It is a dead place, boned with black, sentinel tree trunks, veined with unspeakably polluted water and laid bare under a paste-white sky. There is no sense of space or time, only pure, absolute quiet.
This is one of my favorite images, called "Uranium Tailings No. 12." It was taken at Ontario's Elliot Lake in 1995, part of photographer Edward Burtynsky's troubling series documenting the ravages of mining. The most disturbing part of the work is the beauty apparent in all that ugliness. The molten orange of water tainted by nickel tailings, the taupe and gray shades of soil—smooth and tender-looking as skin—wept clean of living mess.
It's an aesthetic paradox evoked by many industrial castoffs on wide-open land. The kelly-green pool of copper-laced water that lingers at the bottom of the Santa Rita Pit near Silver City, N.M. The startling colors in the salt ponds on the edge of Utah's Great Salt Lake. The elaborate whorls of road that lace Wyoming's gas patches. I thought of this seeming contradiction as I stood on the viewing deck overlooking the deep-blue water that now fills the notorious Berkeley Pit, a defunct copper strip mine on the edge of Butte.
The billions of gallons cradled here are highly acidic and thick with heavy metal pollution. In 1995, this toxic soup killed 342 migrating snow geese that took shelter upon it in a storm. Should the water top a certain level, it could begin spilling its poison into local groundwater and ultimately the Clark Fork River. That possibility has caused enough alarm that the mining companies responsible have installed a treatment plant to divert some of the inflowing water and clean it up. And yet, throughout all this, the Berkeley Pit has managed to nourish a weird ecosystem all its own.
As Jason Zasky reported in November for the intriguingly named Failure Magazine, it is "a rich source of unusual extremophilic microorganisms ... fungi, algae, protozoans and bacteria, many of which have shown great promise as producers of potential anti-cancer agents and anti-inflammatories."
The dead geese even added their own germ to the mix. It's an unusually hardy yeast—typically found only in the rectum of a goose—that can pull a lot of the heavy metals right out of the water. That means it could eventually be used to aid in toxic waste cleanup or secondary ore recovery (essentially, re-mining). "We are very grateful to the snow geese," bioprospector and researcher Andrea Stierles told Zasky.
Such resilience is not limited to the microbial world. A dreadlocked stray dog named The Auditor managed to eke out a solitary living on the Berkeley Pit Superfund Site from the late '80s to the early aughts, occasionally begging handouts from miners. Even the surrounding communities have managed to squeeze positive and lively things out of the dreadful situation, from creating and performing a Cool Water Hula to raise awareness about Butte's pollution in a humorous and accessible way to constructing a new economy around the money coming in to heal this blasted ground.
This may be why places like the Berkeley Pit are magnetic. These landscapes aren't dead; they are in dramatic flux, the kind that not only destroys life but also shapes it and creates it anew.
On Earth, at least, no death is absolute, not yet. No place can be wiped clean of all life or of hope. Continents rearrange. Oceans become deserts. Species come and go through the broad sweep of geologic time. But matter is conserved—some atoms that once formed the living scaffold of one thing go into building another in the weird, biological alchemy that has brought us, ultimately, from single-celled organisms to complex beings.
This argument in no way justifies the human destruction of our natural environment. I offer it to seed the hope that, despite our greatest excesses, we will never be powerful enough to break the world. It always will be powerful enough to break us.
Sarah Gilman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org), where she is the associate editor.