History is a series of extractions. We identify and take resources we value. Once, we pulled colors from plants to make pigments for cave paintings and early clothes. We found outcroppings of tin and copper to smelt bronze. We plucked the most docile animals from the wild and planted grains in captivity to farm our food. Yet, I’m not convinced we humans ever stopped hunting and gathering.
We merely improved our ability to extract.
It’s true that synthetic dyes have replaced most natural ones and processed foods fill our grocery shelves. But we continue to hunt for resources to use in labs and manufacturing, gathering the goods to sell, trade, or use. We are more extractive than ever, and yet our systems of production and commerce are primitive mindsets. We fail to understand the consequences of hunting and gathering oil, metals, and other modern resources. We fail to give back what we take from the environment.
Spring semester at Finlandia University ended on April 29th. Throughout my ENG 104 class, we listened to Suzanne Simard read her book, Finding the Mother Tree. Her research shows that trees are sentient, communicating within an underground network of mycorrhizal. Modern logging clear cuts forest for lumber, replacing harvested trees with seedlings. Yet, this plantation system fails because we don’t understand what the Indigenous have known all along — we are forests are interdependent. In fact, so are humans.
It’s easy to forget that mobile devices, batteries, and cars are not what we depend on for a thriving life. We all need nurturing, shelter, clean water, and food that feeds us. Simard’s research calls us to consider the ways we connect and cooperate, going against the idea of competition for survival. Her work proves that forests need diversity and that mother trees will nurture strangers among their seedlings. Has extraction cut off humans from what it means to live?
I’m pondering such thoughts at the closing of Simard’s book (which is actually an encouraging read about science told through storytelling) and because I met an author of a popular modern novel about a labor strike on the Keweenaw Peninsula in 1913. You might say, I have extraction on my mind.
The rocky spine where I live surrounded by Lake Superior contains copper. Lots of copper. Over 12 billion pounds of native metal mined primarily by immigrants. As usual, in the long history of extraction of wealth, the workers remained impoverished. How can mine bosses and owners justify their large elegant homes when those laboring for them suffered? Why do communities feel proud of such suffering? What did it take to ignite a labor strike in an area that offered mining homes to its workers and refuge to immigrants fleeing the unrest of their homelands?
People all across Michigan are discussing these and other questions in relation to Mary Doria Russell’s novel, Women of the Copper Country in what we call the Great Michigan Read. Since Calumet was the heart of the miner’s strike to unionize in 1913, Michigan Humanities included our remote thumb of the upper mitten and provided a grant to the Keweenaw Storytelling Center to have a live conversation with the author. I had the honor of serving as moderator.
But I also had a different extraction in mind. I was curious to peel back the layers of an author I greatly admire for her career in pointing the feminine lens at stories in history. Women’s fiction, especially stories from the fringes and frontiers, is my chosen genre, too. And it’s not often I get to meet an author who writes this sort of novels. When we met, I felt an instant appreciation for her.
Mary Doria Russell is witty, curious, and a keen historian. She also writes in a different style that is neither plot nor character-driven. How can that be, I thought as I worked on questions to ask her. Mary’s novel features Big Annie Clements, Mother Jones, and countless other characters based on real people from history. Definitely a lot of characters. But typically, character-driven novels slip beneath the skin of one or more characters. I described Mary’s narrative perspective as that of a butterfly that flits from shoulder to shoulder throughout the strike’s timeline while maintaining the thread of story.
She smiled and thanked me for noticing. Then Mary explained how she writes at truth in the center of her story and she never knows until she’s researching and drafting whose perspective she will need to best view that truth. For example, she struggled to tell the horrific conclusion to the strike that left 73 people, mostly children, dead. The story didn’t capture the feeling she wanted to convey until she realized she needed an outside perspective and wrote the aftermath through the eyes of the investigating coroner. When she read in her research that he could never look at his own children’s bare feet again after placing so many toe tags on the young bodies, she knew that was the view of truth.
What encouraged me most about meeting Mary was learning of her dedication to how she processes history in her novels. Even though she is a New York Times bestselling author, twenty-two publishers passed on her manuscript to Women of the Copper Country. I’m glad I extracted that little nugget because it is important to lift each other up in our writing journies.
Yet, the idea of extraction itself and why we do it is less heartwarming. I want spring to hasten the time I get to spend kayaking among trees. Maybe extraction is haste. Maybe the difference between living in a joyful interdependency and living in a discordant social-economic hierarchy is mindfulness. Like Suzanne Simard’s mother trees, we can grow tall and prosper when we pay attention to all life (and death) where we live.
May 2, 2022, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about extraction. What is being extracted and from where? Is it an idea? How does genre change the perspective (sci-fi versus romance)? Go where the prompt leads!
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