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We Are All One.

Essay by Ted Gostomski
Photos by Geoffrey George

Isle Royale looms large in northwestern Lake Superior, pointing like an arrow to where the glaciers retreated thousands of years ago. It is the largest island on the largest of the Great Lakes. Through fog and rain, wind and waves, it stands as a sentinel, whispering secrets that can only be heard by those who take the time to stay and listen. Isle Royale is a national park and a part of the federal Wilderness System, but it is not without a history and lingering signs of human use.
Mott Island shoreline.
Shorline on Mott Island, Isle Royale National Park.  

During the mid-1800s, the American Fur Company, looking to diversify its interests from the increasingly busy fur market, established commercial fishing camps along the Lake Superior shoreline, including one at Isle Royale. But commercial fishing really took hold in the latter part of that century when Scandinavian immigrants arrived in Minnesota and began fishing to earn a living. Many moved their operations out to Isle Royale, just 12 miles east of the Minnesota shore, during the summer months. They prospered there, and the practice continued until the formal establishment of the national park after World War II and the arrival of the non-native sea lamprey in the early 1950s combined to bring commercial fishing on Isle Royale to a close.

More than 40 years later, during a visit to Isle Royale to help with bird surveys, a friend and I engaged in a spirited discussion about the wilderness character of Isle Royale. We are both scientists and conservationists. He is active with his local land trust and feels strongly about protecting wild places. I have worked for the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy, and I am equally passionate about protecting wild places. My friend’s major contentions were that true wilderness does not include the constant sound of boat motors, the regular sound of passenger planes bringing visitors, or the demonstration of a human practice that resulted in the exploitation of a Great Lakes fishery. This demonstration he refers to is the Edisen Fishery, where a restored cabin, net house, and boats are lived in, used, and shown by a former commercial fisherman (working as a Park Service interpreter) to “demonstrate” to the visiting public how the commercial fishing families lived and worked on Isle Royale during the 1930s and 1940s.

For my part, I argued that prohibiting particular uses that seem inappropriate simply because they are (or were) human in nature is to perpetuate the dichotomy of humans and wilderness and the inherent lessons that human history is irrelevant and that we have no place in the natural world. I also pointed out that Isle Royale has a unique Great Lakes maritime history, one that is formally recognized in the park’s General Management Plan, so we cannot ignore some elements of the island’s significance and importance just because it seems at a glance to contradict the island’s wilderness values. In the end, though our views still diverged on the points of what is wilderness and how should it be managed, we agreed that Isle Royale is a beautiful place, worthy of the protection it has, and we were glad to be there.

Isle Royale National Park.
  Outer and Inner Hill Islands of Isle Royale National Park, with Canada in the distant background.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 in part defines wilderness as being “in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape.” This is a fair measure, but how does one quantify “domination of the landscape?” Perhaps that’s what the authors had in mind when they went further in their definition:

… an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

… land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable…

Reading this raises a question in my mind, one that has been raised and debated by many others. For me, though, the issue is not a policy question, but one of perspective and understanding. It is an issue of inclusion. The question is this: How is it that the “earth and its community of life” does not include people?

Do not misinterpret what I am hoping to say. The Wilderness Act has been instrumental in protecting some of the most beautiful places in North America, including Isle Royale. It is a stalwart and necessary piece of legislation despite criticism and attack from those who would exploit the land in the name of “the common good.” My only purpose in bringing up the definition of wilderness is to use it as a jumping-off point for exploring the relationship between people and the land. It is not my intention to explore the meaning of wilderness as many others have (see especially The Trouble With Wilderness by William Cronon, and The Great New Wilderness Debate by J. Baird Callicott). So from here on, I will separate “wilderness” from “relationship.”

In a recent issue of Orion magazine, Mark Dowie wrote about the displacement of native peoples from their homelands when big conservation groups such as The Nature Conservancy or Wildlife Conservation Society buy the land and “set it aside” as a preserve. The native people who have lived on the land for generations are then told they can no longer live there, and they can no longer hunt or gather food there as they have for generations. They are told that their stewardship of the land is no longer sufficient.

