Going North and Going East

Harry Drabik

Over past months I’ve made a number of trips up to the Iron Range. If a simple distinction exists between Shore and Range it is over mining. You can drive the length of the shore from Duluth to the border and not see a single We Support Mining placard. This is even so in Silver Bay where mining is a chief employer. There you’ll need to hunt the side streets to find one. Along 61, in contrast, you could recently spot dozens of Don’t Shoot Does signs so it’s not as if shore people aren’t political. Instead it is a politic of a different nature than that of the Range where visible support for mining can be spotted easily and regularly on homes and businesses. Fortunately for me Does versus Mining cuts a nice distinction.

Before going on I need say I grew up in an East Range mining town where I was expected by a diligent father to know about the mesh size taconite had to reach before going to agglomeration where the mix was tuned to specs to make a product superior to natural ore. Did we know low grade ore mining and processing was full of difficulties and potential problems? Yes. But we also knew from observation and experience that the mines in management and its labor force were alert to problems. Miners and mining did in fact address issues such as dust, heavy metals, etc. and were safe industries in terms of worker injury. So there; in that you see I have a bias that does not immediately reject mining as too dangerous. I hope I have what is healthy and informed respect for mining and milling low grade ore.

What I hear of the non-mining perspective along the shore has a glow of theological purity to it. No-mining is essentially fundamentalist and doctrinaire. This is backed with the observation that the most devout of the creed made the pilgrimage to Standing Rock where they found Deum de Deo Lumen de Lumine and their feet were forever put on the right and true path. I exaggerate, of course, but the no-mining position is absolute enough to leave no space to discuss or bargain. It is one or the other. And while I well understand the trepidation the public unfamiliar with mining feels I have considerable difficulty understanding the deep, almost total lack of trust placed on any who would dare wrest a mineral from Mother Earth. Actually, this often zooms to something more punishing than distrust. It becomes antipathy and denigration toward those who take from the ground or harvest from the forest. They are the destroyers, the evil ones, the very forces of destruction.

Know what? Miners don’t like the characterization others have slammed on them, and I think rightly so. They see it as a dehumanizing insult, probably because that’s what it is. Miners are not “untermensch.” Instead I think you’d find them (plus their unions and associations) often on the front line of defense. After all they live near the mines are would be among the first to feel and impact from dangerous practice. Is this a perfect and foolproof assurance? No, but if we value our fellow beings as trustworthy and conscientious we cultivate traits we all have need of. But if the miner is the enemy nothing much is nurtured but opposition and distrust. It’s a case of getting what is sown.

When, and I have done so, I’ve opened the mining topic on the Range there is perhaps a three second delay before the outbreak of angry frustration. The anger stems from being seen as incompetent to handle a tricky and complex mining operation. It’s not hard to grasp that any people would feel annoyed when characterized as dolts of little ability and no goal but greed. That would piss a person off. Call them deplorable. See if that works any better. But in any case the dolts I talked to were anything but. They quickly grasp and zero in on the tactical questions. One of those is “How is it better if minerals are mined elsewhere with fewer safeguards and less oversight than we’d apply here?” How is it better? In other words the dolt is questioning the premise of the pure believer that no-mining is an achievable goal. The dolts also get royally frosted that the critics aren’t throwing away their cell phones, air conditioners, refrigerators, or cars. They know fully well the protesters aren’t walking barefoot and sending semaphore to report home. So to the miners the objectors appear phony and insincere in terms of walking the walk they talk.

However you view it, the distinction between North Shore attitudes and Range outlooks about mining are hardly close and convivial. Theological and theoretical purity confronts the pragmatic fact that society and commerce use and depend on materials that are harvested, grown on, or extracted from land or seas. It seems the conflict would only end when population begins to decline and people stop using raw materials.

I can’t prove there is a distinct pathos for the two areas, but I offer a teasing question. In which of the two, say Gilbert and Grand Marais, will you find a featured gluten free Caesar salad with imported mountain grown kale, fine walnut hearts, omega oils, and free range garlic? Would it come from the Range or Shore that a paper prints details of a public meeting where the local public agreed that a certain area of public waterfront should be off limits to outsiders, in that context meaning tourists? I summarize the leading argument as “This public property is our playpen. We don’t want others using it.” Is this Iron Range or North Shore civics? Whichever, it is clearly a fine example of local control, though lacking in local responsibility left conveniently for “others” to assume.