There are places that are quintessentially human, and places that are emphatically other. For my part, I much prefer the places that are other, where humans are less involved and have spent less time paving over the intricacies of nature with their own ill-considered urbanity and ham-fisted simplicity. Entirely human places tend to annoy me, because they so often lack the depth and breadth and intricacies of the world, and instead enable us to gaze comfortably at our societal navels without thought to the foundations.
I had the opportunity to explore a 200-year old copper mine a few days ago. It is a remarkably odd place, not least because it defies categorization in my taxonomy of places. It is an undeniably human place, but it also has an overprint of deep strangeness–of natural processes in the act of reclaiming it.
I find caves fascinating in large part because they are alien. Yet this mine, too, had some of that feeling, in part from the human beings who worked it—who created it—and in part from the rock they traveled through. Imagining the people who began this project in the 1800s gives me an inkling of what it must feel like to strain against a natural world that is inconceivably vast with the comfortable awareness that whatever you do will not matter very much on that scale.
Of course that isn’t true. The natural world is not so vast, and our actions affect it deeply, and this mine is now a superfund site bringing contaminated water to the surface and discharging it into a nearby stream. The tailing piles are acrid and dead, and the stream that issues from the mine’s flooded tunnels is also dead.
Yet inside the mine, the natural work of the rock and the water has begun to transform the place from human back to alien. The ceilings have stretched and settled, creating spaces within the space that no longer bear the strong marks of humanity. The walls have eroded and crumbled, and the water has created new sediment floors.
Perhaps most oddly, the same processes that create rare and delicate flowstone, stalactites, and stalagmites in caves have begun to act here. In some ways, they seem to have acted with incomparable rapidity. The flowstone in this mine is active and abundant. There are expanses of draperies and rimstone, and stalagmites of iron and copper. Water is dissolving and re-depositing minerals as it always does.
In one place, a flow of rimstone has buried and abandoned iron cart, erasing the margin between the relics of humanity and the structures of the stone.
I tend to think that humans break things mainly out of selfish indifference. Looking at natural systems sagging under the weight of seven billion people’s selfish indifference, I tend also to think that we’re really good at it, and probably aren’t going to stop. We’ll probably keep arguing about the minutia of how climate change will affect us before doing anything about it. We’ll probably keep arguing that it’s okay to overfish and overcultivate and overlog and overbuild right up to the point where the systems break down and we start wondering why the way we’ve always done things no longer works. And we’ll probably keep killing each other and breaking things along the way.
The tension between the human world and the natural world seems to pull so often in one direction that the other seems improbable at best. And yet, while I don’t want to make the extreme and untrue argument that natural systems will always adapt to our abuse, I do want to acknowledge some nuance on the way to that argument: that natural systems, when left alone, may recover. And thus, that the places we build where nature is erased may yet be recovered.
Image Credits: my own