This last month, Michigan State University Press published an exciting multigenre collection called Here: Women Writing on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, edited by Ron Riekki, who's doing as much as anyone living to highlight the many writers who write about Michigan and/or consider Michigan their home. He's edited several anthologies now, and Here is the most recent and perhaps the most exciting. As soon as a friend tipped me off to its publication, my mouth started watering, and I'm glad to say it's a great collection, one that you should certainly check out. Michigan's my home state, and my state of mind, and since I live in Arizona now, whenever a new Michigan anthology drops, I'm filled with a sense of longing for my home, and I think anew about what it means to write about or to or from a place—or to write a place, as we do, since we're not all writing documentary. We have complicated relationships with the places we're from or that we choose or choose us.
One of the great things about these anthologies is how they introduce me to writers that I didn't yet know writing about a place I do—or that I thought I did, until I read their work and saw it new. Jane Piirto is one of these writers, and we asked her here to talk about place and writing place and her connection to it. (And a little later in the year, we'll hear from another contributor to Here, Emily Van Kley.) In the meantime, enjoy Jane's essay—and check out the anthology. I promise it'll be worth your time. --Ander
T47N R27W Rocks
“It was no wonder that they found iron ore; it was everywhere; this is the Marquette range; these are the two richest Michigan iron townships, land descriptions that still have a ring of greatness about them: T47N R26W and T47N R27W.”
--John Bartlow Martin, Call It North Country: The Story of Upper Michigan
I was wearing a white cotton sweatshirt with blue letters saying “Ishpeming High School” for the July 4, 1986 celebration of the centennial of the Statue of Liberty along the Hudson River in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. A woman came over to me as we were watching the parade of tall ships, Operation Sail, under the Verazzano Bridge.
“Ishpeming,” she said to me. “You know where Ishpeming is?”
“I grew up there and still go home every summer.”
“I was the makeup artist on Anatomy of a Murder. It was very far away and very cold.”
We chatted for a few moments. The Verrazano Bridge, beneath which we were standing, is the longest suspension bridge in the U.S., but the Mackinac Bridge that spans the Lower and Upper Peninsulas of Michigan, is the 3rd longest, after the Golden Gate Bridge. She recalled the fear she experienced crossing the Mackinac Bridge, which had only just opened when she had her sojourn in Ishpeming.
She laughed when I told her I give directions to T-47 N.-R.26W by saying, “Turn left at the Mackinac Bridge and drive 180 miles, all of it on two-lane roads, except for the last 15. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan has few four-lane highways.”
The next month, about 1200 miles from Brooklyn, as I slid down the steep, rocky cliff overgrown with brush, on my bum, my knees up and my heels guiding me, I spied it. It was beneath dense green undergrowth on dry leaves, in a sumac stand in leafy-topped wild carrot that hides the ground and harbors garter snakes in moist cool darkness. My mother forged the lead, and she was already down to the bottom; even though I am 25 years younger than she, I was hard-pressed to keep up with her in the woods behind our house on Jasper Street in Ishpeming, Michigan. This is the back of the Hard Ore Addition in arguably the richest iron ore township in the USA. We were off trail, bushwhacking, trying to find an old footpath to Lake Sally, the lofty lake that was the water supply for our town. When it was first surveyed in the 1840s, this land was so rough that chaining a straight line was almost impossible.
The rock was a heavy, white, scored, chunk of snow quartz. I grabbed my camera from around my neck, spreading my newly painted red fingernails about its football-sized circumference, and took this photograph. We were in the middle of the decline, and it was steep, the quartz very heavy, too heavy to pick up and carry home. I mentally marked its place and followed my mother to the swampy bottom, where the marsh marigolds grow in May, and where the ground was spongy even now in August. I had just arrived from New York City, where I worked as a school principal at Hunter College Campus Schools—thus the red fingernails. They tell the time of the photograph as I only had red fingernails at that time in my life, in 1986.
That rock is still there, I believe, under the underbrush on that hill’s cliff, born there over ten million years ago, to hide there unappreciated. I could never find it again, even though we are denizens of this wood and know it well. The wood is dense with trails for buggies and horses, the trails designed in the early 1900s by landscape architect William Manning for the nearby cottage of the iron magnate William B. Mather, of Cleveland. It contains over 200 varieties of plants, many imported, including the wild carrot, which has overrun many yards. Our neighborhood, aptly named Cleveland Location, was his home in Ishpeming. This quartz was most likely part of a wide quartz vein in the famous Negaunee iron bed. The cottage is still used by the bosses who travel to town from Cleveland to assess their iron holdings—now open pit mines. When I was growing up our town had underground mines, and my father worked the Blueberry Mine for awhile, but he didn’t like it underground. He then worked for years as a welder at The Brownstone Shops, on East Division Street, a union man working for the Cleveland Cliffs Iron Company. He died in 1974 of lung cancer at the age of 62.
