I visit Butte, Montana, like a pilgrimage. Decades ago, my mother and her family lived here a few different times between at least a dozen moves across the Northwest. I don’t know if they would put it this way, this city is engrained in the mythology of our family, though when I press my family for details about life here, I sometimes ask more questions than they are comfortable answering. The stories I want to hear are rarely the ones they want to tell. If I press him enough, my grandfather tells me that while they lived in Butte, the water system was so contaminated from the copper mines, many of those mines dug in the heart of the city itself, that they used melted snow for their coffee. Their bath water was brown from the start, and the Anaconda Copper Company burned down so many buildings, removing any structure that got in the way of their expanding enterprise. My grandfather knows this because he worked as an insurance claims investigator while he lived in Butte, whose copper kings acted like Prohibition-era gangsters.
It is only recently I’ve come to realize that there might be a good reason my family doesn’t like to talk about the gritty details of their life in Butte. So when I return to this town, I do so as if it is a commemorative site, conscious of the damage and, more importantly, the survival that has taken place here.
And then there’s the pit. On the edge of town, the centerpiece of the industrial inferno sits placid, like an eye about to blink. The Berkeley Pit is an abandoned open pit mine now filled with irreversibly contaminated groundwater a mile deep, creating a lake of water so toxic that contact alone is enough to kill the variety of birds who land on the water’s surface, mistaking it for something close to clean. Even up close, it still looks like one of many otherwise crystalline and nearly pure bodies of Montana water far away from the means of contamination. At times, birds die by the flock. It is a regularized plague aligned with migration patterns. Soon, as the water level in the lake rises and reaches a certain weight, it will sink back into the soil, into the hills and into the system. Each time I visit, I worry more about how much damage this lake will do.
So when I return to Butte one summer after moving to Idaho, I do so as a pilgrim. The sky is overcast and it’s slightly windy, almost drizzling, threatening one of Montana’s mid-summer deluges. The entrance to the Berkeley Pit is decorated with a Celtic knot on the hillside around the pit, the green and Irish imagery a stark contrast to the toxic yellows and tans just on the other side of the hill and also a reminder that this was an American mine that utilized the labor of immigrants, many of whom were Irish, many of whom went on to influence the town’s collective narratives about its past.
The only way into the mine is through a gift shop. I don’t linger here—I already have a ball of copper back home from a previous visit. Instead, I walk down the steps from the gift shop, an old caboose now full of maps, trinkets, copper cups, coins, a variety of flags, and toward a little fenced-in space in front of the pit’s long entryway, a yards-long tunnel with a wooden sign reading “Berkeley Pit” hanging above the tunnel’s opening. The uncomfortably long tunnel is narrow and metal and white, like the interior where the opening scene in A New Hope takes place. My footsteps echo as I walk toward the lake, my black raincoat suddenly hot and humid, making my t-shirt stick to my skin. There is a tour guide on the other side, and I can hear the fact of her voice grow louder the closer I get, as I signal my arrival with my footfalls.
From the tunnel, I walk onto a wooden platform overlooking the lake. The effect is deliberately dramatic, the tunnel prolonging anticipation, dissonance, until the revelation: the mile-long expanse of deadly stagnant contaminants a few hundred feet beneath my feet, stretching outward and all around. The dark blue surface of the lake is tinged with silver and red, like the skin of a dead whale. There’s no particular smell, at least not on the day I visit, but under the heat of the sun, there might be. The lake looks innocent. Without the birds, the warning, how would anybody know? Beside me, some tourists pace around the platform as the tour guide explains the history of the pit, the key industrial and economic developments it precipitated. I go to the far-left corner and stand at the railing, taking a few photographs of the other side where there is a cheap mobile building and a few construction vehicles moving around on dirt paths and hills, so far away across the enormous lake they look like toys. The pit is no longer operational, but there is still work to be done in the rest of the copper-rich terrain surrounding it.
The company abandoned the pit mine in 1982, shutting off nearby wooden water pumps and causing it to flood. Minerals from the mine wall slid into the water and dissolved, like sugar in coffee, releasing acids for years and years until it became the disaster-in-waiting that it is today. It is a lake of almost-fire, a lake that burns those who come into contact with it.