As Dowie writes, “It's no secret that millions of native peoples around the world have been pushed off their land to make room for big oil, big metal, big timber, and big agriculture. But few people realize that the same thing has happened for a much nobler cause: land and wildlife conservation.”

Reading this, I was reminded of the conversation with my friend and the question it raised. I have occasionally posed that question to my peers and colleagues since then: Why do we always refer to natural communities separately from human communities?

Granted, contemporary American society has effectively separated itself from the true human place and role in the ecosystem, but shouldn't we allow for human interaction with the land when we plan for and implement natural areas, preserves, and parks? Do we not reinforce and subconsciously teach and learn a dichotomy between people and nature when we do otherwise? It goes against the fundamental concept of an ecosystem to separate “natural” from “human” or “biodiversity” from “culture.”

Part of my struggle with this question is that I have looked at (and made) the arguments from both sides. I have worked in the natural resource management field for a little over 10 years, and in my younger days I enjoyed the idea of designating a piece of land as a national park or a conservation reserve and in essence saying, “If you want to come here, you do as the land dictates, not as you would like it to be. You (society) will not ruin this small piece of our heritage.”

As I have gained age and experience, though, I have come to realize that this exclusionary approach is not the best long-term solution. In part, this is because land set aside is not necessarily land protected; air and water pollution, exotic plants and animals, and the impacts of ecotourism and outdoor recreation present constant challenges.

Fishing and Ranger III ferry at Rock Harbor.
Fishing in Isle Royale's Rock Harbor, with the Ranger III ferry docked.  

Another part of my life has been spent as an avid canoeist and an amateur history buff. For the past four years, a friend and I have been retracing the nearly 2,000 mile fur trade canoe route from Grand Portage on Lake Superior north and west to Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca in Alberta. Our travels by canoe are enriched by—indeed, they are based upon—the history that surrounds the route we are following and the places we have visited. Knowing the history of this route gives it greater depth and makes the whole experience much more personal. Through personal experiences like these, I have become interested in how people relate to the landscape in which they live, and I realize now that people are shaped by the land as much as the land is shaped by people. The two are inextricably linked.

How do I reconcile these two perspectives? How do I work to protect rare plants and animals and wild landscapes while engaging in activities that are simply part of living in today’s world? How do I celebrate the human element in nature while promoting restoration of a landscape that resembles what was here before Euro-American settlement? I think the answer lies in recognizing the human role in the system and practicing restraint when we strive to reach beyond that role.

American society seems to live under the general pretense that “because we can, we should.” In the process, as Paul Gruchow once noted in his essay “Naming What We Love,” there is a growing illiteracy about the natural world that contrasts with a nearly universal anxiety we feel about the state of our environment. At a basic level, we as a society do not know our neighbors. How many people know the names of all the birds in their area or can distinguish the native plants from the non-native sod grass in the yard? How many can find one’s home on a map that does not have the human-generated landmarks of roads and intersections? We need to learn where we fit in the landscape because, in Gruchow’s words, “we will love the earth more competently, more effectively, by being able to name and know something about the life it sustains.”

How can people even begin to name and know the natural world if they are not allowed to truly live with it? The establishment of conservation reserves and the like may provide the only opportunities people have to interact with their environment and to learn something about it. But in some cases, these same reserves fail to engender any feelings of inclusion or express concern for the people living in and around them, people who have used that land for years (though “use” means many things, not all of them, in conservation-speak, “compatible”). This becomes starkly personal when I read about the creation of Isle Royale National Park.

Carnivorous pitcher plants on Raspberry Island Bog, Isle Royale National Park.
  Carnivorous pitcher plants on Raspberry Island Bog, Isle Royale National Park.

In the years leading up to and following Isle Royale’s designation as a national park, one of the first tasks for National Park Service rangers was to erase all signs of contemporary human use by burning the homes of the commercial fishing families who had lived and worked there for many years. Later, perhaps reflecting on what they had done, the National Park Service established interpretive programs about the island’s commercial fishing era, along with its history of copper mining, logging, Native American use, and summer resorts. Though burning cabins and displacing commercial fishermen is a terrible way to establish a park, the National Park Service is right to talk about—in fact celebrate and honor—the human history that is interwoven with the lands under their charge. The land is rich in stories about the positive relationships between people and the land and how those people adapted to and lived with their particular environmental challenges.

