ford station wagon and the frame of a tractor to rust into crumbs and attract children free of any responsibility. Each article is something to poke at and sing songs about, and a garden or lab fruitful in analogies.

 Dumped-upon, scrambled and revegetated places develop faces and their human histories leave the sense of a mood in the absence of other people. Much as the smack and swirl of surf against a rip-rap
breakwater partway back along the Point conjures an upset stomach coping with a load of food, karst limestone forming slots in the ground down in southern Minnesota made me think of a face stiffened by sorrow, and an early return to a certain sense of well-being.

The poem I'd written and used on the greeting card:     'Your face a crust that dried like that...blown grit lacing your crevices of loss--but yet again, at last, you're circulating back into the pillowlands of crumpling, regenerating hills and sense that pock or fracture's coming loose--your mouth--cracking the sands that edge it, and it expands counter to its late laws, not quite a smile, a fountainhead...' is the face of a landscape and of a person, any person, switching to enjoyment from a state of grief.

It has been said by some, in more than one place and time I'm sure, that the purpose of our species is to proclaim and glorify Creation, and so why not to liken parts of it to other parts, and relate emotion to the ironies of what we see versus what we remember from anyplace we have been, since so many things have eyes and feelings, and voices for that matter, and delicate senses of tone and rhythm...

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Daisy Art

In the wild plant and animal kingdoms there are a few species that are major hits, favorites known to everyone, even readers mainly of comic books--unless I'm talking too much about people I don't know, and these would be citizens with backgrounds so urban and technology-driven that their comic books are all about urban core areas and robotics. But even these members of the vast public may know daisies by name when they see them, in drawings or up close at a roadside.

Daisies are included in Weeds of Canada and the Northern United States by France Royer and Richard Dickinson, the University of Alberta Press © 1999 as a species of concern because, like so many introduced perennials, they will take over pastures and replace up to half of the grass. What food value if any they have to grazing animals is not given. Names like 'poverty weed,' 'poorland flower' and 'moon-penny' have been applied to daisies, recommending familiar visions of abandoned houses and tax-forfeit farms with overgrown driveways.

But as with so many phenomena of Europe and Asia brought to the Americas daisies are full of lore and romance; there is the name 'daisy' which is thought to come from 'day's eye', to be imagined in a scattering of daisies along a summer-lit footpath somewhere in old Germany, France, England, Scandinavia or name-your-piece-of-countryside. Probably there is no more than one car in your fantasy, or anything mechanical, yet the concept of flower clocks may have existed, and the daisies were likened to eyes on the ends of flower stems keeping track of a day's progress in a notion of eternal summertime.

'Day's-eyes' were in the title I gave to the topmost of the two above watercolors, a painting consigned by my friend Scott W. for his grandmother, who is as fond of daisies as most anyone accustomed to the border region between the central United States and Canadian provinces, except maybe owners of cattle and horses. This was the second of two paintings I've done by request as gifts for moms and grandmas of our times, who had spent their youth in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin or Michigan. Another pair of names given to daisies by the French-speaking, 'marguerite blanche' or 'grand marguerite' seem like more throwbacks to visions of innocence in the form, it's hard to argue, of a little girl dressed in white.

Note cards or prints of the two artworks can be ordered using the links below, in order of appearance: