About the blog: What Things Are Made Of


The United States relies on imports for dozens of commodities in everyday use. Often enough, that reliance is 100%. In this book I aim to provide awareness of the hidden geology and mineralogy behind common things, and to develop an appreciation for the global resource distribution that underpins our society. While concerns about oil import reliance are in the news every day, our needs for other minerals are comparable and are typically unknown even to technologically aware Americans.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

I live in a mining town

I live in a mining town. In some ways, the mother of all mining towns—the richest hill on earth, literally, and the only mining camp in the United States that grew into a multi-ethnic metropolis, with close to 100,000 people ninety years ago. In Butte, Montana, gold drew them, silver kept them, and copper made them rich.

When I look out my kitchen window I see a little park, the site of a small mine that shut down in 1910. Its waste rock makes the walls of my basement. And I see a massive headframe, the surface expression of the Anselmo Mine, one that reached 4,301 feet deep and closed in 1959. I’ve met Ed Panisko, a gentle man and a tough miner, the previous resident of my house, who worked in the Anselmo.

What Things Are Made Of didn’t come about because of my living in Butte. It started when I lived in Golden, Colorado, and was mostly an intellectual outgrowth of the perpetual calendar, History of the Earth, created in 1994. But Butte and its people have absolutely fostered and stimulated my work on What Things Are Made Of—in many ways, the core concepts of that book are nowadays right outside my door and in the foreground of my mind as I live and write and walk Butte’s streets.

Mining towns are complex, because they draw a transient population that depends on the vagaries of the mining business. Mineral commodities depend on all the things that drive the world economy. Wars are good (more copper, more iron, more manganese). Housing booms are good (copper pipes for plumbing) and busts are not (less gypsum for sheetrock, less feldspar for toilets). New inventions that connect and help humans are good (copper wires for telephone lines, tungsten for incandescent light filaments, mercury for Dr. Rush’s Thunderclappers, neodymium for electric car batteries). And so go the fortunes of places like Butte or Chuquicamata or Almaden or Bayan Obo or Udachnaya. 

Living in a historically vibrant mining town that today is part of the nation’s largest Superfund site (as well as the nation’s largest National Historic Landmark district) is a huge eye-opener for anyone who is conscious of both the needs for mineral resources and the damage their extraction can create. And, I hope, of the possible ways that damage can indeed be remediated. The Clark Fork Watershed Education Program exploits the historical needs, the damage, and the ongoing restoration, to foster understanding and stewardship in a complex environment. I’m quite proud to have an occasional small role in that organization’s outreach to thousands of K-12 students and teachers.

In Butte, I live at the corner of Quartz and Crystal Streets, a very cool spot for a geologist. That’s one of the aspects of Butte that contributes subliminally to What Things Are Made Of.

I’m a person who craves the frontier. I grew up at a time when the American frontier had evaporated: I tried California’s golden magnet, but the frontier was gone. Space might have worked, but I wasn’t able to be an astronaut. Butte’s history, its color, its intricate flavor, is my personal frontier now. It touches all I do.

Photos by Richard Gibson

No comments: