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Book review of 'Discovering the Penokees'

Visit the Penokees before they are obiterated by mining
Visit the Penokees before they are obiterated by mining
Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images

Discovering the Penokees by Joel Austin


Discovering the Penokees by Joel Austin, Sweetwater Visions, 160 pages.

Joel Austin was born in Wisconsin, but he had never heard of the Penokees until he moved to Ashland. This remote Wisconsin wild land needs to be known; it needs friends. Wilderness is scarce, and when some see it, they see resource to be exploited. Others, like Austin, consider the pristine remnants of a 1.8 billion year old mountain range and perceive the cycle that sustains us all. The Penokees are a pristine source of water— so pure that a few miles downstream, on the shores of Lake Superior, it feeds the largest natural wild rice beds in the Great Lakes and the 16,000 acre Kakagon/Bad River Sloughs. This water is rated as some of the purest water on the planet. Seventy-one miles of rivers and streams flow through intact biotas that sustain a lavish array of flora and fauna

In 120 images, Austin seeks to woo the reader with images of strikingly lush landscapes in every season. View photo essays that explore rushing waters, waterfalls, Indian pipes, sunrises, rainstorms and vistas of scarlet autumn trees. You will want to visit this beautiful place, but you’d better plan your trip now.

In simple terms, Austin explains what could be lost and how little will be gained if the proposed taconite mine, the biggest open-pit mine in the world, is realized. Like any good persuader he uses logic—the environmental track record of taconite mining is that it always (100% of the time) causes environmental devastation. No landscape has ever survived this type of mining without poisoning water sources, strangling streams that feed wetlands, and a spiraling an array of catastrophic events. Go looking for an example of responsible, safe open-pit mining, and you will never find it. It doesn’t exist.

More than a book of photographs, Discovering the Penokees, is a collection of voices. Other voices join Austin’s with inclusions of short essays. Economic consultants show that money made from mining jobs creates a short-term economy for a few people, but the community always loses in the long-run. Communities are better served by more sustainable economic plans. Native elders speak to the connection to their source and the sure ruination of everyone’s cradle.

“You have to see life from the eyes of a Sturgeon. Rivers and streams are the lifeblood of the earth” –Mike Wiggans Jr. Tribal Chairman of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Ojibwe.

Austin’s mom provides a brief bio of the Author, revealing that his talents and interests go beyond photography: he studied limnology and fisheries at Steven’s Point. He’s a survivor. At one time, he was diagnosed with a tumor on his brainstem. His prognosis was guarded, but he acquired a miracle.

When reading Austin’s and the other concerned Wisconsinites’ thoughtful and heartfelt pleas for the Penokees, it’s easy to be hopeful and recall the words of Margaret Meet:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

But Austin published this book to increase awareness of all that is slated to be lost. The book isn’t slick. It has a homemade feel to it. The messages aren’t literature, but they do offer very accessible and credible information. Why increase awareness? It’s a call for more voices, more awareness, more outrage, and more love for the Penokees and everyone that might know them for generations to come. Without a resounding upswell of support to protect the Penokees, Austin’s book could become an elegy for a lost wilderness. But then, maybe Austin and his friends can conjure another miracle.

Amy Lou Jenkins is the award-winning author of Every Natural Fact: Five Seasons of Open-Air Parenting. Contact her at if you have a book for consideration to be reviewed. This review first appeared in the Sierra Club's Muir View.