The bright side of the Berkeley Pit

 

Updated Jan. 5, 2012

It is a dead place. Stitched with skeletal plants and sentinel tree trunks, riven by rills of cloudy, unspeakably polluted water, laid bare against a paste sky. There is no sense of space or time here; only pure, absolute quiet.

It is one of my favorite images -- "Uranium Tailings No. 12," taken at Ontario's Elliot Lake in 1995, part of photographer Edward Burtynsky's troubling series documenting the ravages of mining. The work is most disturbing for the beauty so apparent in all that ugliness. The molten orange of water tainted by nickel tailings, the taupe and gray shades of soil -- smooth and gentle as skin -- swept clean of living mess.

It's an aesthetic paradox evoked by nearly every track and cast-off of human industry left in wide-open land. The kelly green pool lingering at the bottom of the Santa Rita Pit near Silver City, N.M. The startling variety of color in salt ponds on the edge of the Great Salt Lake. The elaborate loops and whorls of the roads that lace Wyoming's gas patches. I thought of it, too, as I passed through the long dark tunnel to the viewing deck overlooking Montana's notorious Berkeley Pit when I last visited back in 2002.

There is something more to these places, though, than an interesting and uncomfortable sense of contradiction, fertile only for nerdy cocktail party conversation. And the Berkeley Pit -- a massive defunct old copper mine on the lip of the town of Butte -- offers a window into the heart of it.

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