Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Mine-Affected World

Photo: an abandoned mine near Independence, California

I apologize for the title pun, but it seemed destined after yesterday’s post. The topic of mining has fascinated me ever since I was a child, when I read Enid Blyton’s adventure novels—many of which took place in the mining regions of Great Britain. Children in these stories found themselves trapped in smugglers’ caves and abandoned mines (most of which contained stores of tinned food, providing the kids with a ready source of nourishment during their adventures). Later, Daphne du Maurier’s novels, set mainly in Cornwall and Devon, often used the mining tradition as a backdrop. Still later, when I began to study the development of technology after the Industrial Revolution, mining kept reappearing as a major theme—one of the unfortunate, but necessary, byproducts of the human “need” for more (and more complex) sources of energy. Even my studies of William Morris touched on the mining industry, since it was his father’s shares in the Devon Great Consols Copper Mine that “earned” the income that allowed him to pursue his interests.

As a child, growing up in Japan and Taiwan, the smell of coal (the primary source of heat and cooking fuel in many of the houses we lived in) burning in the grate made me feel comfortable; it meant warmth. The first coal fire was a seasonal beacon, and the shiny bits in the scuttle next to the pot-bellied stove were fascinating to a five-year old. That stove was the single source of heat in our first house in rural Japan; the goldfish bowl was often placed nearby during the winter—until one night the fire went out, and the goldfish froze.

Years later, in a philosophy of science course, I was introduced to Susan Griffin’s poetic exploration of the connection between Woman And Nature, in which—among many other such meditations—she considers how men have perceived the earth through time: there for the taking, conveniently stratified, so that minerals can be extracted for use in machines.

Perhaps my interest in mines is congenital. My ancestors first moved to the Owens River Valley in California to mine silver; Uhlmeyer Spring, near Big Pine, marks the spot where my grandfather’s uncle washed the ore he took out of the mountain behind the spring. Owens Lake, because of its location near the end of a long Pleistocene drainage system, contains myriad metals and chemicals, and steamboats once plied the lake servicing the mining town of Keeler. My father, as a young man, worked at the Pittsburgh Plate Glass plant on the western side of the lake, helping to harvest potash out of the drying lake. The Inyos, forming the eastern ridge of the basin/range complex that includes the Owens valley and the eastern Sierra Nevada, are studded with abandoned mines. Once, in my teens, I spent a year living with my grandmother, and I remember scaring the living bejeeziz out of her when I came home covered in powdered Dolomite after having spent the afternoon sliding down piles of it outside a mine near Keeler. I looked like somebody’s ghost (not Vonnegut’s, though; he was very much alive and influencing my sense of humor at the time). A recent blog in Mental Floss notes that there are about 40,000 abandoned mines in California alone, several of which are visible from the highway that bisects the valley. Mining was a significant factor in the building of California, and a major constituent of the economy for about a hundred years.

Only recently I came across Wallace Stegner’s novel, Angle of Repose, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in 1972, and which generated a measure of controversy because it was based on the letters of Mary Hallock Foote. She was the wife of Arthur deWindt Foote, who managed the North Star Mine near Grass Valley, California, at the turn of the nineteenth century, and she made a small career for herself writing and illustrating articles and novels that recounted the life of a miner’s wife during the period. Stegner’s novel uses Foote’s letters, often intact, as the basis for his novel, and they’re frequently riveting. She had met many of the great personalities involved in the world of mining geology, including Clarence King, and her letters about these encounters make the “moment” truly immediate. [One of her articles for Scribners, “A California Mining Camp,” and other works are available through Prof. Donna Campbell’s pages at Washington State University.] Living among mines and miners seems to be a character-building experience second to none.

The trouble is, of course, the cost. As the events at Utah’s Crandall Canyon Mine during the last two weeks illustrate, this is a dangerous business, and potentially the source of real tragedy, in the Greek sense. It’s even more hazardous in this case, as Kirk Johnson notes in his article for the New York Times on Thursday, because of the method used to extract the coal from this particular mine: “there is little doubt, mine experts said, that retreat mining at extreme depth in Utah, where mine-produced tremors are common, creates a tapestry of forces that adds to mining’s inherent hazards.” And the results are tragic, not just because people have died (three rescuers so far, and any hope for the original six trapped miners has all but evaporated)—tragedy wasn't about ordinary people—but because the protagonist of the story is Big Energy and because of the tragic flaw that’s becoming increasingly apparent in human interaction with nature: the overweening arrogance and faulty sense of superior wisdom the Greeks called hubris.

We think we can control nature, use it however we want, and somehow come out ahead. Never mind that deep mining causes lung problems, that jobs disappear when veins are tapped out, and that miners are rarely paid wages that actually compensate them for the dangers they face, or that another technique (strip mining) leaves the landscape barren and polluted. Never mind that the coal extracted from these mines is used in power plants that spew particulates into an atmosphere already so burdened with greenhouse gasses that we’re probably dooming our grandchildren to lives dominated by cancer and lung disease (not to mention irreversible climate change and its consequences). We think (using those big brains) we’re in control. And then the god of the mountain burps, and men with families lose their lives, and towns with few other sources of income lose their economic base.

The only real solution is to lessen our dependence on energy, period. But we’re addicted to the stuff. One wag in the local newspaper (sorry, it was several days ago, and I forgot whose column) commented that we were sacrificing human lives so as not to annoy a few caribou—as if drilling in the Arctic were really going to solve anything. And few of us seem to be getting the message that all of these energy sources we pull out of the earth are finite, and extremely difficult to access. We’re clearly not smart enough (or at least we lack the imagination and political will) to create safe, non-polluting technologies to feed our energy “needs.” So maybe what we really need to do is to carefully assess how much energy is actually necessary, and to think about how to reduce our dependence not just on coal or oil or natural gas, but on what we do with all the energy itself.

Walk more, eat less, grow some of our own food, eat local produce, work when it’s light, sleep when its dark, limit our use of electronic devices, talk, learn, understand.

When William Morris's "Guest" returns to Hammersmith after his adventure upstream in News From Nowhere, rather than being discouraged by the fact that his “epoch of rest” has been a dream, he muses that “if others can see it as I have seen it, then it may be called a vision rather than a dream.” The true visionaries today will have to be those who can see beyond what simply is. Just because we live the way we do doesn’t mean we can’t live differently.

So now I’m going to turn off the computer, go out into the accidental garden, and check on my tomatoes.

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