Winter IS Coming — Nicole Sallak Anderson
Winter is coming.
It’s a phrase made popular by The Game of Thrones…but these days it means something else to me. For me, it represents the near future, a time when those who can tolerate the winter will move from the dry lands of endless sunshine to the places where water is abundant, and the forests don’t yet burn. Winter is why most of these places are empty, the fly over states in the Great Lakes regions, where vast quantities of folk refuse to live. They fled the winters long ago for the sunny desert cities of LA, Vegas, and Phoenix, where we invented great machines and dams to control the rivers so that millions can live year-round in a place where no one SHOULD live year-round. The indigenous peoples of the West knew this, they wintered one place and summered another, never dreaming of forcing nature to allow them to grow into enormous cities that take from nature to live in a place permanently in-spite of nature. I wonder, when the Colorado River dries up, will the people of the West pipe in the water from the lands of snow? Or will they migrate to the Great Lakes instead? Will the people of the snow let either event happen? Development has a way of changing a landscape, robbing the place you call home of it’s very essence, yet people need shelter. How will we manage water and shelter for our nation when our nation can barely manage an election season?
Winter is indeed coming.
The Land of Snow and Lakes
Early in 2021, my father mentioned he and my mother owned in the Upper Peninsula, Michigan. My parents bought 40 acres when I was a baby and he’d recently added a second 40 to his holdings. His intention is to sustainably harvest the original 40 acres and he wondered if I had any interest in helping him as well as maintain the land within the family after he and my mother pass. My first answer was no-we were knee deep trying to figure out how to return to our burnt land in California, how to provide shelter in a place of devastation-I had no reserves left for helping my dad with this project. He could sell it for all I cared.
Per our normal routine at the time, we spent the very next weekend in Bonny Doon in our tiny house on wheels, working the land to prepare it for the two more I’d ordered for my sons. I sat in the mourning chair by the graves of our pets and visited the bees, telling them of our plans for the land that weekend and anything else that had been going on. I’m not sure if I mentioned my dad’s land in the UP, but that evening I was awakened by the same voice that told me to get up the night we evacuated. This same voice is the one who has guided us every step of the way while working with the land since the fires. I’ve come to see it as the voice of the land. Whatever it is, the message was clear:
“You will keep the Michigan land in the family. Tell your father.”
Lying in my comfy bed as I turned this message over and over in my heart, I glanced out the window at the tall redwoods that still remain on the land, their outline visible under the light of the moon. I saw a flash of green forest, waterfalls, and lakes. I saw flowing water, something already lacking in California, and I knew what the message meant. The land in the UP is the land of the future, insurance that my sons and niece will have water when they’re my age, and a place to lay their heads. The family forest is probably the most important thing my parents have to offer us, and my dad needed my help.
I called my dad the next day and told him I was interested. It would take another year before I visited Ironwood, Michigan with him. I needed to get my short-term shelter figured out before I could imagine what the future held for the 80 acres both my parents love so much. This past week, we took Otis, our remaining pet, and headed up to the UP with my parents to meet the land and get to know this place in the world, a place that holds the future of humanity in it’s very hands.
A few weeks ago, I stumbled on an article in Time Magazine, discussing a future migration that now seems inevitable. It was this sentence that really hit me. “ Bear in mind that many places will be uncomfortable if not intolerable by 2050-around the lifespan of most mortgages-we need to start planning where we make our homes now. By 2100 it will be a different planet, so let’s focus on some of the livable options.”
Think about that-if you’re starting a mortgage right now in a place that is already vulnerable to climate change, like the West or the Southeast, you may not even pay off your house before the area is unlivable. Yet all the top ten Covid-migration cities, the places people just outbid one another by hundreds of thousands of dollars to own a home there, are already in a state of climate collapse. Fire, drought, flooding, and hurricanes spell disaster. Worse, you may not be able to insure these properties much longer. What then, should a home buyer do?
According to the article, areas north of the 45th parallel are a good bet. If this is true, then I’m already living too far south in Chicago and the land California. This parallel runs through 11 states in America: Maine, Vermont, New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon. Any states north of this line are considered the best bets for taking out a 30-year mortgage when considering climate change, and all of them, except for Oregon and Washington, have cold and brutal winters.
Winter is coming-for those who want to drink water in fifty years.
They Don’t Want You Here
Governments in many states are already beginning to manipulate a migration. California has been at the forefront of this-we call it anti-development. Every day I read in the San Francisco Chronicle how the homelessness has gotten out of hand in the state, and it has. Tent camps and shanty towns under every underpass is a regular thing, and only growing. Often the articles point to the anti-development tactics that have been used by counties across California to limit the growth of housing. The culprit is often the NIMBY and for good reason-they say every Californian is a Republican when they own a home. One of the most painful aspects of losing our home to wildfire in August of 2020 was coming face to face with this revelation-the county doesn’t want us here. The goal is to create a rebuilding process so expensive and cumbersome, only 1/3 of us will rebuild, and this seems to be the statistic all over the state. Wildfires burning down towns is a thing here, something one can’t really escape unless you live in the cities themselves, and California in part uses these natural disasters as a way of controlling the housing. Make it too difficult and new houses aren’t built. One may wonder why a state would do this, but the writing is on the wall, there isn’t enough water for all of us to be here. There never was. The problem is, this passive aggressive approach to population control has created a society riddled with economic inequality rivaled only by developing nations. California is a place where the median home price is over $1 million and not even the health care workers can afford rent. California may have one of the best public college systems in the nation, but it also hosts more homeless students than any other state. There are more PhD students living in cars here than there are Instagram influencers. Worse, there are no plans to change this. The message has been clear to us as fire survivors-you’re not wanted here. There are 49 other states where you can take your huge insurance payout and get way more for your money. Even our insurance adjuster pointed this out to us. Why not be mortgage free in another state?
