Hello you bright minds before glowing screens. This letter comes to you from a peninsula astride summer to the very end, where at sunset dragonfly wings shuffle overhead and monarchs lift from the rattling cottonwood leaves against a luminous backlit mineral sky. Sunlight arrives these days from an angle right at the wheeling edge of memory. Do you know what I mean?
We resume our work this month with the image of the cupped hand holding a little water, which last month inverted before our eyes to a dolomite boulder cool beneath the high-summer heat — and presently inverts yet again to a blazing crucible, awful and numinous as the cyclopean sun-disc itself sinking to the water. Could this be anything but a further invitation? On we go.
Charcoal, blood and bone
At the beginning of May 1958, a few weeks after Sputnik 2, carrying the body of a stray dog from Moscow, burned upon reentry into this planet’s atmosphere over the Amazon and a twenty-four story depiction of a single iron crystal was unveiled to the delight of gathering crowds on the Plateau du Heysel in Brussels an ocean away, a small group of local historians and their patrons gathered here on the shore of this peninsula, near the outlet of a river, around a ten ton boulder of slag. The boulder, dense and cool in the spring sun, bore on its face a newly mounted bronze plaque. A few words may have been said, hands laid on the rough surface, and the monument was thus dedicated to the memory of a preceding but related people at the edge of the historians’ narrow period of interest.
Eighteen years earlier, just across the river to the south, the bones of two adult humans had been exhumed from a high conical hill back from the shore of the lake by a local resident, perhaps a builder hired to work on the cottage atop the hill. Upon later examination by anthropologists, the bones were determined to date from between 500 and 2,500 years prior. That conical hill, called Round Top since the time vacationers from some way south purchased the land on which it sits in 1900, was thought to be an earthworks built by a long-departed people who participated in the so-called and dimly apprehended Hopewell Interaction Sphere. Excavation of the hill continues today, but not of an inquisitive sort, as soil is moved to make way for driveways and foundations just back from the rising water. The hill may well suffer the same erosive fate as the forested dune perched at the brink of the high bluff eighteen miles to the southwest, whose form the hill recalls, and today is remembered only by the bleached cedar trunks littering its hollow belly. What further remains will be exhumed then?
Eighty-six years before the skeletons were found, before vacationers had begun visiting the land around the river’s mouth, a newly-arrived settler from Quebec set to work with the help of six others damming the flow of the river to provide power for a sawmill. In so doing, the man, who is honored as the founder of the village that today is flooded with vacationers from the southern reaches of the basin, destroyed the natural fish ladder that the Odawa and Ojibwe people who had lived there for generations, who live there today, relied on for food. The following spring, huge numbers of recently-introduced European carp crowded the mouth of the river trying to get to the small lakes upstream to spawn. Settlers pulled them from the river with pitchforks, and, seemingly unconscious of the message they bore, renamed the river after the fish. A new, larger dam built a decade later would raise the waters upstream twelve feet and flood three small lakes into one, now suitable for timber rafting. Those rising waters would bear the ten ton boulder of slag, or at least its component parts, to where it rests today.
The boulder, which is large and dark with a rusty shade and bears a bronze plaque, has eroded considerably since its dedication some sixty years ago. Large crysts of vesicular slag are wedged off by frost to expose chatoyant fibers of charcoal embedded beneath, and thus the plaque and its rough mass of mortar now stand a few fingers proud of the surrounding stone. The boulder is the product of a long-since demolished blast furnace that stood nearby for the final decades of the nineteenth century, a furnace fired by charcoal made upstream in conical kilns from the old growth maple-beech forests that once surrounded the flooded lakes, and whose air-blast was powered by the impounded waters of the river. The boulder was of course not the only product of the furnace — and indeed appears itself to be a failed product on account of its richness in metal and uncombusted charcoal — but a byproduct. The smelting people who built and operated the furnace were after crude iron, shipped by schooner to the southern reaches of the basin and sold. Slag, like the boulder, was a waste product formed in the reaction between hematic ore from the Marquette iron range and osseous limestone, which was floated in from cleared farmland surrounding the lake upstream and used as flux in the furnace. The molten slag was dumped into pits, and when those were full, onto the beach. And thus the boulder, in its persistence, concretizes the collective psychic and physical energy expended to dam the river, expended by the river itself in pressing against the dam, and indeed by each of us through the generations as we actively maintain the ongoing impoundment of the waters. The waters, which in resplendent compensatory mode will only continue to rise in proportion to the energy expended to repress them.
