Finalist : Terrain.org 5th Annual Nonfiction Contest
Tell her to make me a cambric shirt (On the side of a hill in the deep forest green).
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme (Tracing a sparrow on snow-crested ground).
Without no seams nor needlework (Blankets and bedclothes the child of the mountain).
Then she’ll be a true love of mine (Sleeps unaware of the clarion call).
Scarborough Fair Canticle,
After miners removed over a billion tons of material from the earth, Butte, Montana was left with the toxic Berkeley Pit as the city’s centerpiece, a giant, open wound in the earth, its mine drainage lake so acidic with poisons that 342 snow geese, pausing in their 1995 winter migration, drank and died. The water ate through their throats and internal organs.
The closest I’ve been to that water is the safe side of a chain-link fence set high above the pit. Still, there was a rancid wind rattling the chains and a tang on my tongue like old pennies, what they say you taste when you’re very ill or dying.
A billion tons of material. What would you sew with a billion tons of material? Blankets for every shivering child on the planet? A global-sized parachute? A bandage?
A healing wound: growth of new blood vessels, rearrangement of the molecules around cells, genetic programming that changes how cells attach to each other. This is also how cancerous tumors grow and spread.
A chronic wound: one that hasn’t healed in six weeks.
The Berkeley Pit is a mile wide, a mile and a half long, 1,200 feet deep, and festering with 40 billion gallons of poison water. From certain angles, on still days when the surrounding mountains reflect on a tranquil surface, it is a lake, picturesque. But suppurating. Weeping. An ulcer on the earth.
Arsenic, Cadmium, Copper, and Zinc. (Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme.)
But also Mercury and Lead, which spoils the rhythm of the refrain.
Samples from Napoleon Bonaparte’s hair indicate high levels of arsenic throughout his life, 13 times the usual amount. Simon Bolivar likely died from chronic arsenic poisoning due to environmental factors. The flaking arsenic paint in Clare Booth Luce’s bedroom is the suspect behind her physical deterioration and death. Arsenic is a poison that doesn’t require a plotting villain.
Cadmium is a “minor metallic element.” But it’s got its own (outdated) website and its own association with an international conference in China. Artists know it as the color intensifier for warm colors: cadmium red and cadmium yellow. It is a naturally occurring element found in water and earth and especially near its close relative, zinc. Long-term cadmium exposure is harmful to kidneys and lungs.
From 1787 to 1837, pennies were made of pure copper. Blood contains copper. Copper in the blood is essential, a component in enzymes for producing energy. Mammals are generally highly efficient at processing excess copper in their diet, and the EPA finds no evidence of human cancer traced to this element, as parents with penny-swallowing toddlers are relieved to learn. Those pennies aren’t even copper anyway. Starting in 1982, when the price of copper needed to make one cent exceeded one cent, pennies were made of copper-plated zinc.
Zinc. The white noses of lifeguards. Lozenges for fighting tiny, potent cold viruses. The nickels in my coin purse, which I’ve known for some time, are 1) not made of nickel and 2) less useful and less interesting than pennies. Zinc is necessary for our health and growth, but the human body has no efficient way of storing the metal and, like many essential nutrients and metals, it must be added through diet. Oysters have more zinc per serving than any other food.
There are no oysters in the water in Butte, Montana.
In May 1999 I drove to that wind-eroded hill where the World Museum of Mining stood surrounded by a reconstructed mining camp named Hell Roarin’ Gulch, built on the site of a real mine called the Orphan Girl. After paying my entry fee, I wandered through the empty dirt streets with disposable camera and notebook. So early in the tourist season, the place was deserted, this ghost town like my own memory: I would mine it alone.
I peered into recreated saloons, dentist offices, general stores, Chinese laundries, and stables. Time is the catalyst for the alchemy of junk into history. Each cube-shaped storefront displayed antique objects sealed away from human touch—empty liquor bottles from the 1880s, rusted tools, beautiful buttons carved of bone—each throwaway item now infused with meaning and value. I leaned against the glass, studying the clutter of empty tins and boxes in the general store, homage to the long tradition in this country of collecting. Old, new, costly, trite—we are a culture of things on display.
From the corner of my eye, I spied the red light above the women’s clothing store. Velvet curtains drawn slightly, the hint of a feathery boa and a mannequin’s delicate, curling fingers at the edges that, at a distance, looked almost real. The invisible women. The silent witnesses. The secrets in that room not for display.
Arsenic, cadmium, copper, and zinc. At the turn of the 20th century, Butte was known as the Richest Hill on Earth. A woman’s body could be rented for less than a dollar.
I wandered the museum through darkened rooms plastered with photographs: unsmiling men waiting for the elevator to drop them into the earth’s bowels, wicks lit on their helmets in those days before batteries but at the dawn of electricity when copper was in high demand. Men of all ages leaning against the ragged rock lining a tunnel, faces so dirty they seemed vaudeville players in black face. Men, serious as they had to be, lighting long white fuses that snaked out of the rock like roots. Men at the surface, muscles buckling as they heaved copper ore into the trucks that would transport it to the trains that would carry it to Anaconda or the refinery in Great Falls—my hometown—where their raw labor would be made useful to the rest of the world.