Howard Sivertson grew up in Grand Marais, Minnesota, on the north shore of Lake Superior. His family was one whose livelihood depended on commercial fishing on Isle Royale, so Howard spent half his young life on the island. He tells a story about when he started school and realized how island life was part of his identity.

I remember once when I was five years old, I returned to Duluth from Isle Royale to attend kindergarten… The teacher asked the children to introduce themselves and tell what they did during the summer. When my turn came, I had difficulty expressing myself. My terms and place names describing Isle Royale made little sense to outsiders, so the teacher asked me to draw what I was talking about on the blackboard. Two hours later I had filled every board in the room.

Howard’s drawings of gas boats, steamships, moose, net reels, and dozens of other images all represented the inextricable link between him and the island and how the island had defined his life and experiences to that point. Is Howard’s experience any less traditional? To disregard these types of experiences, adaptations, and uses of the land because they are “post-settlement” or simply because they are human is to ignore a whole other perspective of the land and water conservationists seek to protect. Knowing the history of the land and heeding the lessons of restraint and adaptation learned by humans or moose or a white pine is central to cultural survival. Natural history is human history.

Living and working in a place and depending on it as Howard’s family did, for personal sustenance but also for some financial security, creates a strong bond between person and place and a strong identity as a part of the larger community. How else do the ties between people and places manifest themselves? How else might we feel and express a special passion for a landscape? Among remote communities, and especially among island dwellers, connections to the land are forged through contact with a community of friends and family. When experiences are shared and memories are made, a place—a landscape—becomes the storehouse for those memories. Revisiting those memories happens when going through photo albums, looking at maps, or when playing music. Some music may just be songs that were heard at that time, other music is borne of a certain place and time—bagpipes in the Scottish Highlands, a saxophone in New Orleans or Chicago, a fiddle played by firelight along the shores of an island.

I am not a musician, but I recognize the sounds of Isle Royale and Lake Superior in the way a guitar or fiddle is played, or in the powwow drums that engender the heartbeat of this northern land. In The Pine Island Paradox, Kathleen Dean Moore explores the claim that people are separate from, and superior to, nature. In one chapter, she describes music heard during a ferry ride somewhere in the Pacific Northwest: guitar players on the ferry, thrushes on the islands they pass in the growing dusk, and, on one particular island, an unseen flute player whose recitation of “Amazing Grace” causes the guitar players to pick up the tune and others on board the ferry to begin singing. Though she does not overtly make the connection, she hints that there is one between the land and people that is made through music.

Music is a large part of an islander’s life because it is easy to carry. In Once Upon An Isle, Howard Sivertson recalls “Sanger Fest,” when families on Isle Royale would get together to play music, dance, and sing the songs of their native Scandinavia. When writing about island leisure activities, National Park Service historian Tim Cochrane felt that he had “too little room to discuss Island music and dance.” Still, I have one memory that typifies what I imagine to be a scene that has played out on Isle Royale many times in its long history of human habitation.

The clear shoreline of Isle Royale.
The clear and jutted shoreline of Isle Royale.  

“Christmas in July” is an event familiar to almost anyone who has worked at a summer camp. It’s a break from the ordinary routine, a reason to get together for fun and friendship. Isle Royale is no different, except that the name has a distinctly island twist; it’s called “Chrismoose.” On the east end of Isle Royale, Chrismoose was held at the Ralph House, a small cabin on the main island shared by four park employees and tucked into a rocky ledge of shoreline just down the trail from the Rock Harbor Visitor Center. It’s a rustic but comfortable little place with a screened-in porch that overlooks the harbor, and a small living room that is dominated by a stone fireplace on one wall.

