Iron Filings: The Iron Range Conundrum
Minnesota’s Iron Range is my acquired home, mine and my husband’s. Its beauty and magnetism are an acquired taste as well. Pockmarked by mine pits, the horizon silhouetted by the broad grassy anvils of reclaimed mine dumps, with flat expanses previously logged but now scrubbed by spruce and aspen, the topography here displays our economics, past and present. Willows take hold in the once tended pastures of abandoned farms. The original main streets of its towns compete for the greatest square footage of architecture etched with the collapse of earlier aspirations. These are the unmistakable signs that we are altering the landscape of our communities and of our earth, with unsustainable forms of production and consumption. In the midst of these less than lovely features, however, a resilient spirit of cultural and economic renewal stubbornly manifests itself in arts, culture, and entrepreneurship. For over twenty-seven years, one of those towns has been the place where I have served as pastor of an ELCA congregation. For over twenty years, one of those farms has been ours. The Iron Range is my home. It’s peculiar beauty and resiliency has etched itself into our family landscape, and it is now not only part of our history, but ultimately of our legacy. I imagine with thick foreboding what climate changes will do to our woods, fields, and gardens over the next few decades: I see those signs even now in the shorter winters, more erratic rainfall, the appearance of more families of foxes in the fields, and raccoons migrating from the south.
“People who grow up on the Iron Range have iron filings in their blood”, it is said, “which eventually draws them back home.” This saying refers to the dominant economic history which gives the Iron Range its name. First there was logging, then came mining, first iron, then taconite, more recently the troubled prospect of copper and nickel. Call it an economy of extraction, where work depends on what can be removed from the ground and shipped elsewhere, most of the profits included. Those who use that phrase, “iron filings in the blood”, know, however, that the magnetism that brings people back to the Range is not metallurgical, but relational and ecological. Through thick and thin, Iron Rangers are fiercely loyal to their neighbors and their kin. They are perennially resourceful. And they love the land and water. This piece of earth is inescapably home.
There were no iron filings in our blood when my husband and I moved to northeastern Minnesota. We just wanted to be closer to wilderness canoeing and cross country skiing. We imagined ourselves perched somewhere along the magnificence that is Lake Superior. Instead, a counseling position in Hibbing for my husband and the call to serve a Lutheran church on the edge of an open pit mine brought us 65 miles up the road from Duluth to Mountain Iron.
I have been learning the human and ecological history of this new home ever since. As a pastor I get to do listening for a living. Personal stories are laced with that history. The personal habits of my parishioners are shaped around seasonal opportunities for being outdoors. Life on the Range is a rhythm of fishing, gardening, lake dwelling, hunting, snow sports and ice fishing.
This is the conundrum. People here love this land, this water, these seasons, yet mining has historically been the economic foundation of their livelihood. Even with the history of labor struggle and mining related health hazards, when hard questions about the proposed copper-nickel-sulfide mining were first raised about the long term risks it could pose to human health and ecosystems, lawn signs sprang up all over proclaiming “We Support Mining”, and “Mining Supports Us.” Such an either-or mindset does not foster thoughtful dialogue about our shared future. conundrum, whether actual or perceived, can become paralyzing.
At the same time, there are people here who understand that on the Iron Range, as indeed everywhere, we need a wider lens, one in which the means of making a living and the means to sustain life itself do not exclude one another: in fact, they cannot. Drawing on the resilient spirit and love of place so deeply rooted here, these Iron Rangers are stimulating conversation and action to finding a new path that will strengthen community, invigorate a local economy, and steward the earth and water. This is what gives me hope and part of what keeps me here.
Responsible action for the common good must always contend with profound conundrums. The Iron Range’s conundrums have their own distinct edges and crevasses, but they are no harder than the conundrums where you may live. May we draw strength and wisdom from one another’s stories as we each seek ways to care for and restore our common home for the common good.