Finalist | Terrain.org Fourth Annual Contest in Nonfiction
Air pushes from the mouth of the Henderson Molybdenum Mine like the breath of something sleeping, heavy and stale and subterranean. I stand awkwardly with the rest of the tour group at the edge of the company cafeteria, our mine-issued irrigation boots gritting against the vinyl tile floor, our hard hats and safety glasses reflecting the glint of the overhead fluorescent lights. I am aware of receding space: the windows that transmit the blinding snow-lit mountainside beyond, the hallways that lead off toward the auditorium and history display cases, toward personnel offices, toward the lobby decorated with tropical plants. The hallway before us leads into another place altogether: the mine.
As the tour waits for the signal to proceed, we stand poised between mine and office, aboveground and belowground, ordinary and strange, and the mine’s long breath blows out at us. It presses back my hair and smells like—what? dust and water and rock and something else, something inexplicable and vast. Like a basement, if that basement had 47 miles of unlit passageway. I dream sometimes that the basement of my house opens like this, into the underground, forever.
It’s my first inkling that I might be wrong about mines. I have always thought the choice was simple: either I can believe that they are technological marvels, delivering unto us the fruits of the earth, or I can believe they are ecological violations, proof of how far we’ve gone in the wrong direction. As I puzzle out the layers of that wind, separating cavern from diesel, cave-dwelling bacteria from oil-soaked mud, I glimpse something more, something of complexity and complicity, of opposing elements too tightly interwoven to be easily set apart. Then there’s the raw strangeness of the mine itself, separate from us. I’m brought up short, confused.
The tour guide, rounding us up, adds another complication when she answers a question. “I still can’t believe I get paid to work here,” she says, scraping the vinyl tile with the toe of her boot. She has bound her long red hair up under her hard hat and she leads us to the brass-in station with the lithe, bowlegged swagger of a cowboy. Startled, I glance toward the source of the wind: it’s that good?
We each take a round brass tag from the racks lined up along the entry to the mine. I’ve crashed a tour group from the organization Women in Mining and there are nearly 20 of us, all ages, from undergraduate students to craggy-voiced widows. The wafer-sized tags are taken solemnly. “Got to attach this to my key ring,” says a fellow tourist, an old mining wife from Nevada. “If I put it in my pocket I’m afraid it’ll fall out. They do NOT like it when you lose these.”
The woman giving the tour nods in agreement, and reminds us that if we accidentally carry the dog tags offsite with us, mine operations will have to shut down until they’ve been located, and we’ll get the bill for the search. Then she turns on her heel and leads us into the mine.
We shuffle down the hallway after her, the bubbly young mining engineering students, the hawk-faced industry journalist, the geologist from the state office, the former mine lobbyist, and me. The infiltrator.
I am on this tour of the Henderson Molybdenum Mine because I have a problem with mines. Part of my problem, but a small part, is moral. A bigger part is intellectual: I can’t think about mines without getting a dank, stifled, groping-in-the-dark kind of panic, which is difficult, as I have recently been hired to edit technical papers about mining. And there’s plenty that instills panic in a sentence like “When applied in a mine environment, passive attenuators can potentially reduce the dynamic loading on a ventilation seal and reduce the magnitude of the explosion pressure on the final containment seal” without having an existential crisis every time I sit down at my desk.
Of course I felt like a mole as I rode up to the gate, sandwiched into a car between two large ruddy women in jackets with industry logos. Authorized Personnel Only, said the gate at the base of the spectacular mountain pass, and I had to ask myself: Am I authorized?
Probably not, since my prevailing attitude toward mines has always been that of choice two, above: every mine feels like a violation. I felt like I was crossing enemy lines as we approached the corrupt, capitalist, earth-destroying mine. I took frantic mental notes: innocuous mountain scenery, check. Gate, check. Parking lot, check. Modest cluster of buildings, check. Front office with water cooler, potted plants and recycling bin, check, and did the secretary just say, “Oh, you’re the tour group, let me call Roger”? They must be trying to stun us with banality. After all, this is the largest active molybdenum mine in the world, smaller sister to the Climax Molybdenum Mine, a former Superfund site. Surely there should be more drama here, smoking heaps of rubble, somebody cackling evilly over piles of money. But there isn’t: just the secretary, who ignores us, and then Roger, a tall regretful man with drooping mustaches who tells us to help ourselves to coffee if we need it and then introduces our guide with the long red hair.
