Brad Tyer: Sacrificial Landscapes
I stare in wonder at a handful of bright turquoise bones gathered behind the CVS in downtown Butte. I came here to see them for myself, as I was told these bones have been dyed from copper sulfate leaching from the soil. I guess I didn’t believe our situation was that bad, but now I see. Up the hill from where I stand, massive gallows frames poke their heads from behind brick buildings; to my right, the East Ridge is exposed in a stepped face leading down an open pit mine. In my hands and surrounding me on all sides are the effects of my hometown’s mining past.
The story of Butte’s contaminated land spans generations and stretches beyond the town in all directions. Just fifteen minutes away on I-90, the town of Opportunity is in much the same boat as us. This town is the subject of Brad Tyer’s book, Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape, in which he considers the damaged landscape and its effects on the livelihood, health, and identity of those who still live in the small community. The conflict around restoring this land is highly political, and there is no end in sight. As Tyer writes, “Waste doesn’t just disappear. Excepting an eruption of the Yellowstone caldera that would vaporize much of the Rocky Mountain West, it cannot be made to go away.” The problem, then, is how to fix it.
Opportunity, Montana explores the history, politics, and science of this problem. What I find most compelling about this book is the way it presents the situation in a relatively unbiased manner. Tyer doesn’t try to place the blame on any particular party, and he looks at the evidence from many different angles. He even points out the positives that came from this environmental damage, concluding that, “Opportunity is a sacrificial landscape that allowed America to become what it is.” The health of the land and its inhabitants is the price we paid for our nation’s progress.
Instead of looking to the past to place blame and regretting the unfortunate choices that were made, we have to move forward. There is no easy way out of the mess we are in, and it may never be made right. But we have to start where we are. And really, poisoned though they are, these turquoise bones are rather beautiful.
Maggie Gammons was born and raised in Butte, Montana, where she was active in the local art, music, and literary community. Now a Freshman at the University of Montana, Maggie is pursuing a humanities degree with a minor in music, with the dream of one day opening a fiddle school in her hometown.
Professor Robert Stubblefield uses The Write Question as a teaching tool in his class Montana Writers Live! at the University of Montana. Maggie Gammons wrote "Brad Tyer: Sacrificial Landscapes" for that class.