The Penokee Hills and the Bad River Watershed are located in Ashland and Iron Counties in very Northern Wisconsin. An iron ore mine is being considered for an area spanning some twenty miles along an ancient mountain ridge. Geologically speaking the Penokee Hills are some of the oldest hills in the world. Once mountains, the Penokee Hills were scraped and carved away many millennia ago by streams, rivers, oceans and glacial periods. Left behind were iron ore deposits. The deposits nearest to the surface and easiest to remove were mined beginning in the late 19th century and up to the middle 20th century. What remains is a low grade iron ore that lies between 600 and 900 feet below the surface. The first phase of a new mine would be four miles long and one and a half miles wide. The method of the planned extraction would consist of digging a trench, pulling out the iron ore and replacing the unused ‘tailings’ in the trench creating a series of lakes in its wake.
The discussion surrounding a possible mine has generated a lot of strong opposition as well as support. My preliminary field work suggested that the issue is being framed as a simple conflict between jobs and economic development on one side and water and the environment on the other. Recognizing the polarization that this simple framework was producing I developed a research question aimed toward looking beyond the surface positions toward a greater understanding of the community and its core values.
In order to further develop my own understanding of the issues surrounding the possibility of a mine in the Penokee Hills and to generate a knowledge base for other people I did a series of video interviews called Voices of the Penokee Hills. I asked people a few basic questions: Who are you and what is your role in the community? What are your thoughts on the mine? In what ways would a mine affect you and your community?
From those interviews, I compiled a set of keywords and themes that began to look like a picture of the community’s shared values. In addition to the video interviews, words were gathered from community members by asking them to bring to mind a place that they cherish.
This collection of keywords started to take shape as my core data. I order to develop a container to do something with that material, I looked to a poetic process for qualitative research. Rather than use poetry to analyze the data myself, though, I chose to give the data back to the community and invite them to participate in the analysis. We came together as a group and wrote a collection of collective poems based on the keywords.
At this time the prospect of the mine rests primarily in legislative hands in Madison and Milwaukee far away from the Penokee Hills. One of the primary outcomes of this project has been the recognition that people on both sides of the mine question place a high priority on the autonomy of local involvement and decision making.
To see the full development of this project you can follow the links on this page or click on the headings across the top bar. One of the most interesting aspects of this project was to see how it generated dialogue in the community. In that same spirit I look forward to your comments.
Header photo made by Pete Rasmussen