VIII. Vehicular orogeny.
Aspen- Look up into branches; leaves are holes in the sky. This air has room for birds.
Cacti- Covered, invisible and the first icicles I’ve seen.
Knoll- It becomes more red each time, as if rubbed with berries.
Trees- By the time I reach this third stop, my mind and heart rate are also here. Every time, I sigh, look up and watch the trees sway.
I keep thinking about the oaks that fall into the Earth. I feel they’re closing the loop: everything falls back to Earth. They seem to be anxious to return. From roots to trunk to branches that appear as roots.
To unearth—etymologically and plainly—means “the opposite of Earth.” We unearth for what we wish to grow. We unearth to return what no longer lives. We unearth to safeguard what we love.
And then we unearth to level. We unearth to seek the concealed. We unearth from emotion and reason.
“The Law of Conservation of Mass states that matter can be changed from one form into another, mixtures can be separated or made, and pure substances can be decomposed, but the total amount of mass remains constant. We can state this important law in another way. The total mass of the universe is constant within measurable limits,” which means that nothing ever is removed, only moved or transformed.[i]
Geology expresses this law with the corollaries of erosion and deposition. The principle being that, “What is eroded from one place is deposited somewhere else.”[ii]
For every pit there is a pile.[iii] The Bingham pit was not the goal; it was an unintentional creation from intentional action. It is a byproduct, the effect of the affect. The Bingham mine yields almost a quarter of the copper used by the United States, and also smaller amounts of other minerals, such as gold and silver. The copper at Bingham is from a low-grade porphyry deposit—meaning that while it is a large deposit the copper is less than 0.4 to 0.6 percent of the total volume of the ore rock. The copper is scattered, as flecks throughout host rocks. Over a century ago such low concentrations of copper wouldn’t be mined because the costs undermined profit. But, increased efficiency and productivity—and Jackling—made porphyry deposits appealing. Yet, regardless of profitability another issue arises. If the copper is 0.4 percent, the other 99.6 percent of the ore rock is undesirable to the company and something must be done with it. So, it follows that when the percentage of copper is that low, earth in large sums must be moved. The mining vernacular calls this the waste or overburden. To the industry, it is the material that needs to be removed to access the resource. Today, at the Bingham pit, that amounts to over 120,000,000 tons of overburden a year.
It is persuasive to call something waste or overburden, though that term, just like “a weed” is contextually based. Waste and weed are created as the antithesis to what we desire. If I want a rose garden, a tulip is a weed. If I want gold, copper is waste. It is true as one religious leader said, “What we see around us depends on what we seek in life.”[iv]
To some this is waste. This is overburden. Wasn’t it once the skin of Earth—walked by hooves, paws, water, roots, and talons? It is Pennsylvanian and Permian. It is the heart of the mountain being turned inside out—lower layers piled on top of higher layers. The first become last and the last become first.
This mountain’s bedrock predates the mountain form itself—that’s how geology goes. Sediment is deposited and then pushed and elevated and this earth once lived north of here. There, in the northwestern corner of Utah, it was the Oquirrh Basin, a large depositional basin that “sank and filled rapidly” accumulating four to eight times more than what was deposited over the rest of Utah.[v] Then, the Oquirrh Basin was pushed 50 miles southeastward to this place.[vi] The Oquirrhs are a transplant. So, in contrast to the Wasatch they contain thick deposits of fossil-bearing marine strata. Volcanic intrusions into this sedimentary rock, followed by hydrothermal activity created the porphyry-copper deposit.[vii] All the right factors fell into place and created this rarity, for which the whole range is now known by.
I began to see the cascaded soil, the golds and streaks as loosened history—not waste but life dug up, spread out, and released.
It is sunken time, layers that saw hot flowing rock and sea.
There is no such thing as waste in proverbial nature; everything produced is used. There is a cycle, an unbroken circle. Mass is not destroyed only moved or transformed. “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”[viii]
Came up the hill, and the mine was there. I wish it wasn’t so beautiful—filleted earth, dripping streaks of slate blue.
I hold up my hand against it and it’s flesh colors. They’re all the colors I use to paint landscapes—ochre, burnt sienna, cobalt mixed with orange to make it more grey, titanium white with a shade of sienna and the slightest shade of purple into a grey. The colors I create, they create.
Trucks move up and down the distant trail, steady speed, steady hum. Four bends and they disappear and reappear at each. And then they grow as the bed lifts. Some become a pelican beak raised to the sky. Their dark forms rise, up and then down—deposit dirt and return up the four bends. I remember there are people in each. I wonder, what do they think about as they make their pilgrimage—as they push a button, flip a switch to lift their bed? I wonder if they wave or nod to each other as they pass. Do they think of their children, rent, or a conversation that went poorly? And I think, is this where they want to be? It’s as if they’re on a track, all so consistent. They embody steady reliable production.
We unearth. This is the largest hole we, as a species, have ever created at almost three miles across and one mile deep, and growing. The displaced earth is never truly removed. It does not disappear. So, as this pit descends, mountains are being made. There are those that lie close to the pit—streaked mounds that I find disturbingly beautiful. Officially, they are called the “waste rock repositories,” but usually they are called mine dumps. This is the rock that was splintered by explosives, but contained no ore. They’re replacement mountains. The other, ore-bearing rock, is ground down by the in-pit crusher to ten-inch diameter pieces. The pieces are transported at about eleven miles an hour, on running belts through metal tunnels, about twenty-two miles worth, to the north. The copper is concentrated through chemicals, flotation methods, smelting, and electric currents. Minerals are removed and everything else creates mountains, in the north. These are called the tailing impoundments and every year the north impoundment receives sixty million tons of earth and rises eight to ten feet. That means, with long-term plans keeping the mine open until 2028, it will rise another 150 feet or more. This north mountain has to be sprayed continually to remain and be contained.
Mountains descending, traveling, and rising. Mountains that refuse to hold life.
In a mining journal in 1908, Will C. Higgins wrote, “Every day the earth trembles at Bingham, Utah. Every day, there, the mountains crumble and diminish in size, and their crests are gradually sinking below their original horizon.” It’s a prophecy that has come true for over a century, for almost every single day. On its website Kennecott says, “We carry out a sequence of drilling, blasting, loading, hauling, crushing and conveying 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.”
They are mountains that never rest.
But Higgins, speaking of eroding mountains, missed the other half—the depositing.
I thought at first this was all about the pit, but it’s also about mountain making.
Perhaps overburden is the right word. It is the overburden of our living. These are dreams Earth cannot hold, because it was not meant to.
Matter is never removed, only transformed.
[i] Elizabeth Rogers, et al., “The Law of Conservation of Mass,” Fundamentals of Chemistry (University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2000). Online at
[ii] Lehi F. Hintze, Utah’s Spectacular Geology: How it Came to Be (Provo: Department of Geology, Brigham Young University, 2005), 4.
[iii] This sentiment was also been expressed by Matthew Coolidge, director of The Center for Land Use Interpretation, at a speech at the University of Utah’s UMFA on September 19, 2014.
[iv] Dallin H. Oaks, “Spirituality,” LDS General Conference, October 1985.
[v] Hintze, Utah’s Spectacular Geology, 45.
[vi] Ibid., 47.
[vii] Russell C. Babcock, Jr. et al., “Summary of the Geology of the Bingham District, Utah,” Geology and Ore Deposits of the Oquirrh and Wasatch Mountains, Utah vol. 29 (1997): 113-132.
[viii] Genesis 3:19, The Holy Bible: King James Version (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1979), 6.