My mother and her siblings may have been among the only children in their grade whose family did not work directly for the Anaconda Copper Company. Even then, the company seemed to provide my grandfather plenty of work opportunities. My family talks about this town with fondness, as most locals do. I think, perhaps, knowing what I know about the town, I want to see what they see here. They are firm in their admiration, which makes me curious. It seems to me impossible to have unmixed feelings about a place, such that taking pride in one’s hometown is baffling to me. I feel stirred, dissolved, and intoxicated when I think of Flagstaff, a place that so many strangers love, a place that the locals discuss with hushed murmurs of ambivalence when the tourists aren’t listening.
Maybe because I grew up in a tourist town, I feel at ease at the Berkeley Pit, a heritage site. In many ways, it is, but my mom’s family moved around so many times that the same is true of Missoula, Helena, Lewiston, and Kennewick. But in Butte, I feel familiar in and even comforted by the gift shop, the tour guide, the tourists. These things soften the blow. Is there something wrong with this?
In Flagstaff one year when I was very young, after a string of particularly bad wildfires in northern Arizona, local country musicians at the Coconino County Fair dedicated their shows to firefighters, while others wrote new songs about them. That September, books started appearing in entertainment stores about the wildfires, or smokejumpers and firefighting in general. I even remember a few t-shirts commemorating the Radio Fire, the big blaze, about $13.95 for a child’s medium in the local Hastings years before the roof collapsed from the weight of snow one winter.
I remember all of this so well because my parents took a sabbatical to study how wildfires are portrayed in news and other media, focusing on the Smokey the Bear campaign and the conservationist rhetoric associated with it. So much of the information I absorbed after the wildfires—after overhearing so many conversations about wildfires and watching documentaries with my parents about how wildfires can outrun people—was a revelation to me, a slow apocalypse.
I never bought one of the t-shirts or books, but I do remember one September night at the county fair, the air thick with salt and butter and cinnamon and dry pine needles, sitting on a metal bleacher trying to be as solemn as the rest of the audience while a band whose name I don’t remember sang a slow four-chord country ballad about the Radio Fire, and after the teary-eyed applause they dove right into their original song “If It Weren’t for the Tequila I’d Hate Mexico.”
Apocalypse really only means revelation. Like many of my favorite words, its meaning has evolved. An apocalypse is the unveiling of a hidden truth, a truth that has always been there, a truth whose realization fundamentally alters the order of things. Angels speak to people in the form of an apocalypse. It isn’t a genre of fiction but of letters. Clouds reveal the stars at night apocalyptically, the way the death of a canary in a coal mine reveals the threat of chemicals to human miners. The canary falls down in a cage and makes the sound apocalypse. This isn’t an ending or a beginning, but one more form of communication. In ancient biblical literature, it was a canon of parables for those waiting for a last-minute divine intervention in some conquest or drought or famine, waiting for Jehovah to march down from the sky delivering swift justice, like water over rocks. It’s only a matter of time before the pumps in the Berkeley Pit fail.
When I visit Butte, the pit seems like a given. Like another part of the community’s texture. Standing at the railing, I think about the power that this place exercises over the people. I think about the many sacred markers surrounding Butte, the giant statue of the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of the Rockies, that overlooks the mountains, rivers, and lakes, and on another level the sense that those mountains, rivers, and lakes are also sacred, are worth attention and worship.
And the pit is still a lake, even if it’s deadly. Is tourism that different from worship? Maybe that’s why the pit is a tourist attraction. Maybe that’s why you have to walk through a gift shop and pay two dollars to get by, next to all the toys and documentary DVDs and t-shirts, the copper mugs for Moscow mules.
I don’t buy anything, though. Instead, I leave the pit and go back into the rain. Later in Butte, I join my grandparents, on the edge of turning ninety, for lunch before driving around the town’s many small, interconnected neighborhoods where, in the 1960s and ’70s, my grandmother taught grade school in a now rundown building overshadowed by abandoned mining rigs. One mine is directly next to the old school facility, so close it may as well have been a playground were it not for the fence and the fumes, which must have seeped into the classroom on a daily basis.
