I am a born-and-bred Minnesota “outstater,” but for four decades have been a metro homeowner and worker. I come home to the woods; I go home to the city. Of which group do I say “we”?
Issues play out differently in Greater Minnesota than in the Twin Cities — about masks, weather, climate change, mining, patriotism, police support. Wherever I am, people in my life tend to talk only with those likely to have similar opinions.
As Minnesotans, could we achieve a broader, more complex sense of we-ness? When we clump ourselves and one another into bundles — particularly into an outstate or urban bucket — we miss gradations.
Come with me on my drive from the Cities to the Iron Range. We head north to my home on a lake called Birch. For a long stretch of Highway 35, we are assaulted by billboards — buy donuts, call your mother, spin for money, stop for gas, buy a dock, clean the boat, program a robot. Blessedly, the commands thin out near Barnum. We scan the view that opens over the Northland, notice sky and trees. Then a sign peeps out from a forest opening — “Save the Boundary Waters from Toxic Mining!”
That message, opposing copper-nickel mining, is strategically placed one mile before Cloquet, where the Ely-bound campers will split off from those drivers heading for the North Shore. The sign is designed for both sets of vacationers, but not for the mothers of out-of-work Rangers.
Minnesotans are not actually all that nice. Well, I am not. Internally, I have employed a great deal of “us and them” language in my own head.
As a woods person, when I have spotted folks with spiffy canoes and shiny hiking boots, I have thought: “Snobby vacationers.” When I have canoed past tall-windowed summer mansions rising above the next bay over, I have looked away. “Obviously, they know nothing about the paths in the woods. Their grassy lawns are destroying my lake.”
As a city person, I have thought: “Better not go to that grocery store; everyone there is probably anti-vax.” Or: “I need to rescue these people. They never get to talk to someone who does not think exactly like they do.”
My Range Self responds to my Urban Self: “Right! Like we need your crusading ass! Go back to your city noise and its stench. Take your opinions off of my trails.”
We need to work on changing basic attitudes, and that is slow work. Even when we say we are against ownership we fall into it — for example, the concept that this is Minnesota’s land. Watershed boundaries make more sense environmentally than state or national artificial borders.
In Minnesota, I am frightened by the increasing political divide and the way that people on both “sides” talk hate about the other. My home place is at the heart of the Twin Metals Mine. My city friends are totally opposed; my hometown friends need work and are in support. Several of my former students are protesting Line 3; some of my relatives say “at least the new line doesn’t cross Native land.”
We do not have to like other people’s arguments, but we have to work with them because otherwise we will lose the earth. I know that my Republican friends are also afraid of climate and other disasters, but sometimes the fear is too big to manage. We on the Left tend to pick one thing we think will fix climate change, like stopping Keystone or electing a certain person. Climate change is so big that it is really hard to get through the nights unless you have one thing that you think you can fix.
Some of my relatives on the Right are also afraid, but they don’t necessarily want to say that to me. One thing that helps deflect their fear is their faith. How can we help people face fear of future disaster without freezing? I think that forming community with each other by talking honestly and listening respectfully with each other could help.
Could I get a little bit braver?
I admit to being afraid. I do not want my former classmates to call me names. I do not want my cousins to disown me. I do not want my city colleagues to think I am a lukewarm environmentalist.
Are you afraid too? I have city friends who are afraid to walk in the woods because a bear might appear or a hunter might shoot. I have country friends who are afraid to walk in the city because a riot might break out or a person might be shot right on the sidewalk.
When we start to admit what we really think — and the vast extent of our ignorance — we risk a lot. Sometimes our communities do shun us. Opening up to our own thoughts can upset our sense of settledness — of secure righteousness.
Yet, our security is at risk. I knew this as I watched the Greenwood Fire smoke billow.
It does not matter to me what words we use when we talk to each other — “weird weather” or “climate change.” What I think is important is that we engage in conversations — not only in debates — with each other.
About mining: might we continue to need iron, and might we begin to need copper, nickel, and other heavy metals from the Iron Range for materials used in electric cars, wind turbines, and solar panels? Can we really recycle enough metals to meet our growing needs? Is it fair to get these all from less privileged areas of the world? Can green jobs — including environmentally friendly mining — be part of the economic solution?
About wilderness: Might we need to preserve wilderness to help buffer against the damages that climate change will cause, not only to refresh human spirits?
We all have stakes in what this region means to us and our families. What if we acknowledged the complexities?
I ask city people who visit the Northland not to be a “go everywhere once” tourist. Get to know a couple of places well. Instead of bringing food from home, buy from the supermarket at the town near your campsite. Pick up any trash you see. Learn about aquatic invasive species in the lakes. Figure out where your bodily refuse goes; ask the resort owners about their septic tanks. Join the lake association or a local advocacy group, pay the dues, volunteer when you can.
I suggest to outstate people who visit me in the city: Shop in various neighborhoods. Speak gratefully of the benefits the city provides — the Capitol, the museums, the universities — that receive protection and service from the cities but do not provide any property tax support to those cities. Adopt a city park and visit it regularly, learning the stresses it faces. Get to know a tree in that park and return to check on its well being.
I ask all of us to be open to all the complex sides of each issue and to reject divisive slogans and sound bites.
None of the billboards along Highway 35 tell us what to do about the fires and weather, because the real challenges are too complex for sound bites. Real challenges require real conversations from different viewpoints. So I ignore the billboards. Except the one at the entrance of my hometown that says, “Thank you, firefighters!”
Ranae Hanson (she/her) is the author of “Watershed: Attending to Body and Earth in Distress” (University of Minnesota Press, 2021). She taught writing and global studies at Minneapolis College for 31 years. She lives in Saint Anthony Park in Saint Paul and by Birch Lake outside of Babbitt. ranaehanson.com.