By: James Bates
The Two Harbors high school auditorium was packed. My wife Jasmine and I found space against the wall and waited. Occasionally friends stopped by and shook my hand.
“Give ‘em hell, Martii,” one said.
“Luck,” said another, one of my least vocal friends.
“We’ve got your back,” Sid Hinokinin said, and winked.
I nodded, “Thanks.”
Sid was trying to ease the strain, but you could cut the tension in the room with a knife. The meeting was being held for local citizens to give the pros and cons for opening up copper mining in northern Minnesota. I was on the con side.
My great grandfather emigrated to northern Minnesota from Finland with his young family in the 1880’s. They settled in Hibbing and he began working there in the open pit iron ore mine. My grandfather continued to work in the mines in the area, but he also bought land west of Ely, up on the boundary waters between Minnesota and Canada. He built a cabin that over a hundred years later still stands.
My father became a teacher and taught science in the Duluth school system. I’m a teacher, too. I teach English in Grand Marais, eighty miles north of where we were right now and near Ely. My grandfathers’ cabin west of Ely is on the property where Jasmine and I have our home. It’s where we’ve lived our entire twenty-nine-year marriage and where we raised our three kids. It’s also near where the proposed mine is going to be built. My family’s roots run deep in this part of Minnesota, that’s why I want to protect the land.
After a brief introduction by the mayor of Two Harbors, the proceedings began in an orderly fashion. A lectern had been placed in the middle of the room facing representatives from the mining company and a couple of state agencies. One person in favor of mining spoke, then one against. Our names had been submitted beforehand and we were put on a schedule. Each person had one minute to speak and would be cut off if they ran over. Like I said, orderly.
But the mining issue is a passionate one in this area and passions began running high. By the time my turn came there was an undercurrent of tension running throughout the room as thick as morning fog rolling in off Lake Superior.
I stepped to the lectern and said, “Hi. My name is Martti Lyytinen. I’m a science teacher in Grand Marias. My great grandfather was a miner. So was my grandfather. Granddad loved this land so much he bought forty acres up near the Boundary Waters. It’s near where the proposed mine is to be built. That land is sacred to our family. It’s where my wife and I raised our family. It’s where our home is, and it’s in our genes, our DNA. But there’s more to it than that. It has to do with the runoff that’s a part of the mining process. Studies show the runoff can seep into the ground water and eventually make its way to the boundary waters and Lake Superior. We cannot allow that to happen. We can’t allow any mining operation to poison that precious ground water. I vote “No” on allowing mining.”
I added the last part as kind of a theatrical flourish, but probably shouldn’t have. The seething emotions that had been bubbling just under the surface suddenly exploded, and the place erupted. Cops waded into the crowd to break up fist fights and try to contain all the pushing and shoving. I grabbed Jasmine’s hand, and we fought our way outside to safety.
The night was clear and cold, with a hint of snow in the air. We were pretty wound up from the melee so we hung around in the parking lot for a while talking to some of our friends. After we calmed down a bit, we got in our truck and began the long drive home.
As I turned onto the highway and pointed us north, Jasmine turned to me, “What do you think?”
“About my talk or what happened after?”
She took off her seatbelt and snuggled up next to me. “Both.”
“Well, my talk was okay. I got my point across. What do you think?”
She squeezed my arm. “It was good. It’s a tough issue. Lots of emotions on both sides.”
“What do you think about afterward?”
“The fighting scared me. I didn’t think that would happen.”
“I’m sorry it did.”
“Me, too. I hope no one got hurt.”
We drove in silence after that. Each of us lost in our own thoughts. To our right, Lake Superior was visible off and on through the trees, moonlight reflecting off its water. Three-foot-high waves were breaking on the shoreline, their thunderous booming a reminder of the power of the huge lake. It would be a shame to have it polluted by the new mine.
Jasmine’s grandparents were commercial fisherman on Superior so her roots in the area ran deep, just like mine. But it was more than roots; it was also about the future. Copper mining had the potential to destroy the pristine waters the made northern Minnesota such a unique and beautiful land. A one-of-a-kind place in the world. I couldn’t let that happen.
I turned off the highway and headed up the county road that would take us home. Jasmine had fallen asleep against my shoulder. The night was deep and dark and my headlights lit up the pine forests in either side of us. I felt my ancestors out there in the woods, watching. Their weathered souls were a part of me. Their genetic imprint shaped me into who I was today. I whispered, “Don’t worry, I’ll do the right thing.”
All was quiet except for the truck and the sound of the wind rushing past. Then, out of the darkness, I heard something. A voice. Then many voices. I listened and smiled, as I recognized them and was comforted by their sound. It was the voices of my ancestors answering me back. They were saying, Thank you.
I waved to them out there in the dark night and continued the drive home. I had a feeling the battle to save the land had only just begun. I was ready for it. Me and Jasmine and our ancestors. There was no doubt in my mind, it was the right thing to do. With their help, we’d get it done.