Everyone showed up for the Chrismoose festivities. Close to 30 people all came together on this special evening, and we all looked forward to this event with great enthusiasm. Dinner started at 6:00 PM. Two turkeys were prepared, and everyone brought a dish to pass. Lights were hung around the porch, and intertwined with the lights was a garland made of moose droppings. A trio of musicians (plus others who intermittently joined in) played original and traditional tunes on acoustic guitars, a fiddle, harmonica, washboard, and wash tub. They called themselves “Fish Guts and Entrails.”

As the sun went down, the band moved from the screen porch into the lighted living room, and that’s when the dancing began. The furniture was cleared to one side, and couples danced, while others crowded around the edges of the room to watch and listen, clapping and stomping their feet to the music. The boys were playing a lively tune, and excited shouts and laughter were everywhere. From outside near the trees, the windows glowed in the dim light and the shadows of dancers played across the frames, as the music rose into the air like a thin plume of smoke, spreading out and dissipating into the northern night sky.

Three years later, John Wilson, the fiddle player in “Fish Guts and Entrails” moved to Mott Island where the park headquarters are located. That same year, I was also working for the Park Service and living on Mott. Employee housing on Mott Island consists of barracks-style dorms. Two separate buildings that look like very small apartments contain eight kitchens, each one shared by four people. One night, while walking among the kitchens back to my dorm room, I heard John's fiddle. As I walked past his kitchen, I saw him standing inside, playing a tune in the dim glow of a fluorescent light above the sink. He was alone. His eyes were closed and his foot tapped as he drew his bow back and forth over the strings. I stood there in the growing darkness, captivated by this scene of a man caught up in his music.

Five years after watching John play his fiddle at dusk, I went to see Natalie MacMaster, a fiddle player from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. The house lights went down as the show began, her band came on stage, and then a recording of ocean waves, rolling along an unseen shore, filled the air. Off-stage, Natalie began to play and then made her entrance. The image of John Wilson in his kitchen came back to me with startling clarity. Like John on that summer evening, Natalie stood in dim light, her eyes closed and her foot tapping in time as her bow drew a beautiful tune from the strings. She was clearly in another place, steeped in her island culture and the heritage of music that is strongly connected to that place. Memories of Isle Royale flooded in, and for a moment, I, too, was in another place and time.

I think the music John and Natalie play comes from a long history of people who feel the ties that bind them to the land, the sea, and to their ancestry. Their music is one voice in the island symphony, a representation of the people who live there, carving out a life that maintains a close connection to their place. Listening to Natalie or John is to listen to all the others who came before them. Perhaps if each of us took an inventory of how a particular place dwells in our hearts and how we maintain a connection to that place through books or art or music, maybe each of us would find a passion and connection we did not know we had. Maybe we would begin to sense our place in the community of plants and animals, water and air.

Gneiss Shoals at Shaw Island, Isle Royale National Park.
  Gneiss Shoals at Shaw Island, Isle Royale National Park.

People and the land are connected in many ways. Anyone who feels excitement at the approach of deer season or the opening day of trout fishing knows this connection. Anyone who plants a garden and never has to buy vegetables from the grocery store during the summer and may even have enough to can and bring out during the deep cold of winter knows this connection.

People have lived and worked and laughed and died on this planet for centuries. It is not enough to set aside land—to “protect” it. We need to make the unique histories of each place known, find a way to recognize and honor the good things that come from the connections between people and place, and we must find a way to make all of this part of what land conservation and restoration is all about.

If people do not feel that connection, if they are made to believe they were never part of the landscape, than what reason do they have to support the protection of it? What role should they see for themselves? When we learn to see the connections between ourselves and the land, then maybe we will begin to understand our responsibilities as members of that community and become concerned about how to fulfill those commitments.


Ted Gostomski is a biologist and writer living among wolves, hunters, motorized recreationists, silent sports enthusiasts, and a great deal of public, private, and tribal land in northern Wisconsin. He has written about canoeing, birds, and wild places for books, magazines, and professional journals, and is currently writing a field guide to Isle Royale National Park.

Geoffrey George was born in Detroit, Michigan and has been photographing and exploring the Great Lakes region since childhood. He is currently studying film at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. You may view more of his photos on his Flickr site.

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Title photo of rain beyond Smithwick Island, Isle Royale National Park.


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