Of Woods And Words: Gold Diggers

Sapphire Engagement Ring.jpg
Sapphire Engagement Ring.jpg

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You can call me a gold digger, but a little bit of my heart sank when I heard that Prince William finally popped the question to Kate Middleton this past week. You can say what you will about society’s strange relationship with British royalty, but I think pretty much every girl born in the 1980s at one point fostered the delusional hope that she could possibly be the Queen of England, just maybe. I kissed those princess dreams good-bye a long time ago, but I’d be lying if I said the green-eyed beast didn’t make a brief visit when I saw the ginormous sapphire wreathed in diamonds on Miss Middleton’s ring finger.
 
The pursuit of sparkly things has been on my mind lately.
 
A couple weeks back I hiked the Centennial Trail for the third time this season. The U.S. Forest Service established this new hiking trail last year, which makes a three-mile loop near the historic site of the old Paulson Mine on the upper Gunflint Trail. At several points along the trail, you can look into some of the test shafts where miners dug for iron ore before the financial panic of 1893 brought the operation to a screeching halt. The Paulson Mine is now hypothesized by many to have been nothing more than a scam. Even if that’s so, it was a scam only because there were enough people who wanted to believe there was mineral wealth in the Gunflint Trail region that they were willing to back the operation.
 
There’s a place where the trail takes a drastic tip down a cliff, through a gully, and back up another cliff. This is where the railroad trestle stood so the Port Arthur, Duluth, and Western Railroad could transport loads of ore out of the mine. When I stand in the gully, I can almost here the scream of a train passing over my head, squealing against the steel rail and carrying away the area’s dreams of mineral riches, at least for the time.
 
Because the Paulson Mine may have failed, but people remain convinced, even to this day, that some great yet untapped mineral wealth lies in the depths of Cook County. This past week I had a chance to listen to an interview with the late Russell Blankenburg. Not only was Russell a major entrepreneur along the Gunflint Trail who started multiple businesses and sold numerous residents property in the area, he also prospected a bit as a hobby. At one point, Russell was among many Gunflint Trail residents who claimed to have found a gold vein among the upper Gunflint’s granite hills. 
 
In the interview I heard, Russell admitted that the gold was too low grade to bother mining it. But a geologist had done studies on the iron ore in the region and had determined that the land contained a high amount of cobalt. Most cobalt was imported from central Africa when the interview was recorded in 1979, and at that time cobalt prices were rising due to conflict in the Congo. Russell speaks about Cook County’s mining prospects with a passion and it is clear that he truly hoped a mining operation would bring wealth to the county. But it never did.
 
All that sparkles is not gold. And Cook County’s mineral wealth may be a half truth distorted by more than a century of time into a bit of a fairy tale. But we seem chronically drawn to things that sparkle and glint and which seems to offer a life larger than the one we currently live.
 
Why do we think our lives would be better if we just married a prince and got to drape ourselves in crown jewels? What do we think mineral wealth beneath our feet would really bring us? Early prospectors, so intent on what might lie in the ground below, overlooked the lakes and woods right in front of them that would really be the region’s economic boon. And I have to admit, any more, being a princess sounds like a lot of really uncomfortable outfits and not a whole lot of privacy.
 
With it being Thanksgiving, it seems like a good time to pause in our pursuit of all things sparkly. Time to stop pretending life would be so much greater if we had some diamonds or sapphires or iron ore. Now is the time to be happy for food on the table and happiness in our homes. Now is the time to think about what we are thankful for in our lives just as they are.
 

Airdate: November 24, 2010 

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