Because no one wants to be the one to go. Leaving your community is hard. Leaving your family, friends, and your land is hard. It appears many would rather stay and live in a tent under the bridge, than move. Yet the writing is on the wall-California and much of the West has too many people and by 2100, might not be habitable. This then is the true reason the zoning departments do what they do-there’s enough housing here already when it comes the natural limitations of the land in this age of climate collapse.
But the UPer’s Don’t Want You Either
One of the things I’ve heard a lot when mentioning to my CA friends that I’m considering living back in the Midwest is, “ But then you’d have to live with those people.” This hurts because I come from “those people.” My great-grandparents from both sides settled in Chicago, Michigan, and Indiana. I’m a Midwesterner through and through. Yes, I love California. I came here for the dream, the sunshine, and the gold (in this case Silicon Valley gold). The food is amazing, and I’ve loved being around people who care about the environment and the Earth. Yet California, and the West in general, aren’t the only places where there are good people. To believe otherwise is cruel. There are soil and regenerative agricultural movements all over the Heartland. Kansas, South Dakota, Iowa-farmers everywhere are moved by this new green movement. There are farmer’s markets all over the city of Chicago now and even one in my hometown of Wauconda. The people of the Great Lakes area have a much shorter growing season, but CSAs, free range meat, and buying directly from the ranchers who also “harvest” said meat in humane ways is a regular thing in the heartland. Yoga and chai tea as well, for those who wonder. And of course, they have winter.
My parents’ land in the UP gets 200 inches of fresh powder snow every year. Thanks to Lake Superior, this area is the closest thing to Colorado skiing you can get in the Midwest. There are three ski resorts within 20 minutes from the land. Across the street is ABR, one of the largest Nordic ski trail systems in North America. We met with the owner of ABR, Eric Anderson, and as he described the future of the trail system, one thing became noticeably clear-that while Time Magazine may be pointing a finger in their direction for future development, the UPers (pronounced Yooper) are making plans to set our gazes elsewhere. Much of the land that neighbors our family forest is joining the foundation and allowing trails to be put on their land while a few houses and cabins, many filled with ski guests in the long, dark winters, are built. Another neighbor just put his 100 acres into a land trust. All these actions ensure that developers will not come and devastate these lands again.
A century ago, the UP was clearcut for two main reasons 1) to build Milwaukee and Chicago and 2) to support the iron mines. According to the UP travel website, “Long before the first European explorers, missionaries and immigrants arrived, the Menominee, Dakota and Anishinaabe (Ojibwe/Chippewa) called Michigan’s Upper Peninsula their home at one time or another. They lived a subsistence lifestyle, migrating in small bands from place to place. Throughout the year, they would hunt bears, beaver, deer and moose; harvest wild rice and berries in the summer and fall; trap animals and ice fish in the winter and make maple syrup in the spring. The U.P.’s original residents were also the first metalworkers and miners 7,000 years ago. They hand-dug pits to retrieve the metal that gives the Keweenaw Peninsula its “Copper Country’’ name.”
When iron was discovered by white people, these first peoples were driven out and the forest destroyed. Eventually there were wildfires, but before that terrifying ending, several towns, like Ironwood, were built. Places with art, theaters, restaurants, saloons, and big homes with porches so large you could dance on them. Once the iron was depleted, the monied interests fled and those left behind still live in these now ghost towns. It’s not unlike the Hudson River valley of upstate New York, another area above the 45th parallel. These are places of what I call economic abandonment. Places filled with poverty, empty crumbling homes, boarded up buildings, and forgotten by Americans because without natural resources to exploit, no one wants to live in the snow, and tended since by those who can tolerate the winter. The forests have returned, the water flows clean, and nature is alive. The moment we stepped on my parents’ land, our dog, Otis, began to leap, dancing almost, as he delighted in the smells and sounds of the overgrown forest. I felt peace as I walked through the dappled light shining through the leaves, half expecting to see elves singing softly while making their way through the trees to the Gray Havens of Lake Superior. We spent the autumn equinox meeting this forest and the smell of fallen leaves blanketing the forest floor brought me back to my childhood. I’ve missed autumn so much. I thought of this forest in winter, how can its barren trees tolerate 200 inches of snow? My mind simply couldn’t fathom it. How does anything survive that?
Yet these abandoned lands survived our industry, so I imagine winter is nothing compared to the bulldozer and the furnace of industry. It was our economic abandonment that saved these lands from becoming nothing but a parking lot filled with big box stores. I can see why the people here don’t want it to be developed. Most of the land in the UP is owned by the state or the federal government, or in land trusts and foundations. I too am motivated to do the same with the 80 acres we have been blessed to steward.
Yet I’m torn. My family is ensured a place to live, at least for a century longer, should the ecological collapses continue at the rates we’re witnessing, but what about those whose climates will no longer support them? Is there a way to prepare the land for that eventuality, to provide shelter not just for my family, but others? Most importantly, how can we do this with the least impact on the land? How can we become like the first nation people, who lived in harmony with the tree people before we slashed and burned them?
To own land is a blessing, yet it will also become the greatest of responsibilities for in times of crisis and mass migration, it is the landowners who determine the outcome for all of us-plants, animals, rocks, and soil. We are a part of the tapestry of nature, and it falls to those whose names are on the deeds to figure out the pattern that tapestry is about to take.
I hope I’m up to the task.
Originally published at https://nicolesallakanderson.com on September 27, 2022.