I know these woods so intimately I mentally walk and crosscountry ski the paths when I am under stress, and I can recall specific trees and rocks along the paths. Since I live near Cleveland, Ohio, I have spent time researching the Mather family and the Cleveland Cliffs Iron Company at the Western Reserve Archives, where many of their papers languish. Next to the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame on the south shore of Lake Erie, is their private ore boat, the W. G. Mather, also a museum. This boat was the flagship of the 13 boats the Company owned. One photograph in the Western Reserve museum shows the family reclining on deck chairs over the ore pockets on their annual trip up the lakes to Marquette. One of the mining towns in this area is named after Mather’s mother, Gwinn. Perusing the plat book for Marquette County describes the ownership of much land by the Cleveland Cliffs Iron Company. We only bought the land our house stands on from the Company in the 1970s, though we have lived in the house since 1938.
In my yard I have a sacred circle of rocks which I have picked up on my travels, including speckled salt and pepper granite from Yosemite, copper-bearing rock from Calumet, and stones from Russia, Australia, England, Finland, Slovenia, Germany, Czechoslovakia, New Zealand, Hungary, and other places I have traveled. Coming home with a small rock in my purse has never caused me to be searched at customs. The local rocks are the ones I treasure most. I have round black basalt from the shores of Lake Superior, and many others of water-tossed Superior granite as well. Though I have tried, I have never found an agate while beachcombing. Round wave-smoothed Lake Superior rocks also lay placed above the firebox in our sauna stove out at camp, as they do in fireplaces and sauna stoves all over the region. The cover of my book of poems, Saunas, is one of the old saunas built by immigrants in the Finnish way.
The rocks from mine waste piles of Township 47 North also form a spectacular stone wall probably laid by Italian stone masons who immigrated to work in the mines early in the twentieth century. This wall is one of the secret treasures of the town, and when you enter our street, Jasper Street, you think you are entering an estate. This is a secret work of art that few people, even in Marquette County, Michigan, know about. We line up against the wall across the way for family photographs each year.
This particular neighborhood, or location, as we call neighborhoods in our mining town (locations of mines), was mostly populated by Finnish immigrants after the turn of the twentieth century, and the alley still bears the characteristic carpentry of rural Finnish hay barns. The location is now poor, rundown, and a rumored meth locale, with many rental properties. We are among the last of the original families who still live in the family home.
Quartz is supposedly a rock with spiritual, healing powers, and vibrations and energy and new age connotations. I particularly remember the crystals that were displayed in the hallway entry at the Windows on the World, the top of the World Trade Center where we used to go for drinks or Sunday brunch, and the huge crystal boulders in the yards of rich folks in Sedona, Arizona. Those are crystals that form spears and prisms. But quartz is also present where there is iron. And gold. Our town also has a defunct gold mine. Quartz is a signal mineral, the second most common on earth. Lake Superior has an iron collar and prospectors knew that iron was near when they found hornblende and quartz in the hills bordering the southern shore of Lake Superior. Copper ore and float copper are also present in this mineral-rich peninsula, but that is 80 miles west of the Marquette Iron Range.
Iron is the sine qua non of my town; the names of the local athletic teams reflect this--the Negaunee Miners and the Ishpeming Hematites. Hematite is a type of iron. Iron here is in the form of pocket ore, not powder, as it is in the Mesabi Range, of the western Lake Superior region. According to the U.S. Geologic Survey, the Marquette Iron Range is made up of the Ishpeming Formation, of Goodrich Quartzite and Bijiki Schist and the Negaunee Formation, of similar geologic rock.
About a half mile north from my quartz rock is another phenomenon, the largest gem in the world, a high mound or dome of banded hematite. The silver blue hematite and deep maroon jasper are shown in the cover photograph of my book of collected works, A Location in the Upper Peninsula (1995), in a portrait of the rock taken by my artist/photographer son.
