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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I wish you’d stop reading my thoughts, Charli. It’s getting kind of creepy. 🙂 Only two days ago, Sue and I were looking across at the copse of trees behind our place and discussing the very topic of how they communicate underground. I am in the midst of writing a story about a denizen of this underground railway who calls himself the Lord of the Wood Wide Web. As you can tell already, he’s a Fun Guy. 😉
Your tree roots must connect with mine, Doug I’m reading your roots! Or maybe the trees are practicing some sort of mind control over anyone who wields a pencil. Go for it — Lord of the Wood Wide Web! 😀
PS – Anybody who steals this story will be flogged with a limp lettuce!
Ha, ha! Grab that story by the horns and feed it your lettuce, Doug. Get it wrangled.
I’ll be sure to leaf that idea alone, Doug. And if anyone should dare to steal the idea and post it at the Carrot Branch… well, they can just pack their trunk.
I’m interested in listening to Suzanne Simard read her book, Finding the Mother Tree. Perhaps when I finish the one I’m listening to now, I’ll remember to look for it. The one I’m listening to at the moment is really interesting too. A local journalist/author set up a table with a typewriter on the corner of a Brisbane city street for a number of months last year and collected love stories from anyone who would sit and talk to him. It’s an amazing collection of stories told by people who have lived here forever or travelled from around the world. He did it to honour the writer who gifted him the old typewriter upon her passing. Who would have thought of such a project? He did, and what a wonderful idea. It’s fascinating to hear all the stories.
I imagine that the stories of the Women of Copper Country are just as fascinating, if in a different way. But we can all learn from each other. I was moved by what she said of the coroner’s response. That’s humaninty. It’s connection at the very roots of who we are.
Oh, Norah, what a wonderful story! I think your local journalist must have felt the project connected him to his friend, and the stories in turn connect us to each other through love. It doesn’t get more real than that. This is how we best learn — inspiration. We all want to be lifted, don’t we?
We sure do, Charli. It doesn’t get more real than that. 💖
Charli, Finding the Mother Tree, reminds me of dryad mythology. The dryads were specifically the nymphs of the trees. I always envisioned them as the soul of the tree, their roots interconnected as they relay messages back and forth to each other. I can see it all play out in my mind. <3
What a lovely story, Norah.
Ah, sorry, I don’t know how this appeared in the wrong place *sighs*
I’m sure Norah will see it!
Yes! I was thinking about how mythology had it right all along, Colleen. What a lovely image of trees communicating. I can also imagine them looking for rocks!
LOL! Dryads looking for rocks! What a great visual that is!
I loved this from your conversation with Mary:
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.
It’s these details that make a story breathe.
We have to dig deep into our imagination, experiences, or research to find those details that bring the oxygen to our stories. I found that detail one that will stick with me, Anne.
I always find reading history as a list of dates and deaths and objects produced to be very difficult difficult to connect to. But ones that connect via people’s stories and lives? My roots reach right out to catch and share the nutrients and healing they bring.
Thanks for the head’s up on these authors!
Very intriguing! I think it’s incredible how interconnected all the creatures of the world are – including trees. It sounds like you’ve got a very cool curricula for your class.
When I think of extraction, I usually think of “vanilla extract”, or things that are condensed, distilled. I think that came through in the story I submitted for the collection.
I recall a horror story of a man who communicated with trees and felt their pain if they were cut. Drove him mad… I’m sure we can connect with trees and fully understand their connections. Make huge sense.
Trees are very cool. And they’re very nice to spend time with. I might not understanding exactly what you’re saying, but I think maybe the difference between a life of joyful interdependency and one of a discordant hierarchy is mindLESSness.