There is already an open pit in Thacker Pass. It was dug as part of Lithium Americas’ exploration of the site. Though it is small – just one half of one of the over 5000 acres Lithium Americas wants to destroy – it is as conspicuous as an open wound on a lover’s body.
So far, I had avoided the exploration pit. I was scared of it. I knew that the pit was a glimpse into the future of Thacker Pass, a future where the entire pass would be ripped open into a wound that made the exploration pit look like a tiny scratch. For days, when my gaze wandered to the east of our camp, my eyes skirted around the open hole surrounded by banks of excavated dirt. My eyes sought refuge in the rolling waves of old-growth sagebrush, in the majesty of the Santa Rosa mountains beyond the pass. If I could ignore the exploration pit, I could forget about the mine. I could fantasize about Thacker Pass’ longevity. I could pretend that humans for generations to come would stand where I stood letting their souls spill out across the land to mingle with trickling snowmelt, to sink into the earth with sage brush roots, to dance with the unbroken wind over the basin’s rolling hills.
But, as winter ages and this part of the world tilts toward spring, when I let my soul spill through Thacker Pass, I hear the ground thawing. In better times, the quiet sighs ice makes as it celebrates its transformation into seeping water would be songs of rejoicing for the warmer days ahead. Today, however, the sound of the ground thawing comes with whispers of fear: when the ground thaws, mine construction can begin.
Goaded by the earth’s fearful whispers, I walked down a snow-covered dirt road that was cut through the sagebrush to face the exploration pit. I stood for several minutes at the gate in the barbed wire fence surrounding the pit. Signs posted around the pit warned: “Danger. Open Pit. Keep Out.” I studied the dirt mounds that were stacked around the pit and they reminded me of the tissue that has grown around the puncture wounds created by surgeons inserting their tools into my knee and shoulders to repair the various ligaments I have torn.
The mounds blocked the depth of the pit from my view. Nevertheless, I could feel the hole before me. I could sense the pit in the earth in the pit in my stomach. Where the exploration pit was empty, the pit in my stomach was filled with acid. My guts murmured a warning far stronger than the posted signs. I’ve been asking what Thacker Pass needs me to know, needs me to tell humans, and I knew she needed me to experience the exploration pit. So, I took a deep breath, asked my stomach to do its best to hold itself together, and stepped through the gate.
As I climbed over the dirt mounds piled around the pit, the pit’s depth was slowly revealed to me. With each step, I thought the bottom of the pit would rise into view. But, step after step, the bottom of the pit dropped and dropped. Finally, when I crested the dirt mound, I looked down to find the pit’s bottom six or seven stories below me. The sight was dizzying. To make the vertigo worse, I felt the underground concussion of dynamite throwing previously undisturbed earth into the air. I saw dirt, stones, and sagebrush limbs rain down. The sagebrush lucky enough to remain rooted trembled in terror at finding the branches of their shattered kin hanging from their own branches. I heard the unmerciful scraping sounds the teeth on backhoe buckets make as they rip out mouthfuls of earth only to turn and spit the earth into piles.
I slipped and slid my way down the side of the pit until I stood in the pit’s deepest part. As I studied the layers of earth exposed by the digging of the pit and my gaze rubbed across stones stuck in the pit wall, my bones shuddered.
I felt an urge. I dropped onto my back in the deepest part of the pit and, like Thomas doubting Christ’s wounds, I gently placed the fingers of my right hand into the earth. Pain immediately shot up my arm. Both of my shoulders have been surgically repaired, but the wounds to my right shoulder are freshest. The pain concentrated there. My shoulder joint seethed with soreness. My clavicle and scapula hummed with a rattling ache. My humerus, radius, and ulna vibrated like lightning rods conducting agony instead of electricity. My bones agitated against the connection between my fingertips and the earth.
I knew I should not sever that connection until Thacker Pass was finished with me. The messages shooting up my arm found their way to my imagination. I felt myself stretched across Thacker Pass unable to move. Tiny creatures moved up my legs towards my most vulnerable regions. At first, I was curious. The creatures reminded me of similar creatures who once moved lovingly across me taking some, but never too much of me, to eat, to drink, and to make medicine. Those creatures used to offer their songs for my food, water, and medicine. Their dancing feet had once massaged my surface until I trembled in ecstasy.
But, these new creatures were different. Sometimes even their footsteps stung. They did not come with songs. They came with the screams of fossilized beings who, having been ripped from their resting places, were being burned. The machines fueled by those fossilized beings gathered and my anxiety grew. The screams in the machines rose to an overwhelming pitch. The tearing and biting began. Strip by strip my skin was torn off. Bite by bite my flesh was torn out.
When I thought this was finished, the creatures inserted tiny things into my raw flesh and the explosions began. I writhed in horror as bubbles of torture burst across my torso, as square acre after square acre of my stomach erupted with explosives. They worked methodically, relentlessly. With my belly ripped open, the creatures began extracting what was left of my guts. Tiny truckload by tiny truckload, I watched my own flesh dragged away from me.
They cut a gash from my bladder to my heart and laid hard pipes into the gash. Through some black magic I could not fathom they pumped water from deep within me to spray across my open belly. I had never felt water like this. Water had always been medicine for me. Water had always been pure and clean. This water burned my wounds. This water was full of poisons I had tried to bury deep within me where they could rest and cause no harm.
I begged the sky to bring snow or rain or strong winds to slow them down. The sky sent what help he could but he was busy responding to all the cries from all the tortured lands around the world. I begged the volcano who formed me to resurrect herself and to wash away my pain with lava, to burn me into oblivion if that’s what it would take to stop the pain. When she did not respond, I realized she had given all she had to birth me all those millions of years ago.
The pain overwhelmed me. My bones won out. I jerked my fingertips from the earth in the bottom of Lithium Americas exploration pit, curled up in the fetal position, and tried to rock myself free from the experience Thacker Pass shared with me.
But, Thacker Pass was not finished with me yet. Hard snow driven towards me by a squall rushing across the land from the northwest stung my face. The wind froze my sweat. I climbed out of the pit to find a stark, painful beauty in the way the squall turned the white snow sideways to streak across green sagebrush branches, mahogany sagebrush roots, and the golden stems of Crosby’s buckwheat. The beauty’s pain was much deeper than the cold. The squall tore slits in the veil between this world and the shadow world. Thacker Pass’ whispers found their way through these slits.
Her whispers were far harsher than the wind. She said: “Don’t let this be my last winter.”
Special thanks as always to Max Wilbert for taking care of practical concerns while I’m off crawling around pits.