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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Mine and thine in the Heartland

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The iron that floated Ironwood, Michigan in times of prosperity sunk it once boom turned to bust. Now, grimy rundown storefronts and an air of depression cling to the tiny northern town. Garishly painted motels stand empty and disarrayed, and McDonald’s outperforms the local diners in cuisine and community. Yellow pro-mining signs dot the lawns.

In the forty-eight hours I spent there, I felt extremely out of place. I thought I overheard snide comments about “well-dressed city people” floating into our dingy motel room through the open window, and I wondered who else it could possibly refer to but my family and me. I desperately wanted to leave, but I knew that I needed to stay and understand.

I landed in Ironwood as part of the volunteer work I did the summer after my freshman year of college. After several months of transcribing interviews with concerned locals at an environmental law center, I decided that I wanted to visit the controversial proposed taconite mine site that I had heard so much about. If the mine is created and the predictions of the environmental advocates come true, tailings from this mine of unprecedented size and extractive capability could pollute the Tyler Forks river, the Bad river, and the Kakagon sloughs, as well as parts of Lake Superior itself.

I went to the mine site and stood by the bank of the rushing Tyler Forks river. I spoke with concerned members of local Native American tribes about the sacred nature of their land. I learned a great deal from those experiences, yet, looking back, what haunts me most are the images from the old mining town

where I spent the night. Our car broke down at the Ironwood Dairy Queen. Stuck in the backseat, I looked out at the people milling around and ordering ice cream at the window. It was a beautiful evening in late August, and I could hear the sounds of the first football game of the season from the nearby high school. Teenage girls in sports uniforms ordered milkshakes, middle-aged couples held hands and got take-out, and tiny kids hopped around with their

Dilly bars clutched in hand. It struck me that Iron- wood, even in its bleak depression, was a community like any other, a place to be fought for, home. Even this small drive-up ice cream store was the stage for stories I would never hear. To save it all, local mine supporters were reaching out to the greatest source of prosperity that the town had ever known, despite the fact it could destroy the land. The fact they were willing to do so even when the risks were so great showed a painful love for the city.

I still staunchly oppose the mine, but since visiting Ironwood, I do so with greater nuance. The mine supporters who live there— though they’ll never know it—have shown me not to assume that opponents are irrational. Diplomats know this: chess players, too. But activists forget sometimes: so do most people. In Ironwood, I saw the rational desire to save a beloved community manifest itself through mine support. It makes perfect sense to try to protect what you love, whether that is the environment or the town’s traditional economic pipeline. It is that rational, protective love that unites the warring factions in the Northwoods, and yet that same love holds the factions utterly apart.

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