Jasper Knob is one of the most idiosyncratic features of this region, and when we were kids, and even now (last summer) geologists from universities all over the nation on field trips, would arrive with their students, and we would guide them up the rocky, slippery needle-covered path, over the ore-red-tinted paths, beneath the white pines and Norway pines, mountain ash with its orange berries, and long-wild apple trees. One of my colleagues in the geology department uses the cover of my book to illustrate banded hematite and he told me he himself was on a field trip to the bluff while getting his Ph.D. from Iowa. The story of this bluff is dramatic. On this rock, in 1864, two explorers camped for the winter, built a shack and lived on potatoes, to claim it for the Graveraet Mining Company. Some claim jumpers came, shot at them, and drove the men away. The interlopers made the claim for the rival company after a winter race 200 miles east to Sault Ste. Marie to where claims were registered. Tales of such chicanery and violence inhabit the myths of this place.
One genre of the local stories concerns immigrant characters from Cornwall, Sweden, Italy, Finland, and others who came to mine and log, to extrude ore and to cut first growth huge timber on the land. The third extraction of the region is fish from Superior. Robert Traver, the pen name of local lawyer and Michigan Supreme Court Judge John Voelker, gave me, for Christmas, 1987, a copy of his book called Danny and the Boys, with tales of these characters. He inscribed it thus, in green Sharpie: “Merry Christmas, thanks for your book and the best of good luck to Jane Piirto from her fellow Ishpeming writer. John Voelker (Robert Traver) Dec. 25th 1987.” He is most well known for his best-selling novel, Anatomy of a Murder, the film of which was made in Ishpeming. For months in the late 1950s our town buzzed with sightings of Jimmy Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Eve Arden, Count Basie, and the director, Otto Preminger. My aunt was an extra in the courtroom scene; she’s the one with the white streak in her hair.
Last summer I was at the old Roosevelt Bar where I met my husband in 1963. He was in the Air Force, stationed at K. I. Sawyer Air Force Base, on a high plain 20 miles east. The bar is closed down to the public but I was there listening to the local musicians jam during their weekly meeting. When the guy who now owns the bar heard my story of growing up there, going to college at Northern Michigan University nearby, and meeting my husband in this very room, he took me down the basement, where, inscribed on a wall were the signatures of all the stars, who used to hang out there after shooting. He even gave me a t-shirt screen printed from a photograph of those signatures on the wall. The town takes its history as a rich iron source for granted, and mainly ignores it, in favor of bragging about this one movie made here. I was a senior in high school then, and my claim to a movie star sighting is seeing the young, dark, and handsome Ben Gazzara one night as I was driving my family’s 1955 Chevrolet station wagon down library hill, on a rainy, windswept night. Gazarra was running from the Mather Inn, our local fancy hotel where the cast was staying, to the local bar on the corner, the same one owned by Voelker’s father, and from where the tales in Danny and the Boys were told.
Even with all this history, including the first ski jump tournament started by immigrant Norwegians, and the National Ski Museum, our town’s most recent claim to fame is that this is the place where the coining of the term “catfish” came from. The original documentary showed how one of our local housewives reeled in a New York City boy with internet promises and seductions. Their house is on Strawberry Hill, just up from the Carnegie Library, and now we crane as we pass by, hoping to catch a glimpse of this lady, Angela, or her husband, Vince, who told the catfish and cod story that morphed into the catfishing concept which has been elaborated upon in many Dr. Phil shows where he scolds the fools who have been so gullible as to be taken in by internet seduction.
If you turn left at the Mackinac Bridge, onto US 2, right on Michigan 127, left on Michigan 28, merging onto US 41, taking 28/41 the back way to Ishpeming, turning left at the Cleveland Cliffs mining laboratory, you will be on Jasper Street in Marquette County Township 47, where you can drive through the gates and drive up the hill between the lovely stone walls, park next to the carved shiny hematite steps, and hike up Jasper Knob to see the banded hematite in its shiny profusion, and then you can cross into the Cleveland Woods, where you may be the lucky one to find that heavy quartz rock. I’m sure it is still there in the rugged terrain, on a ledge halfway down the cliff, beneath the underbrush, visible at eye level if you slide down the hill on your bum, but you have to go in summer, spring, or fall, because it will be invisible in winter, hidden in the deep, deep northern snow.
Jane Piirto is a native of Ishpeming, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Her poem, “Here,” is the title poem of the recent anthology: Here: Women Writers on the Upper Peninsula, edited by Ron Reikki for Michigan State University Press. Piirto is an award-winning scholar in the area of creativity studies and gifted education. She has 20 books and chapbooks, both scholarly and literary, and has received Individual Artist Fellowships from the Ohio Arts Council in both poetry and fiction. She qualifies for listing in the Directory of American Poets & Writers as both a poet and a writer. She has received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Northern Michigan University and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Mensa Foundation.