The Richest Hill on Earth produced over a third of the world’s copper as the 20th century dawned. Imagine the tons of dynamite, the lives burned out and extinguished. Imagine the quiet women scrubbing blackened shirts, listening tensely for distant explosions or the smaller, more dangerous explosions of a “service girl’s” laugh.
Limbs were sometimes blown away. But most of the dead were crushed by ore trolleys, collapsing rock, even the weight of their own bodies fallen down a shaft.
I kept to the street that cut to the top of the hill and beyond, followed a dirt road that led to a view of the famous Berkeley Pit. There, I surveyed the little town that seemed at that distance shiny and new. I could see the Rocky Mountains closed in and standing vigil over the wide bowl of gnawed, orange earth—now condemned—where so much of that rich hill was eviscerated and left in toxic rot. The Pit was surrounded by chain link fence and locked gates and there, where I was, stood an abandoned scaffolding like a small gallows against the faded blue sky.
I stood on the safe side of a chain-link fence, 1,800 miles from my lover and his children. I was researching a story I never did write. I wrote this one instead.
The Summary of Environmental Health Studies in Butte-Silver Bow, a report by Dr. Stacie Barry, whose dissertation focused on Superfund cleanup efforts around the Berkeley Pit, indicates statistically significant, higher-than-normal mortality rates in Butte, Montana for multiple sclerosis, congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, bladder cancer, colon cancer, among others. The EPA insists the findings are wrong.
On a mountain top 3,500 feet above Butte stands Our Lady of the Rockies, a giant Madonna, alabaster white, blending with winter so she seems to come out of hibernation with spring melt. A 90-foot snowwoman blessing the city year-round. Eighty tons of gratitude inspired by a man who promised the mother of God a five-foot statue in her likeness if his wife, ill with cancer, recovered. But when the woman recovered, the idea had already snowballed among the man’s friends and city engineers and volunteers needing to restore the city’s energy. Our Lady was completed just a few years after the Pit shut down.
I snapped pictures with the disposable camera, hoping it worked. The Pit, the mining equipment, the view of the city. I turned my camera to Our Lady of the Rockies, a white punctuation mark in the story of that mountain. Back and forth, me on a hill staring down at the orange-hued Berkeley Pit, gazing up to the white smudge Madonna on a cool, blue-sky May day. My lens the link. To hold my gaze on one or the other would be a lie.
For a price, you could have the name of a loved woman who died inscribed on the Memorial Wall. I thought of my grandmother, who wasn’t dead yet but crippled with Parkinson’s disease, was close enough. Abandoned like a mine that no longer produces. Stripped away year after year by the endless demands of three children and a narcissistic husband, giving of herself until there was nothing left that others valued. Sealed away in a nursing home while my grandfather tapped the next rich vein, a woman physically able to cater to his whims. Behind closed doors, my grandmother could be safely canonized, remembered as a part of history, a footnote in the text of our family’s ongoing lives. I imagined her name, a good Irish name, engraved in this wall.
What was I doing memorializing silent women when I was supposed to be studying the men who mined?
How to know one without the other?
How to read a past without confronting the present?
I’d happily, willingly left behind domestic trappings—washing an unending supply of dishes and clothes, laboring to buy the right gifts and say the right thing, then wiping the deluge of tears over the missing mother, the only one who, it sometimes seemed, really mattered. I’d boarded the plane to Montana infused with a surge of freedom, something I couldn’t admit to myself without guilt, then anger at feeling guilt, as if I were giving in, becoming defined by others’ needs. Certainly the mother of Christ could understand that, I thought, squinting to see her at that distance. Maybe the miners could too. In the years just after the Civil War, a third of them divorced or abandoned their wives.
Once, I dipped into my personal savings and took a week’s vacation in Ireland with a high school friend. My partner, feeling abandoned, refused to drive me to the airport, wouldn’t answer the phone when I called, threw away the gifts I brought—a collection of Seamus Heaney’s poetry, a CD of Dublin bands—and scowled when anyone asked about the trip. When I tried to dig into the issue, he denied all of these behaviors. I was “misinterpreting.” I was “overly sensitive.” I was “crazy.” Any time this man felt abandoned, he lashed out in terrible ways that, eventually, I accepted. To argue, to fight for my right to a life of my own, unleashed more fury and punishment, most of it secret, underground where, in the dark, every crevice looks like an exit. Easier to let the poison accumulate. Such small amounts to process. Nearly undetectable.
Chronic psychological stress has not been shown to cause cancer, but even the National Cancer Institute stresses over the deleterious effects of stress on one’s overall health. An unhealthy mind and body cannot fight cancer. An unhealthy mind and body cannot fight anything.
My grandmother, only half a year older than her husband, looked a decade his senior. She struggled with an aluminum walker, her face a mask perpetually mimicking an expression of faint surprise with her gaping mouth and wide eyes. I prefer to remember her wrapped in the dignity of something ancient and wounded, but that’s a wish and not a real memory. On my grandparents’ last trip together, their first to Hawaii, her seized muscles hurt so much she spent the long flight shuffling up and down the aisle, slowly, painfully. My grandfather described it as “embarrassing.” We pitied him the ruined vacation.
