Regenerating hope in mining’s wake

A women’s support group joins the Welsh anti-government strike in the mid 1980s. Protests to save coal mines provided unsuccessful, but from their ashes grew efforts to save communities for a world beyond mining. (PHOTO: National Museum of Wales, Flickr CC)
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Like a lot of kids who grew up on Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range during the economic crisis of the 1980s and ‘90s I saw plenty of reasons to leave. Many of my friends did. But I’m glad I found good reasons to stay. Many friends did that, too. That doesn’t mean, however, that our lives are easy or our fate resolved.

When I was in college, I saw the movie “October Sky.” This 1999 film tells the true story of a boy and his friends who during the Cold War space race launch their own rocket from a West Virginia coal mining town. They win the national science fair with help from the folks back home.

I also sought out the 1941 Best Picture winner “How Green Was My Valley.” This story follows a Welsh coal mining family over several years, beaten down by small town social mores, unsafe mining conditions, and the economic collapse of their town. And yet their valley was so green, you could even see it in black and white; the love and spirit endured.

Both were heartwarming, but bore a melancholy truth: the smart young protagonists leave their mining towns forever. And no one watching blames them one bit.

Since then I’ve been trying to figure out a riddle. If I stayed on the Range, could I find a way to help the places and people I loved so much thrive again, even as the mines shrink their workforce and local population dwindles?

I’ve had some ideas but nothing’s stuck yet. I’ve written plenty in favor of rural high speed internet. That’s helped in some places, but still lags across much of the Mesabi Range region. This month, the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation released its “Recharge the Range” report. In addition to broadband, the report states Iron Rangers want quality affordable housing, day care and a well-trained workforce.

The prescriptions sound great, but familiar. Some of these matters should have been addressed years ago; others remain the subject of occasional and inconsistent effort.

Most folks, especially among those we elect to local offices or who write letters to the editor, seem to hope that our region’s economic revival comes from new mines. Of course, even under ideal circumstances that’s a mathematically inadequate solution. Automation will prevent mining employment from ever getting much bigger than it is now. More likely, employment will shrink regardless of ore tonnage. But mining is a comfortable solution; one that folks here understand and recognize in our own lives and families.

What’s to come, however, will not be comfortable, though it could be prosperous. Fundamentally, change is difficult, particularly when you don’t control or understand it.

That was on my mind when I picked up the new book “After Coal: Stories of Survival in Appalachia and Wales,” by Tom Hansell (2018, West Virginia University Press).

In “After Coal,” Hansell compiled written documentation of a documentary film he produced of the same name. I hadn’t seen this movie, but the book more than sufficed.

In Appalachia, mining communities spread through several states struggled with the depletion of their resource and the drop in demand for coal starting after WWII and accelerating in recent decades. Though some coal mining remains, it’s smaller, more environmentally destructive, and largely nonunion. Nevertheless, coal remains a politically potent and often stifling force in local politics, despite occasional green shoots of economic diversification.

Wales told another story. The United Kingdom closed most of its state-run mines in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher’s Tory administration. Strikes and protests united this small country in Great Britain, even though efforts to save the mines soon failed. With years of ruin ahead, communities that had banded together to protest, now had to find new ways to live. And they did. Never as populous, but still a good place to live.

One of my favorite Welsh stories in Hansell’s book was the Dulais Opportunity for Voluntary Enterprise (DOVE). This was a group of women, mostly miners’ wives, who had met protesting the actions of the Thatcher government. After the mines closed, as their communities feared for survival, these women kept meeting, looking for ways to help each other and eventually the whole region. The results included lots of small scale economic successes that produced lasting jobs and vocations for men and women throughout Wales.

One of the current leaders of DOVE used a term to describe their efforts: Regeneration. In its root Latin, “Create again.”

To be clear, what happened in Wales is not exactly the same as what has happened in Appalachia. And neither are quite like what’s happening here in Northern Minnesota. Various geographical, economic, governmental, historical and cultural differences influence each story. However, there are enough similarities to provoke comparison and test new ideas. In reading the interaction between the miners in West Virginia and those in Wales, I heard the voices of many of the miners in my family, too.

The idea that stuck with me came from Wales: Not economic development, not even “recharge the Range.” But rather, regeneration. New growth of new ideas on top of the old map. It’s the best way forward, because it is the only way that does not surrender to economic factors and powerful players far outside our own local control.

Support for mining is a small way to spend our time. Regeneration requires much more from all of us, and is necessary regardless of the whims of foreign capital in the holes outside our towns.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


Comments

  1. I hope you have no regrets. Each of us must discern our own paths. You should be at peace with your choices. Plus, a lot of the people within urban Minnesota now are annoying and weak. Many are weak in the worst sense. Annoying in the worst sense.

    I see why you want/need better technology. However, your original thesis regarding the Internet was right on man. The technology changed the people. There is something truly disconcerting happening pertaining to all that. Zombie friggin’ hordes man, just proliferating…

    You’re the best. Have good day!

  2. Elanne Palcich says:

    Thanks, Aaron, for continuing to speak to the future. Robotics and nanotechnology will be changing the mining industry. As jobs are displaced, we will be left with waste rock piles, gigantic open pits, tailings basins, polluted runoff into surface waters, and the alternation of ground water flow. The people who choose to stay here will need to have fortitude, creativity, a variety of skills, a lot of persistence, and a sense of belonging to the land. The future will come, not by reliving the past, but by moving forward with a new sense of direction.

  3. Just read that Jason Metsa was gifted a new job at the IRRRB. Not much “regenerating hope” in this news. Maybe another hockey star is looking to build a boondoggle. Hope springs eternal.

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