We follow the guide’s lilting stride down the hallway into the wind. At the end of the hallway waits the bright yellow mantrip, clanking slightly behind its steel doors. The wind is coming up the shaft, through gaps in the steel framing. The breaks in the human infrastructure let the inside of the mountain show just a little bit. I pause, trying to see. Back at the office, reading about mandoors and shaftmen, I’d thought the echo of 7th century Anglo Saxon quaint, but now that I’m here, I see: there’s a direct link between the bonecages and whaleroads of Beowulf and the vast breathing workplace of the mine. That powerful otherness squats upon my moral doubts, as well as nudging into my complacency at our technological mastery. Something else is at work, here: not human and not not human.
We cram into the mantrip. The women around me are eminently practical; I’m pretty sure that any talk of Beowulf or the mine’s “otherness” would be met with polite derision. Nevertheless, some women drove from Missouri to visit this mine; all of us slogged our way to the meeting place before dawn. Of course it’s a lark, a field trip, a break from office routine. It’s educational, too: so that’s how they do the rock bolts here. But it’s more than that, I am realizing. The mine, even this small and ordinary one, has the electric buzz of a place where humans are in contact with the infinite. I can feel it in the hush that comes over the women, the way their eyes glow and they finger their brass tags: we’re entering a presence. Perhaps it’s that we’re connecting to the ancient human alchemy of metallurgy, that old Bronze Age revelation; maybe it’s Hephaestus himself who breathes through the gaps in the mantrip.
I cross my arms, refusing to be seduced. I’m in the anti-mine camp, I remind myself. Acid lakes. Leaking tailing piles. Mountaintop removal. Groundwater contamination. Strip mining. That thing they do in copper mining where entire mountains are ground up and run through a processor. Even this modest little mine has a massive tailing pile two valleys over, where the chewed-up and acid-soaked innards of the mountain lie piled 120 feet high and rising.
“We possess, finally, the capacity to overmaster nature, to leave an indelible imprint everywhere all at once,” writes Bill McKibben in The End of Nature. “We have ended the thing that has defined nature for us—its separation from human society.” This is the deep unforgiving root of my panic: that mines are the beginning of the end of nature, and that by working for the industry I am actively supporting the destruction of everything I value.
As we descend, rattling through a shaft dug straight into the rock, I watch my hands, the light flickering over the veins and freckles. I’m feeling crowded and jostled, and the mine yawns beneath us like an obligation I can’t duck out of. I try to burrow a little into my fleece coat but the reflective vest I’ve been issued has a stiff collar and smells weird. We’re going into that dark, panicked, groping-in-the-dark place that I have been worrying about. I life-coach myself a little bit. Legs fine, arms fine, body fine, breathing good. We’re all fine. Just another elevator. I picture us, a tiny cartridge boring into the root of the mountain. We’re half a mile in and there’s nothing on any side of us but rock.
After a four-minute, 2,600-foot drop, we step off the swaying mantrip onto the 8100 level, where mud-bottomed corridors stretch off into darkness. The mine is humid and smells of diesel; it is hugely noisy, and my safety glasses filter out what light gets through the dust. I can’t hear, can’t smell, can’t see very well, and for a few dazed minutes I think the mine will overwhelm me. The floor is sopping in places and damp everywhere else. I follow blindly as we squelch and scrunch to our ride.
We climb onto several open-face buggies, the bench seats bolted sideways onto the bed. It’s very Utility R Us: even the padding on the seats is designed not for comfort but to prevent injury. The utter bleakness of the slippery fraying vinyl drops a hole through me. In 1934, the cultural historian Lewis Mumford wrote that mining and metallurgy were the proof of everything wrong with modern capitalism, beginning with the fully employer-controlled environment of the mine, a place of “dogged, unremitting, concentrated work.” The end of nature will look like this, I think: black, diesel-smelling, unremitting work for everyone. Safety measured out in parts per million, and not a drop beyond your share.