Inside Our Lady of the Rockies’ hollow skirts, thousands of sticky notes and rosary beads dangle, desires disguised as gifts left by pilgrims. I’ve been known to pray to the dead, not even my own. I’ve sent prayers on the wings of ordinary sparrows leaving my feeder. Why not a 90-foot statue with windscreens in her skirts?
I envisioned the woman in the novel I wanted to write about Butte as it existed a hundred years before. A woman with ambition and the same high ideals as the classic “Go West Young Man.” Only she ends up a mining camp prostitute, servicing disillusioned Older Men. No frilled dresses and feathered headbands the way “fallen women” in mid-20th century American Westerns appear on film. The character in my head was drab on the surface, but still, underneath, yearning for a life in which she was her own bright and burning star. I stared at Our Lady, willing my elusive character from another time to materialize. For other women, this might be like imagining future children, realizing them with the blessing of the Mother of all Mothers. In my 20s then, I had no children of my own. I had desire, ambition, hope. The slow-burning fear of ending up in service to someone else’s dreams. And the faint whiff of something rancid blowing through the gaps in my chain-link fence.
You’re the most selfish person I’ve ever met, my lover told me when I bought that ticket for a week in Ireland. Was wanting my freedom selfish? (I began to believe it). Friends would sometimes call me a saint for bringing two strange children into my world and living with them, caring for them, hour after hour, week after week. My lover would sometimes damn me as sinner for not “falling in love” with his children. Saint or sinner. Virgin or whore. That old dichotomy. But it was hard to lay blame when my lover and his children were abandoned by mothers who left, by will or fate. A chronic wound is one that hasn’t healed in six weeks. All of our histories are defined by what is left.
What is left in Butte is a raped mountain. And the spirits of 342 snow geese migrating with the wind. What is left in Butte is a virgin mother. And the spirits of untold numbers of women (and men) who suffered and loved and hoped, were remembered, were forgotten.
In this small Irish city in the Rockies, the monuments to the men who built her are buried underground in condemned mine shafts, swallowed by the very earth they tried to hold open. And 3,500 feet above the city stands a saint full of names, like echoes, of women now gone. Her lips, three feet wide, could swallow you like the Orphan Girl mine, but they’re sealed in a closed smile. Her hands are open, palms up. Eight feet in length, they’re long enough for any human to lie there awhile—if you can find a way up. I don’t know if you can. I left without trying, weary of seeking the hidden paths.
I studied archives, looked at maps of mines, bookkeeping records, accident reports. Overwhelmed with all these scraps of information, I did nothing. I saved the photographs, my scrawled notes, and a postcard of men lighting fuses far below the surface of the earth. I tucked them away in a cigar box I bought for a quarter.
My grandmother wasn’t in the nursing home a month before she claimed my grandfather had a mistress. We felt sorry for her. We felt sorry for him. How difficult this transition must be. She wanted to divorce him. To, finally, be free. We asked the doctor to adjust her medications. (We only wanted her to be happier.) By the time my mother found the housekeeper’s love note, it was too late. He wasn’t about to split his assets with a woman who couldn’t even get out of bed on her own. Besides, all that medication? Who would believe she was in her right mind?
Heavy metals like mercury, copper, and lead have been linked to neurological disorders like Parkinson’s, a disease that slowly locks the body, sealing you inside. But really, it’s impossible to know which environmental factors poison us first.
Finally I left the man who called me selfish and crazy, around whom important documents disappeared, like my credit cards, passport, last will and testament, driver’s license, birth certificate. When I wondered if I really was crazy, he returned the credit cards a week later, claiming he’d found the baby playing with them. I accepted that, the likelier truth impossible to digest. And if I couldn’t believe the truth, who else would? This man was cool and popular and charming. Like my grandfather.
The damage we do by doing nothing. The question of what we can do.
We can mine ourselves. We can turn what we find into conduits for electric power. Or a greater toxic mess.
A healing wound or a chronic wound?
The Environmental Protection Agency oversees the Superfund, a program for managing abandoned hazardous waste sites. Superfund sites include dumps, oil refineries, uranium mines, smelting companies, and contaminated groundwater sites like Devil’s Swamp Lake in Louisiana. The EPA only deletes a site when it is determined that “no further response is required to protect human health or the environment.”
Arsenic, cadmium, copper, and zinc… Berkeley Pit remains a Superfund site, a chronic wound, its treatment plan to leave the toxic waste in place. What do you do with 25 billion gallons of poison? What do you do with any toxic mess you can’t clean up? Long-term monitoring, continued reviews, prayers to blind and distant statues. Or abandon the hazardous waste and stay on the safe side of a chain-link fence where you can observe and measure and… sleep unaware of the clarion call.
I was researching a story I never did write. I wrote this one instead.
Header photo, Our Lady of the Rockies above Butte, Montana, by Kat Lewis.