Sunday, January 06, 2013 By Aaron Brown
By Aaron J. Brown
My hands burn on the cold steel ladder of the 6785 hopper car, a steaming metal ox tethered to Canadian National's 10:30 train to Duluth. The rattle-clack of the winter rails drown out the industrial hum of the diesel engine sixty cars up; altogether a mechanized din groans across the frozen tamarack swamp of the Sax-Zim bog. My top coat flaps in the sharp wind. I am not dressed for this task.
I stare through the thin band above the cloud of powdered snow billowing from the rails, below the thick vapor stacking off the fresh load of Mesabi taconite pellets. I am looking for a pine marten. He waits for me, on order from the only human who can command pine martens, skunks, raccoons, flying squirrels and rabbits to do her bidding: a woman who dates bears, not exclusively, but enough to to own the reputation and all the beehives and rancid jelly she needs. She is the Oracle of the Bog and I make my annual sojourn to her hut, this year by rail.
The pine marten ambles through the bush as the engine passes, but quickly dons a red scarf as the engineer trundles out of sight. This fits the description texted to me by the Oracle: “Lk 4 pmart in rd scrf.” I leap from the car, rolling hard on the shoulders of marbled taconite, down to the dry tan grass cushion of the marsh. The pine marten stares at me quietly for a moment, standing erect, scarf blowing in the wind. When I am composed, he sets out for the bog. I follow.
The walk is long, notable mostly for the temperature (it is 10 below, with strong zephyr head winds). The pine marten remains on his back feet the entire time, growling “Auld Lange Syne” in guttural melody. When we arrive at the sod hut of the Oracle, he removes his scarf, waves toward the window, and scampers back into the woods, a beast once again.
Inside, the Oracle pours hot swamp water into a cup I will not touch as I hear of the coming year. First, she lists headlines:
As the Oracle finishes the headlines, she makes a motion to a flock of fluttering juncos, who team lift a manila envelope over to her. Here, she says, is the rest:
- “‘Fiscal Cliff’ crisis solved at bar by ‘Fiscal Cliff Claven’”
- “100-year anniversary of WWI celebrated with ‘throwback’ WWIII”
- “Dylan plans concert in Hibbing: ‘Not that Dylan,’ says promoter”
- “Empty retail space on Iron Range filled with gradual admission of regret”
- “Mining supporters, foes clash in epic ski battle. Plucky teenager saves youth center.”
- “Gov. Mark Dayton announces new bionic spine, runs for re-election as Mark Dayton 3000.”
- “Legislature balances budget by raising taxes on Facebook pictures of food.”
“But, Oracle?” I blurt. “What of the year itself? Shall we prosper?”
- Opposition to new mining technologies fade as Apple announces new “one-click” extraction process. Commodity traders camp outside new Hoyt Lakes Apple Store to buy long tons of copper, nickel and cadmium. Other companies also sell these products, but the sleek, stylish rail cars make all the difference.
- The next YouTube sensation will emerge from the Range as a fully-loaded 238-ton mining truck runs down Justin Bieber.
- A structure on the edge of an Iron Range town will be built in the shape of a rectangle and will be finished with vinyl siding. Inside there will be prints of deer art on the walls and the floors will echo when people walk on them. The large, flat lawn outside will be trimmed by a double-wide mower operated by a teenager on some kind of work release. There will be an access road out front named after a tree or perhaps a rock. There will be a 2006 Ford F-150, a 2002 Chevy Impala, and a 2008 Dodge Caravan parked out front. You will see a guy go in this building one time. He will be wearing a plaid shirt and looking down at the sidewalk so that he looks kind of jowly and you can’t quite see who it is. He will not have shaved that day. You don’t quite know what they do in there and whatever it is will close in 2018.
The Oracle of the Sax-Zim Bog forms a thin smile at corners of her lips. “2013 rhymes with “keen.” But it also rhymes with “mean.” The answer, my friend, lies somewhere in between.”
Aaron J. Brown is an author and community college instructor from the Iron Range. He writes MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts 91.7 KAXE's Great Northern Radio Show on public stations.