Six or so quiet years passed between the last firing of the furnace and the first arrival of vacationers to the mouth of the river. Although the owners had long since skipped town, the furnace still stood when this new resorting people began to visit, and so it cannot be denied that they had some contact with the preceding and related smelting people, but the furnace would be quickly disassembled and the bricks carted off for new construction. Memory, dulled by the amnestic of vacation, soon faded. Cottages were built, like the one at the summit of Round Top, and filled with contemporary Anishinaabe handcrafts, shipped-in furniture and nautical antiques. The chimneys were built from furnace brick, the fireplaces stoked with maple and beech, and the resorting people came and went with high summer. At that time, the great heaps of slag dumped onto the beach by the preceding smelting people had been dispersed by waves, and smooth fragments began to wash up with the pebbles. These fragments, which wash up still although in fewer numbers, range in hue from viridian and turquoise to Egyptian blue, to amethyst, to Swedish red, some milky with lime, others clear as quartz. Today, more than anything, they recall fragments of trinitite.
As far as can be told, those early resorting people didn’t pay much heed to the smelting heritage beneath their feet, enthralled as they were by their caricature of Anishinaabe peoples and the preceding archaic ones, both of whose craft objects and artifacts they collected with such thirst — a thirst that may have arisen to compensate for the stunted mythos of the vacationers, who seemed to vacillate in their view of the land between reverie and horror, but who nonetheless felt compelled to return summer after summer. Still, enthralled as they may have been, they continued the work of displacement and erasure of Anishinaabe peoples that their recent lumbering and smelting ancestors had begun. The thirst remained unconscious and so would remain unquenched, indeed remains unquenched today, even by the ever-replenished waters held above the dam.
But as time passed, and the smooth fragments continued to wash up with the pebbles, the slag began to replace Indigenous objects as the operative artifacts among the resorting people there at the mouth of the river. Instead of holding in misapprehension the stolen artifacts of others, they began to collect the artifacts left by their own recent but dimly remembered ancestors. Slag, then, became a substitute for bones in the ground, and thus advanced the work of erasure in a profound way. If slag could replace actual bone, the history of that land at the mouth of the river would be scrubbed of its participation in genocide — and critical history, such as it is, would need only deal narrowly with the trouble of the behavior of settlers and vacationers, not their presence. Slag as artifact is safe.
So safe, in fact, that the resorting people began to shape the slag into jewelry and amulets with which to adorn their bodies. This jewelry is ubiquitous today among the resorting people in the regions surrounding the mouth of the river, and is celebrated as a quirky but proudly amnesiac Anthropocene fashion. And thus slag has been turned to gemstone, not by diligent alchemical transformation, but by plain forgetting. Perhaps in a thousand years, when the waters have risen yet higher to submerge the dam and bear the boulder of slag out into the lake, bones will be exhumed from the glacial drift by some future people, and with the bones they will find funerary objects carved from strange turquoise stone.
So yes, I’ll let that stand on its own for now. I will say that I intend this to be the first in a series of wonderings at the forgetting I mention there at the end. How, from here within the forgetting (remember, I speak as a settler myself), might we begin to dissolve its maladaptive shell? How might we, in the optimistic spirit of Ed Abbey, crack the dam? We’ll pick that up next month, but until then, do engage me with your own wonderings on the matter, wherever you may be.