Summons to an Unknown Desert

by Paul Feather and Terra Currie

“There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” —Wendell Berry

There are lines being drawn in the sand. Over rock and through sagebrush in a place I have never been but may yet go, there are lines being drawn like conjurer’s symbols. There are outlines of buildings: great warehouses with rolling and pounding hammers that beat rock and clay into dust; monstrous vats of bubbling acid; conveyors of leached and broken Earth. Where the conveyors end, the lines mark out great mountains sealed off from the future for what they would contain. There are other lines that wind back through the desert to the heart of the machine from whence these conjurers have come. Finally, and dwarfing all these other shapes—two miles from one end to the other and four hundred feet deep into the Earth—there is the pit with its spiral winding way into the depths. It is all there in the lines and symbols. It is all being summoned. They are calling these things here to call Lithium from the pit.

Sixteen million years ago a super-volcano erupted, pouring forth such a store of magma that the crust of the Earth collapsed into the cauldron left behind by the molten rock. The resulting sinkhole—roughly oval in shape, 28 miles from North to South, and 22 from East to West—is rich in minerals and precious metals that were brewed in the belly of the Earth. At the southern tip of this cauldron, near the present border between Nevada and Oregon, there once was a lake. For a few hundred thousand years after this dramatic eruption, water percolated through the rock and ash, leaching lithium into the lake where it was deposited in layer upon layer of sediment. The richest deposits contain up to 9,000 parts per million of lithium. Most of it contains much less. This ancient lakebed now bears the name of Thacker Pass.

There are other lines being drawn at Thacker Pass. There are brave souls in love with empty places, vast skies, and silence who would stop the destruction of this ancient lake. These are not conjurers who draw lines in the sand; these are the ones who were conjured in the cauldron of the volcano sixteen million years ago. These are the ones who can hear the calling of the Earth. Do you not hear it yourself? Or are your ears stuffed with the stuffing of FoxNewsCNNTwitterNPR? Pull the cotton from your ears and listen for a moment, but not yet. Do it under the night sky if you can find one. Do it where the stars can scream at you too from light years away, the same stars that wait for you in that desert sky at Thacker Pass. Listen there, and you will hear the whispering of an ancient volcano. You are being summoned.

Why this place, and why now? We cannot protect all of the sacred places. How shall one rise above the others?—for as Wendell Berry observes, all places are sacred. This place calls, because lithium is power. The lithium at Thacker Pass has the power to change the narrative about renewable energy in much the same way that water at Standing Rock changed the conversation about fossil fuels. Oil and gas industry futures look bleak: they are opposed by popular movements, and most remaining reserves are expensive to extract. Meanwhile, renewable energy enjoys the glamour of greenwashing. It has new shoes and bright shiny promises of a New Deal. If we will continue to destroy the Earth; if we will wipe away the last vestiges of coral reefs, rainforests, and most large mammals, we will do it from the driver’s seat of a Prius.

But they cannot have their Priuses, their Teslas, and their Green New Deal if they cannot have lithium. We can’t prevent the desecration of every Walmart parking lot, but it appears to me that these places—these acres upon acres of tarmac amounting in the U.S. to somewhat more land than the state of Georgia—need protection mainly from cars. Amid popular opposition to fossil fuels, lithium becomes a keystone element to the continuation of car culture. It is absolutely critical.

There are no unsacred places, but it might be true that there are places of power. There are places that volcanoes have brewed in their cauldrons for three million years to summon up elements from the belly of the Earth. There are places that call us together in strange rituals that we have lost the language to fathom or even perceive. There may be many such places. Some of them are already desecrated. Some of them have not yet spoken or called. Thacker Pass is calling you and me today.

Lithium is about more than just cars. It is also a keystone in the devastating electronics industry that threatens to drown us in a tsunami of electronic waste. If the machine wants lithium, let it comb through the trash that poisons people in Thailand and Vietnam. How can we begin to measure the costs of this industry that is powered by lithium? Mass hypnosis by screens; trade in conflict minerals exacerbating wars in the Congo and other places; a deluge of information so intense that we’ve collectively lost our grip on anything like truth; data harvesting and mass surveillance on an unprecedented scale: it all requires lithium.

Our predicament is deeply interconnected; each issue is inextricably intertwined with many others. Lithium is a thread that weaves itself into the center of this knot. The unraveling of our predicament does not present a simple crossroads at which half the population must drag the other half kicking and screaming into a greener world of solar panels, windmills, and universal health care—thus saving the world from climate change. Rather, the question we must answer now is whether the Earth has cast her spells in such a way that a very small number of brave but hitherto marginalized voices will manage to self-organize into a force that makes sense to talk about in conversations about climate, global economics and resource extraction, or public education. Existing power structures will destroy everything within their reach until they are prevented from doing so by such a force that can’t be removed.

Certainly there are other sources of lithium, and even if Thacker Pass were saved perhaps it’s naïve to believe that the machine would be greatly disgruntled by that inconvenience. Nor can we know the potential of this moment, this place, and this element to shape global narratives until we apply ourselves to that effort. Yet, there may be a sort of alchemy taking place in the cauldron of that ancient volcano. It may be that we’re being summoned to a place that will catalyze our self-organization into whatever it is we’re being called to be.

So get your ass to Thacker Pass. I hope to see you soon.

Read more at Paul and Terra’s website: