A set scene in the past: topics of spring; health and environmental toxicity; rural life; poverty

This post combines a set scene of daily life from a rural town (Chassell, Michigan, during the economic recession of the early 2000’s) to underlying topics in health and environmental toxicity. Spring and natural beauty can be contrasted to poverty, in terms of social impacts, and environmental toxicity from legacies of past mining booms.

Turtles are fairly common in the Upper Peninsula, however, they cross roads and lay eggs at times and locations that people are not aware of, hence, the threat to local populations (mostly through automobile traffic). Snowmobile trails, including those made from stamp-sand, can be nesting locations.

Sufjan Steven’s song Upper Peninsula is fairly depressing, melodramatic, but nonetheless sets the scene by capturing the destituteness and ramifications of rural poverty, in this case the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the early 2000’s. It was part of a compilation album by the artist on the state of Michigan, well-known for poverty, past automobile manufacturing, and natural lands perfect for snowmobiling, hiking and hunting. The artist’s goal was for the album was as a “metaphysical expedition through the idiosyncrasies of middle America….” For the purposes here, it serves as an alternative media source to offer in understanding the socioeconomic setting of what may be a far-away land and once-upon-a-time, resonating with rural poverty and impacts to health and the environment, which most likely is far more understandable than perhaps this particular location and the details associated with it. What it cannot demonstrate is that while a scene was set, the awareness of it and subsequent potential for future change cannot be yet seen, but can be used to motivate such change.

May 2009: “Chassell’s General Foods and Bakery shut down by the end of March of 2009. It should have been useful to walk over to, for example when in search of emergency baking needs – sweetened condensed milk, cream, the standard vegetable or piece of fruit. In winter, just put the snow boots on, sweater, coat, mittens, scarf, hat, and listen to the winter silence of snowfall acoustics, like the shushed sound of cars along the main road, a state highway, while plodding through snow, creating fresh tracks as often as walking on plowed or shoveled pavement. After the bend in the highway, the sidewalk started, until then, just walk against the traffic to increase safety by visibility.

The store, however, contained few shelves that were sparsely stocked with canned and boxed groceries, as did the Citgo gas station down the road. The gas station offered more chips, candy, and other snack foods than did the general store. Neither had fresh fruit or vegetable.

The woman who ran the General store, before it closed down, was cranky and suffered the health effects of a preservative-laden diet. She never talked with me, no more than a curt “no” and suggestion to try the Citgo in response to my food searches. After a few efforts on my part, I stopped trying to patronize the store. The items that were offered were either too bland or too preserved for my tastes. I heard her, however, once with a different customer, a local woman approximately mid-forties to early-fifties in age. It had been a snowy year.

The woman who ran the store mentioned how she had heard that someone, another local, was having trouble paying their bills. “She only has welfare right now, from what I hear, and nothing else. It’s a darn shame, that family with her running it.”

The customer and she both wished the best for the woman. “Goodness knows we all need some help,” the woman who ran the store said, while ringing up the five items purchased from her store. They talked about tabs and bills, the guilt but also the need of asking for money owed to the store. Her compassion had been unexpected, given my past interactions with her, but it seemed that with the right people, she cared greatly. Town-folk were like that, often: support local, don’t mind the rest.

Not much non-residential remained in Chassell, which was an unincorporated town along a main Upper Peninsula highway, except for the churches and bars. The ice cream shop had shut down for the season by that time.  The motel had a “For Sale” sign next to the wooden boards that had been placed in autumn, to protect customers from the winter winds and snow.

Two boys sold “lemonade”, the powdered crystals hand-spun into water solution, on a corner two blocks from Chassell’s only light, which blinked yellow on the north-south and red on the east-west transect. This was today, a Saturday in late May. They weren’t getting much business, partly due to a lack of traffic, though mostly due to the weather (50 degrees F; 10 degrees C) and a general lack of demand.

I continued my walk while kicking up stamp stand on the snowmobile trails, no longer suspended in snow, and leaving brown plumes behind, photographing the start of spring.

I made a quick list of <Things forgotten> by spring’s start:

  1. Juneberry blooms and burgeoning lilac blossoms
  2. The reflection of box elder flowers surrounded by copper-brown leaves in the creek surface
  3. Watching kestrels, killdeer, gulls, geese, robins, finches, nuthatches, sparrows and other birds soaring or flitting about in search of food for the young
  4. Tiny lime green branches poking out of tan and brown equisetum in a ring around the stem
  5. Smashing a black fly on my elbow
  6. Marsh marigold in ephemeral rivers
  7. Wind that does not cool a person, instead just warms them
  8. Ten o’clock sunsets / Five o’clock sunrises
  9. Investigating a possible wandering tick
  10. Looking for fish and otters in the sloughs
  11. Spring peepers
  12. Turtles laying eggs”

Information and connection to the environment and society:

Stamp sand is the biproduct of breaking rock into fragmented pieces during mining operations of, for example, copper on the Keweenaw Peninsula. Massive amounts of the biproduct, which contain toxic traces such as arsenic, were piled along shoreline and used for snowmobile trails. The environmental impacts become clearer as research continues monitoring them.

On stamp sands and especially concerning a larger site of stamp sand moving along the shores of Lake Superior:




On metals found and mining in the Upper Peninsula:




Food desert is a term utilized to denote a location where lack of fresh and/or healthy food – especially produce and vegetables – largely determines an unhealthy diet of local people, who cannot access these foods within a certain distance considered greater than what a typical person will travel in order to shop for food. Poverty and under-education are correlated with these locations, as are other attributes. They occur both in rural and urban locations. The point of the designation is to identify it, in order to then help change conditions to prevent unhealthy consumption, with a final goal to promote healthy and long lives across socioeconomic boundaries.


On Upper Peninsula wildflowers and natural areas:




Note, especially through the links that are provided above, how education and awareness of issues can bring about action and change. Even in Chassell, based on google map searching, it appears perhaps new groceries are available that, though not necessarily useful for all dietary needs, can help the locals in their requirements.