I grew up in the shadow of a 500-foot smokestack, although the copper mine and smelter were across the highway from our tiny town. Its constant presence and steady stream of vapor meant security, at least until the next round of layoffs, but that was for grown-ups to think about, not children.
We were too busy hosing down the streets on hot summer days, our water supply free and endless, courtesy of the mining company and Lake Superior. Not for us to worry when the smoke from the stack blew the wrong way, making the air taste of rotten eggs, or to fret at the sight of the tailings ponds with their mucky waste.
It was our job to climb inside the rusting cylinders at the old ball mill, and to sit on the banks of the Mineral River at night and watch as slag flowed down, hot as a volcano. This same rock, shattered, lined the road to the water tower and slashed our bike tires when we first dared to ride out that way, alone.
During my teenage years, I spent countless nights perched on the roof of our house with flashlight and star charts, miles of dark forest in the backyard, the Milky Way streaming overhead. It was so quiet that I could trace a single car entering from the highway, winding its way through town, and make out, in the distance, the low hum from the mine, keeping us alive.
Most of the virgin timber had been logged off, but one namesake remained, a short footpath away. This towering white pine was a constant in our lives along with the stack, the other behemoth watching over us. Brief as it was, each trip down that path was a pilgrimage, the tree a sort of shrine. My dad took me there one winter morning, instead of to school, to calm his weeping daughter.
Forty years later, I still feel anchored when I wrap my arms around one of these elder trees, pressing my cheek to the bark, the mine a distant and fading memory.