But I can only speculate, and I don’t ask her about it. I let her speak on her own, remembering this, that, and the other thing as we drive uphill past churches, mostly Catholic but a few distinctly Protestant outliers, through old neighborhoods built around the mines, with names like Dublin Gulch. We drive up the street my aunts once hiked for a high school graduation party. We drive past the homes where my uncle’s friends used to live. It is still raining, and the grass on this side of the city is a ripe shade of green, a fundamental shade of green, like it won an argument.
At the top of the hill is a commemoration site for the Speculator Mine Disaster of June 8, 1917, a tragedy of poor working conditions that killed 168 miners from over a dozen nations 2,500 feet below the surface of the earth. The commemoration site is decorated with flags for the birthplaces of those lost in the mine, a testament to how global the American working class historically is. Turkey, China, Ireland, Poland, Russia, Mexico, to name a few. It is a square tiled space, small but with countless intricacies carved into the tiles and plaques. Even the name draws attention to the act of commemoration, forcing tourists to consider the spectacle of past catastrophes. I try to read all the names of those lost in the disaster where they are carved into stone, but there are too many, and my grandparents are eager to be on the road again. You can almost see the Berkeley Pit from this site, but not quite. Just the jaundice-colored soil that surrounds it and the few trucks hauling upturned earth from place to place.
It’s only that upturning, though, that makes the Berkeley Pit deadly. The water is infused with arsenic, cadmium, zinc, copper, lead, all compounds from the mine’s residue. These toxic compounds already exist in the earth, all just beneath our feet but in variously un-excessive quantities. The process of copper extraction shook the soil, sifting the minerals into thicker and thicker concentrations. The water’s edge lapped against the walls of the pit mine, taking the minerals back with it in slow waves, filling the water with minerals that had otherwise been diffuse.
The earth was already poisonous from the start. It bleeds toxins when carved into, when the wounds do not heal, but the infection is not alien or synthetic. It’s a release of what is already there beneath the surface. The Berkeley Pit was only rearranged, allowed to fester and sit until the broken crust of the hills became what it has always already had the potential to become.
With my family, the understanding is that there’s a lot beneath the surface that nobody wants uncovered, made aware of. My grandparents berate me for being quiet, for not being talkative, but I’m not interested in small talk or banter. I want to know the details, which they dance around in conversations, avoiding anything that isn’t just mildly amusing. Asking for information about my cousin’s pregnancy, my uncle’s cancer, my aunts’ various feuds, is to them indelicate and insensitive. Instead, they whisper to my aunts in the kitchen when they think nobody else will hear them, and then force a smile and a joke when I enter the room.
Maybe they want small talk because it’s safe. I want to know their stories before it’s too late, and I’m aware that explaining my reasoning to them would also be indelicate. My grandmother makes snide comments about a woman wearing “expensive pre-torn jeans” she saw at a church-related charity, assuming that if she can afford pre-torn jeans, she shouldn’t be looking for charity. My grandfather boasts that all of his children and grandchildren never became smokers, that he raised a family that never took up “bad habits.” They talk about Butte like it’s distant, like it’s not for them anymore, but for someone else. I imagine they also talk about the associated working-class history of Butte the same way, like it’s a thing of the past, not worth bringing up again. They’ve been alive for ninety years. Maybe they’re right: I don’t need to make a spectacle of their past, no matter my intent. So, I learn to ask the safe questions, to not dig too deeply or roughly into their lives. Often, I don’t say anything at all.
I don’t know how to describe what I felt when I last surveyed the pit, like a modern god frowning skyward and into the brighter blue hanging above it, absorbing water when it rains, drinking thirstier and thirstier, but patient, placid. But someone else’s god, like a neighboring practice I have no right to refute. My grandparents express no fear about the pit, nor do any of my family members who used to live in Butte, and even if they are concerned, they won’t let their concern show. I am learning to do the same. In the cool late afternoon, my grandparents and I drive out of Butte through western Montana in a thunderstorm, and I’m glad that the pounding rain drowns out all of our voices when we try to speak.
Cover Art by Mehrul Bari S. Chowdhury