23 May Tracing a Contextual Past – Apostle Islands, Wisconsin
For author Louise Erdrich the painted islands west of Lake Superior in Lake of the Woods are book-islands to be read. Her grandfather was the last person in her family to speak Anishinaabemowin with any fluency. So she tried to acquire what she had not been taught: an intimate engagement with “the spirit of the words” and thus with the land itself. She learned, for instance, that the word for stone—asin—is animate. “After all,” she writes, “the preexistence of the world according to Ojibwe religion consisted of a conversation between stones.”
For geologists who by and large conduct their work steeped in the traditions of Western science, Lake Superior’s book-islands have told other stories.
One I learned is that the ancestral frameworks and most aged rocks of the world’s continents lie within their exposed nuclei, the Precambrian shields. As remnants of an inconceivably distant past, shields chronicle many evolutions: the early growth of continents, origins of life, and an atmosphere gradually becoming habitable. The southernmost outcrops of North America’s core, the Canadian Shield, rim Lake Superior. The Midcontinent Rift also lies exposed here, another piece of North America’s ancient architecture.
Watching days end from my friend’s beach on Madeline Island, I soon realized that “scientific” research of the shield and rift began here because of what the bedrock contained. Paths toward understanding the history and architecture of this landscape didn’t begin in a contextual vacuum as men from Britain, France, and a fledgling United States “discovered” then deliberately sought copper and iron in the nineteenth century’s first decades.
On this southern shore of Lake Superior I saw that one path accompanied (driving and benefiting from) a state-sponsored search for mineral wealth and the treatied confinement of the Anishinaabeg in reservations. By 1890, less than half a century after the removals, the ceded lands led the world in copper mined.
Tumultuous histories, human and geological, formed this landscape. And they continue. The current move to mine iron in the nearby Penokee Range, watershed of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians, threatens not only tribal sovereignty and treaty rights but also the wild rice sloughs along the lakeshore that ancestors harvested for generations.
Yes, to live in this country is to be marked by its still unfolding history.