Iron Mine = Genocide. Photo by Callen Harty.
In Wisconsin there has been a big battle over opening up land in the Penokee Hills just a few miles from the Bad River band’s sacred rice beds, and just south of Lake Superior. The state legislature passed a bill that was signed by the governor today that pretty much guts environmental protections in return for the promise of jobs for a few years and lots of profit for the mining company. An old song keeps popping into my head about it. One of my favorite singers, John Prine, wrote a song several years ago about Peabody Coal Company destroying a town in Kentucky called Paradise (yes, the town was called Paradise). I realized that it wouldn’t take much to turn the lyrics into a song about the situation in the Penokees and sure enough most of the song fit northern Wisconsin without having to alter it too much.
Paradise (northern version, with thanks to John Prine)
Note: The Penokees and the propsed mine run through both Iron and Ashland counties, so the chorus can alternate between the two.
When I was a child my family would travel
Up to northern Wisconsin where my parents were born.
And there’s a backwards old town that’s often remembered,
So many times that my memories are worn.
And Daddy won’t you take me back to old Iron County,
Down by the Bad River where Paradise lay.
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking;
The Gogebic iron train has hauled it away.
Well, sometimes we’d travel right down the Bad River
To the abandoned old places of Penokee Hills,
Where the air smelled like rice and we’d shoot with our pistols,
But empty pop bottles was all we would kill.
Then the iron company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tore down the timber and they stripped all the land.
Well, they dug for iron ’til the land was forsaken,
Then they wrote it all down to the progress of man.
When I die let my ashes float down the Bad River,
Let my soul roll on up to Superior land—
I’ll be halfway to Heaven when Paradise greets me
Just five miles away from wherever I am.
About Callen Harty
Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on Amazon.com (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores,
He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History.
He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive.
Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.