Sigurd Olson’s “Battle for a Wilderness,” the tenth chapter in his autobiographical Open Horizons, focuses on conservation. As always in this book, he writes about his experiences not to promote himself, but to encourage others to follow their own version of “the singing wilderness way.” Early in the essay, he writes:
I believe one of the basic tenets for anyone really concerned is to have a love for the land, which comes through a long intimacy with natural beauty and living things, an association that breeds genuine affection and has an inherent understanding for its infinite and varied ecology….Only where there is deep emotional feeling is anyone willing to do battle.
This year is the 50th anniversary of Open Horizons, and I will highlight a number of ideas from the book in half a dozen or so posts spread out over the rest of the year. For this first one I select the ending of the essay “Battle for a Wilderness.” It shows how timely his writing can be, even half a century later, because the same issues come up over and over again. In this case, it’s the threat of copper-nickel sulfide mining, which had reared its head for the second time in a dozen years as Sigurd worked on this book.
The copper-nickel context
Last week I showed the strong language he used in writing about it for national magazines in 1970. But in Open Horizons he took a different approach: quieter, more philosophical, more based in that “deep emotional feeling” of love for a place that is as dear as a close friend.
Interestingly, he was writing this in 1969, as a new copper-nickel controversy was brewing, and yet this anecdote clearly refers to the Kawishiwi River. That is where he had first fought–and stopped–copper nickel mining a dozen years earlier.
The anecdote also refers to the closing of Ely’s last mine. That was the Pioneer Mine, which ended production in 1967. Sigurd is not writing about historical fact, but about timeless values. He ends “Battle for a Wilderness” with three questions asked in sadness, and leaves the answer to us. Today, a new generation must respond, not only to the mining issue but to many others as well. So much is at stake, and for those who love the land, the sadness is even more pressing.
“Battle for a Wilderness” excerpt
Not long ago I was snowshoeing a few miles from home on the Kawishiwi River in the area Indians knew as the spirit land of “No place between.” The river looked as it did the first time I saw it, the gold, glaciated rocks, the spruce-fringed shores, open rapids steaming in the cold. A moose had walked across before we came, its big tracks going straight over to the other side. Deer had followed the safety of the boulder-strewn shores, and three black ravens soared and circled high overhead, watching the open water and where the ice was thin.
We stayed on the river until dusk, saw the sun go down in a blaze of orange and flame in the narrows, then struck off through the woods, retracing our trail back to the Spruce Road. A truck roared by in a swirl of snow and stopped by a brightly lighted drill a short distance away. A deposit of copper-nickel had been discovered some years before, and now was being prospected by several mining companies.
“Fifteen hundred feet,” said one of the men, “another five hundred or a thousand and we’ll move up the road.”
The motor of the drill was running smoothly, its diamond bit grinding deeper and deeper into the black rock far below.
“We’ll have her pretty well mapped by spring,” said the driller, “and then we’ll see. Several outfits working now twenty-four hours a day.”
The little swamp creek from which they got their water had a warming shed built over it for the pump. We stopped a moment to warm ourselves.
“When the mine gets going, it will bring in a lot of people,” said one of the crew. “The company will spend millions, lots of work for everybody, a shot in the arm to Ely now that the last iron mine is closed.”
The motor coughed, almost stopped, and as the man sprang forward to see what was wrong, it caught again and went on as it had for months. I looked at a piece of broken core. Black and crystalline, it sparkled in the light, a volcanic contact zone between a huge batholith of gabbro and the ancient bed rock. We hiked down the road, and at the turn I looked back toward the rig. Rather pretty, I thought, lit up like a Christmas tree with snow swirling through the spruces around it, the mysterious black figures tending the drill.
I thought of the old wilderness of the Kawishiwi–a new railroad, hundreds of trucks and heavy equipment, a crushing plant, a modern mining development. While government restrictions protect surface values and limit mining development to lands outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, only time will determine its impact.
Faintly I heard the sound of the drilling, the smooth purr of the motor. The world needs metals and men need work, but they also must have wilderness and beauty, and in the years to come will need it even more. I thought of the broad, beautiful America we had found and our dream of freedom and opportunity, and wondered.
Could man in his new civilization afford to lose again and again to progress? Did we have the right to deprive future generations of what we have known? What would the future bring?
The drill purred on and on and the lights twinkled brightly against the black of the spruces–the beginning of a new era, a bonanza, perhaps, or a requiem for the Spirit Land of the Chippewa.