Here on the buggies the noise is still intense, but the air is clearer and I get my bearings. I sit facing two mining engineering students from the Missouri University of Science and Technology. They are lithe young women with large eyes and fashionable jeans, and in between regular undergraduate conversation about homework loads and parties, they rattle off long streams of geological facts. I giggle with them as we give up on trying to tighten the mud-stiffened seat belts stretched for the girth of much larger men, but there is an air of excited smugness in their resignation. They’re anticipating a career with a lot of moments like this, moments which will highlight their rarity and improve their job security. For them, mining is just a job, a very good job that will fill their lives with money.
Mining will deliver unto them the fruits of the earth, and they’re fine with that. They seem impervious to doubt; I imagine that if I murmured something vaguely pointed—Isn’t that tailings pile upsetting? Or Glad that wasn’t my family’s old ranch—their answer would come in hard-edged tones, something about need and modern life and you drive a car and go to hospitals too, right? And I would have to concede their point.
Even if I was fierce enough to force the issue, it’s not an argument I have words for. I hold suspicion of mining in my pocket like a hot and vengeful penny, unable to do anything with it. My heart may insist that mining is a violation, but I’m silenced by my habits, which put me in the fruits-of-the-earth camp.
“What do we use it for?” hissed a woman near me as we were waiting to go into the mine.
“Moly’s very soft,” answered another woman, a former mine lobbyist. “Like graphite. And it has a very high melting point. It’s used for alloys.”
One of the invisible but crucial ingredients of the modern world, in other words. Obscure, but try building a functional airplane without it. Or a bicycle. Which brings me to the issue of need, and what mining people say right after they admit, cheerfully, that “mining does have a legacy”: they point out that something like 90 percent of the goods we own contain mined materials, from the zinc in my all-natural sunscreen to the wires connecting the solar panels on my roof to the fusebox in my basement. Humans mine: it’s what we do, just as we make fire and grow food and build shelters.
And you don’t have to be seduced by Hephaestus to understand why. Copper, iron, gypsum, kaolin, lithium: if it can’t be grown, it must be mined, chirps my company’s motto, and it’s a hard point to argue. Likewise, you don’t have to be a rabid environmentalist to understand that this need has irrevocably changed how humans and ecology interact. But there’s this willful blindness on both sides: you can’t take a stance that essentially disapproves of all mining anywhere ever and not acknowledge the contradiction of also preferring to live in a house; likewise, you can’t mutter about the damn environmentalists making it so damn hard to run a damn mine without admitting that even the most careful mining operation is an exercise in busting stuff up. We’re all experts at ignoring difficult truths.
I have trouble imagining what else we can do, though. I suppose there is an ascetic path of total refusal—go live in a mud hut?—but the rest of us need something else. Some way to integrate the destructive with the beautiful.
We barrel along through the corridors. Tunnels branch off to either side, quick flashes of dark or light. This world is built of tunnel, about 15 feet high and ten feet wide, lined with concrete sprayed over five-inch wire mesh—shotcrete—and fastened into place with rock bolts. Rooms go by; some of the side tunnels are warehouses (WATER TRK, say red letters spray-painted on the concrete wall. ELECTRICAL WAREHOUSE. NO PARKING.) This world has the virtue of simplicity. You go forward or you go backward; you move within a plane or you go up a level and move within another plane. I begin to sense something of the mine’s appeal: it is so supremely logical. It is also removed; the world’s strife and cares feel very far away. It’s easy to ignore the ramifications of the tailings pile, the glory hole, the fact that someday we’ll have the pile and the hole and nothing else.
The blindness that surrounds mining is somehow familiar. Hera booted the infant Hephaestus off Olympus because he was “weakly among all the blessed gods and shriveled of foot.” He was the ugly god, stuck all day in his sweaty workshop underground, while his comely siblings cavorted over the rest of the earth—those gods and goddesses of the moon, the glades, the rivers, the sea, the arts of music and love and war. His lameness has been attributed to a common ailment of prehistoric blacksmiths resulting from the use of arsenic alloys—but here, in the mine, I think that the Greeks were onto something more. Maybe they were exploring something about technology in general: how metallurgy—the whole burrito of technological advancement—was double-sided. It made life better, and it made life ugly. Hephaestus may have been able to whip up some magical armor or a fleet of golden robots, but when he went up to Olympus the other gods laughed at him.
