The Times Correction of Jim Harrison’s “My Upper Peninsula” Falls Short In Three Ways

The Travel section of the November 29th edition of the New York Times featured an article by Jim Harrison about traveling Michigan’s Upper Peninsula called “My Upper Peninsula.” It turns out Harrison’s Upper Peninsula is a place more fondly remembered than accurately observed, and the Times has had to make a number of corrections to his piece.

Probably the most egregious error in the original piece comes just a few paragraphs in, where Harrison explains to prospective travelers to the UP that “you can drink the water directly from Lake Superior,” as he himself used to do on his “long beach walks.” The water of Lake Superior is clean, he wrote in that first version, because “there is little or no industry, and all of the mines are closed.”

I was probably not the only person to send a letter to the editors reminding them that some UP mines are still open and that the Times itself had published a report, in May of 2012, on the new mining boom in the Upper Peninsula. My letter went on to say that the new sulfide mining (the mining of nickel and copper) along with new gold and uranium mining projects in the UP — and all around Lake Superior — pose a very serious risk to the big freshwater lake.

Just one project, the Polymet mine near Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota, will require water pollution treatment for a minimum of 500 years.

Last week, the Times published this correction:

Correction: December 4, 2013
An earlier version of this article misstated the state of mining in the Upper Peninsula; there are indeed some mines operating in the area — it is not true that all the mines are closed.

The passage about long beach walks now reads:

While camping I would study maps to try to figure out where I was other than within a cloud of mosquitoes and black flies, that irritating species that depends on clean water, of which there is a great deal in the U.P. There is little or no industry; therefore you could drink the water directly from Lake Superior — at least I always did on my long beach walks.

This new version tries to skirt the issue by consigning it to the past. Where Harrison originally wrote “you can drink,” now we are told “you could drink” the water. There is still “a great deal” of clean water in the UP, but this version takes refuge in “at least I always did,” to qualify the drinking. It could all have been a mistake.

But this correction doesn’t do the trick, for at least three reasons.

First, it doesn’t even come close to capturing what’s really going on these days. We still have no no reference to the Times original report on the boom. “It is not true that all the mines are closed” is a far cry from “many new mines are opening, and there is a mining and leasing boom” – which is a lot closer to the what the Times reported in 2012 and a lot closer to the facts: just look at the map of Lake Superior Mines, Mineral Exploration and Mineral Leasing published by the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. The problem here is only compounded by a couple of sentences near the end of the Harrison piece, which the editors let stand: “It’s not easy to cheerlead for the Upper Peninsula now after the extractive logging and mining. That bleakness is now mostly overgrown by forests except for a few slag piles.” Overgrown? Simply put, the bleakness that Harrison buries in the past is coming back to the UP.

Second – and this is a curious oversight for the Travel section – the new mining is going to endanger, or at least dramatically change, UP tourism, which is in large part about unimpeded access to wilderness areas and especially the freshwater wilderness of Lake Superior. Though tourism has been a growing sector of the UP economy, on its own it’s hardly enough to sustain the region (or any region for that matter). Mining proponents are usually quick to point this out. Most are very careful to say that they “don’t go around tearing down the tourism industry,” as one UP labor leader put it to me. Some are openly scornful of the contribution tourism makes to the regional economy. All acknowledge, as Harrison himself acknowledges, a tension between extractive industry and tourism; and doesn’t that tension belong at the center of any article about traveling to the UP?

Third, the corrected paragraph now makes very little sense. The editors have chosen to omit Harrison’s earlier statements about the disappearance of mining and recognize, in their correction, “some mines operating” in the Upper Peninsula. The paragraph about long beach walks simply states that “there is little or no industry” in the UP. I am not sure what this is supposed to mean: I guess “some” is supposed to be the equivalent of “little” or “none,” or mining doesn’t count as an industry. Be that as it may, the larger omission here has to do with the industrialization the new mining has already brought – the drilling, clear cutting, haul roads, and mine construction already underway are just the start — and how that will add to mounting industrial pressures on the lake: for example, the plan put forward by Enbridge to build a network of oil pipelines carrying diluted bitumen across the Great Lakes region, and to transport crude oil by barge across Lake Superior.

I realize, of course, that none of these observations are likely to find a place in the Travel section. Readers go there to encounter a world where nature is picturesque, and history and culture are placed on quaint and colorful exhibition. Advertisers count on it. The Travel section presents an exotic world, in the most literal sense, a world outside ordinary lived experience, fully exteriorized, a fantasy of escape. I suppose readers should look elsewhere in the paper of record to correct that impression, and to see the world as it really is.

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