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Over the years I’ve got to know many nice people living along the shore. Like myself and (with absolutely no help from me) the family that brought me here as a kiddo we love (for far and away more reasons than seem apparent) the place with a passion firm and fresh as a good stiff cooling breeze off the big lake. At least lake breezes used to be chilling. Seems to me it was once standard to keep a stock of old jackets handy for visitors from the south to cover themselves from the cold. When did that change? When did shorts and no-socks flip floppy sandals replace more protective attire? How did it come that year by year there was slightly fewer days of misty fog to water the drapes of pale green moss hanging like torn lace from near every lakeside tree? Now a historic recollection, the spring smelt run once had locals and folk from down south (Minneapolis and vicinity) crowding every river mouth to pull a bucket load of smelt with each dip. What became of those annual smelt runs and the riverside parties? A smelt net, if you can find one, is a now a near useless object that might fetch a dime at a garage sale.
Gradual change is like aging taking place one gray hair, wrinkle, and mole at a time until the entire landscape is a scene of Martian craters and barren plains of tortured stone. There is no point lamenting what we cannot change, but it is worth taking inventory of the changes as an available and potentially instructive guide to understanding and meeting the future. No one thirty years ago said “Throw away your smelt nets.” If they did they’d have been hooted to oblivion. But where are our smelt nets now, resting forgotten on garage rafters?
We can and often do dismiss concerns as beside the point and not worth a bother. I’ll often agree with that sentiment, but not without adding an aside note that a change can also be a signal. If the conversation is merely about the abundance of shorts and flips flops worn on the North Shore these days then the subject is merely one of style and changed convention. Style and convention will shift again to favor purple cowboy boots and gauzy tops, neither of which being utilitarian in use. The question for those who care to look to it lies behind and issue of style and goes instead to function. Past people who live on and visited the North Shore dressed differently because it was a substantially different climate or environment from the one they left. Imagine clambering off an old Pan Am jet at midnight on a February in Duluth to quickly find the hula skirt bought on holiday is not wise wear. All I’m saying is people dressed for a known condition. Shorts and bare toes were not questions of style so much as practicality. A person could have bucked (and some did) convention in decades past, but at a price of uncomfortably chilled limbs acting as welcome mats for the mosquito swarms that were as much a part of a North Shore summer as day on day of mist.
Even the smaller most incremental changes send signals of what’s going on in our world. When did we stop seeing arms of phone lines alongside roadsides? How many can remember never having seen any such thing? Well, something happened to many miles of wire, poles, and cross arms. What was it and when did it happen? Underground may be in many ways better, easier to manage, and less prone to outages, but it does disturb the earth more and causes some change in every place a line crosses wet or water.
It interests me the way vast changes take place and are all but shrugged away or nicely dealt with as price o’ progress. By other names this may not be so progressive and may be plain destruction or even desecration. When I motor to the cities or visitors drive up how many uncounted miles of mowed field do we travel? How many acres of prairie now make up a contemporary highway? It is not a north woods ecosystem that forms the arteries connecting us. If some things in the plant and animal world change it may be because we’ve constructed freeways for the easier passage of all sorts of unlicensed carriers. True, white tail deer do well where human disturbance creates fields of fodder. The moose don’t do as well and caribou far worse yet. Aided by grassy corridors headed north the gray squirrel has migrated, the eastern chipmunk dominates its lesser kin: now ask why wood and deer ticks are now so numerous. How much grass did the original people, voyageurs, and settlers find? And if they found grass was it called Kentucky Blue or fescue? How much lawn grass is here now and why? Pretty town houses and fine homes sit in frames of green to set them off. Well, who can appreciate a show of wealth and status that’s not made clear?
Is it a funny or tragic thing that people come here to love a place have done so damned much to tear it apart and turn it into versions of the places from which they are in flight? The love and passion felt for the north are real, as are the consequences. On a scenic veranda using composite decking the lovers of nature enjoy perfectly chilled local brews of imported materials trucked in and kept chilled to just the right temp using energy from a place far removed and not intruding on the view. They’d sip wine on Mars if they could and would be just as useful doing so. But being earthbound a deck view will have to do before going to their home or resort with vast panorama windows to let “nature” in; not noting the inefficiency of selfish windows or counting the daily tally of birds killed by this pictured view of nature.