These days, exploring what mining means is mostly left to those who do it. The dual destructive/constructive nature of mining is a dim battlefield on which committed environmentalists, politicians, and mining spokesmen ride forth over questions such as whether 10 mg/L or 50 mg/L of sulfate is acceptable in water downstream of iron ore stockpiles. These questions are important and deserve our attention. They do not, however, show us how to live.
Our buggy shrieks to a stop in the middle of a corridor, where a hole in the shotcrete ceiling has let rocks and dirt slide down along the wall. For a few moments after the engine cuts off there is silence, and then an LHD (load haul dump) truck comes into view, filling the tunnel.
The driver stops, gets out, turns off his engine, and the drift is quiet again. He turns on a hose hooked to the wall to spray down the rocks pouring from the ceiling. We’re in the haul drift; above us is a blast chamber, where the rock is broken apart with lines of dynamite and funneled down through holes like this one. Here it will be scooped up, or mucked, and dumped through grates to trucks waiting on the level below.
As he sprays he talks, watching his hands work. He has the small, neat build of a bureaucrat or a professor, but his hands and coveralls are smudged. He seems tired or exasperated—by his job, by the crowd of women watching him, by his daily routine, by this break in his routine. “I’ve been working down here for 35 years,” he says. He gives the nozzle a final, efficient tug and hooks the hose back in its place. “And they still won’t let me retire.”
He scans the crowd and spots me at once, his eyes hardening. These mine guys always know I’m not one of them, no matter how carefully I dress myself in the logos and the colors of the industry. For a moment I think he’s going to say something, but then he just sighs and climbs back into the cab of the machine. I sidestep awkwardly, wanting to protest my position: I appreciate your work, I really do. I just want to make sure we’ll have something left.
The LHD roars to life and begins to muck the ore: it scoops a big shovelful of rock, backs up, straightens, and drives to an iron grate ten feet away. It dumps the ore down. Backs up, scoops, drives up, dumps. All shift long, plowing the underground’s eternal night.
This is what Mumford was talking about. It’s better than it was in 1934: the labor that used to break men’s bodies has been mechanized and protected with air filters, communication systems, drowsiness sensors, and ear plugs. More than 1,500 men used to die every year in U.S. mines; in 2012, that number was 36. But the work is still achingly dull. This isn’t Hephaestus turning out clever inventions. This is Hercules at the Augean stables.
Or worse: this is work without any metaphor to illuminate it. Maybe this is what happens when we refuse to engage with the ugliness of technology, either because we’re too proud of the way it works or we want to emphasize the mess we are creating. McKibben’s book is one long cry against the horror of a world without nature: a future as bleak as the buggy seats. I mostly believe he’s right. But his vision abandons us to our fate.
As I clamber back onto my place in the buggy—it’s a big step, like climbing into the cab of a semi truck—my ear plugs start to slip out and my helmet pushes my safety glasses down the bridge of my nose. I feel as ridiculous as a penguin. In one pocket I’ve still got my hot little nugget of anger, but I’m not willing to give the world over to McKibben’s searing view, either. I want a world in which I can have both, mining and ecology: it doesn’t have to be a perfect world. It doesn’t have to be all pristine vistas and natural-fiber furniture. But it needs to make sense on a fundamental level and it needs to take my entire self into account: imagination, heart, and brain.
Back in the buggies we are whisked down a level, bumpily and through recurrent channels of wind, to the crusher. If the LHD guy was exhibit A for the anti-mine camp, the driver of our buggy is specimen for the defense exhibit B. He’s young and cocky. Mostly all I can see is the back of his hardhat, where a sharp-trimmed fringe of hair pokes against his shirt collar, but the way he revs the accelerator, speeding along the passages with breezy abandon, or pops the brake so fast it screeches—these reveal something of what’s lacking in our cultural grasp of mining. There’s the exhilaration of driving a massive, 650-ton haul truck, the macho camaraderie of the underground, the sustaining superstitions. There’s the roar of the idle, the power, the rumble; and then beyond everything there’s the strange over-human darkness, the call of the vast labyrinthine structure surrounding us, always mysterious and uncontrollable.
We’ve been locked in the Mumford view since before Mumford was born: mining is bad for the workers and worse for the land and the only reason we do it is because our capitalist overlords compel us to. Think of mine literature and what comes to mind? Oppressed peasants and cardboard capitalists. Germinal. King Coal. How Green was My Valley. None of these investigate the complex human dynamics of the modern mine workplace, let alone provide archetypes that explain why humans mine and what our need is doing to us as a species.
L]ater I will find something of the complexity I crave in the books of environmental historians. “In the mine,” writes Tim LeCain in Mass Destruction, his history of American copper mining, “the factory was embodied in nature, the natural and technological surrounded and enmeshed the human, and the human worked in a hybrid world where technology and nature were inextricably fused.” Mines occur, he argues, in natural formations acted upon by sporadic natural forces, including weather, rainfall, and plate tectonics. In order to design a mine, an engineer needs to be well versed in geology, ecology, environmental chemistry, and other natural processes, making a mine less a simple hole and more of a living animal that we have harnessed but not tamed. A mine is a form of hybrid ecosystem, he argues. It’s a term that was first coined to describe the Columbia River’s intermingled system of dams, hydroelectric plants, salmon runs, and human communities; it’s since been used for fir plantations, giant 19th century cattle ranches, and genetically engineered crops.
Hybrid ecosystem. It makes me imagine an earth in which even the remotest corners of Antarctica crackle with a bionic hookup to the human mothership—horrifying, right? Just what McKibben warned about. And yet I find it thrilling too, this vision of the future as something other than a blackened wasteland. More than anything else I’ve read or heard about mines, the hybrid ecosystem idea seems to encompass this sense of Grendel and the not not human I felt when I first disembarked the mantrip. It won’t help my panic much, but at least it engages what I see and what I fear in a way that the downtrodden working class of Zola and Mumford do not.
What I really want is Hephaestus. He might be divine, but he can’t be called a celebration of metallurgy with his bum leg and cruel tricks and gifts that bring everlasting grief. He’s not the rational hero of a modern standard of living, the god mine company PR teams might introduce in a slick campaign. He’s generous and spiteful, irritating and sympathetic, a full-color portrait of the ambivalence the Greeks had toward the technology that was changing their world.
The crusher sits in the middle of a room about as wide and tall as a three-story house. This is where the ore, bombed and drained and pulled from the bottom of the stope, gets chewed into a dry mash to be sent by conveyor belt to the mill on the other side of the pass.
The crusher itself is an enormous square pendulum the size of a Geo Metro. It swings at the bottom of a great square funnel, propelled into motion by a hydraulic arm that looks like a Brodingnagian version of equipment you might find at the dentist’s office. A house on stilts looks down on the crusher through a bank of eight-foot windows.
We disembark the buggies and our feet sink softly into the dust that coats the entire cavern. It is everywhere, over an inch thick, along the crusher arm, lining every ledge and cranny of the observation house, piled on the bolt heads on the stairs leading up to the house door. It feels like the dust of centuries.
Inside the observation house, the dust subsides to an omnipresent grit that grates against our teeth (and later shows itself as a thin and greasy layer that will not wash off my skin for days). We crowd in between filing cabinets and an enormous desk, ducking so that the operator can see the black-and white security monitors hung on the far wall or squeezing to one side so that he can see the trucks pulling up to the crusher. The operator is the only one with a chair: he stretches out, one foot propped on the trash can below the desk, his attention split among the five computers, the security monitors, the three telephones, a two-way radio, and a bank of switches in red, green, and yellow.
“So this is the brains of the operation,” says someone on the tour, and the man at the desk shrugs affably. He elaborates: from this room he can control the mine’s entrances and exits, the ventilation fans, lighting, water, conveyor belts, and a host of other functions. He puts his feet up on the trash can and jokes about the snooze position and seems both impressed and unimpressed with his power, but the overwhelming take home of the control room is boredom. There are no personal items, notes, pens, or material of any kind, save a grimy purple water bottle. No food, no drink beyond the water. There’s a Boy Scout readiness here, but no curiosity. The man doesn’t notice me in my infiltrator boots.
As we shuffle around in the control room, jockeying for positions along the window, a string of loaded dump trucks pulls through. One after another the trucks roar up to the crusher’s edge, unload a stream of stones and silt, and drive on. They drive up fast, brake, upend sideways, right themselves, and lunge forward, their seeming eagerness making the ground shake.
The loads pour forth like water over a falls, headlong, the first rocks striking sparks against the steel clapper. The sparks are soon drowned in the pour of dirt and dust, and in the spray of dust-controlling water from the nozzles below the windows. All loads, no matter how huge their boulders, work through within a minute or two, broken down to a docile stream of crush. From here the mash will be pulled 15 miles on the belt to the processing plant near the Colorado River, where it will be steeped in acid and then pummeled and stirred until the rock gives up its ore.
It’s the labor of Hercules ameliorated by the invention of Hephaestus. Mumford’s still right – the mine is the foundation of modern capitalism. But both the mine and the world it serves have changed. We’re no longer an agrarian society making a painful transition to industrialism, surrounded by vast tracks of a conquest-emptied nature in which to play out our fantasies of domination or escape. We’re a hot and crowded planet making a transition into a world we can’t really imagine. I can see that we are moving from a clanging industrial culture to a clicking technological one, but at our core we still have this brutal blasting and crushing—and also, apparently, boredom. We’re still a part of nature, as we always have been. But that nature is different than it was.
Eventually we straighten up and bring our eyes back to ourselves; we tramp back across the endless dust. The buggies leave the haul drift and enter a long, gently inclining tunnel. Our drivers barrel through this tunnel at 30, 40, 50 miles an hour; we pass through dust and drips, diesel and emptiness, warehouse tunnels and caged-off refuges, and mile after mile of nothing.
We drive for 40 minutes or more. The acceleration yanks at the lower vertebrae of our backs, and we all brace ourselves carefully against the steel edges of the buggy, trying not to lean against the edges, so that we don’t bash our lips or chins as we rocket over bumps. We doze, cautiously. We wince. It is mostly dark. I shift from one uncomfortable position to another, impatient to be done.
Just when I think I can’t stand another minute on the speeding buggies, we screech to a halt in front of the yellow mantrip. We stumble in, hurky-berky up, and emerge blinking into the bright light of the company cafeteria. “It was so damn frigging cold in there,” complains the old miner’s wife as we brass out. Other women start reaching for their cigarettes or stretching like they’ve been sitting in a movie theatre. I peel back my backpack to get a granola bar and thank the woman who invited me. In truth, though, I am a little stunned. The return to the surface seems too easy, and I am still trying to process what we’ve seen.
I look out to the tops of the mountains as we emerge into the blinding winter afternoon. I take in big gulps of the cold clean air and watch a Stellar’s jay wing across the open expanse of snow. For the Greeks, Hephaestus brought humans opportunity and misery. My mind is not so binary; I see snow blown off a peak, a stream of glitter against the blue, and I want to believe that we can have both, wilderness and cars, the world that lets our soul breathe and the one that is mechanized and productive. The Greeks will tell me we cannot, not really, not the way I want it: beauty comes with sorrow, not efficiency. I stand very still, trying to hear the two things coexisting: the wind and the weather eating away at the mountains above, the LHDs gnawing away at them below. I can’t; all I can hear is the wind, and far off in the mountains the buzz of a snowmobile. It occurs to me that I’m the one who’s balanced, between the world that was and the one to come. I have a moment of vertigo. Then my companion comes out and we get in the car to go home.
Homeric Hymn 3 to Pythian Apollo 310 ff (trans. Evelyn-White).
Emily Wortman-Wunder lives and works in suburban Denver, where she writes about science, nature, myth, and the unexpected ways they interconnect. Her writing has appeared in High Country News, Seed Science Magazine, West Branch, Colorado Review, and many other publications.