As the Snake Did Away with the Geese

Sep 1, 1996
Outside Magazine

They dropped from the sky as if from a dream, undetected, bearing dire messages. They had set out from the edge of the world--a wild island isolated in a frozen sea--and they came to rest in the depths of what is sometimes called the pit of the earth. They were hungry and tired. Probably they were confused. By instinct they race ahead of storms or trail behind them, but on this night, as they hugged the front range of the Rockies and crossed the Divide, they became tangled in unstable weather. The stars and the planets by which they navigate their path from arctic breeding grounds to temperate winter refuge were concealed from them by dense storm clouds. Even the floodlit bulk of a massive religious ornament perched atop the Divide--its enamel nearly as white as the birds themselves--was no beacon for this flock gone astray.

One man, a biologist, remembers lying awake in bed for hours that night, following the birds' shrill, urgent calls as they circled in search of a place to put down. It cannot be known at what point the geese abandoned their search for the ripe, undisturbed wetlands they favor as rest stops. Surely they must immediately have spotted the strangely sunken body of water that so dominates the valley into which they had crossed, water whose surface area is half as large as the city in whose midst it is set. True, this pond offered no vegetative cover to the geese, no food, and it lay several hundred feet down the steep, barren walls of the reservoir that contained it. But as another man, a geologist, tells me, "Geese aren't too smart. They're hard-wired to react to certain stimuli. They're tired, they see water, they land." And so, pushed out of the clouds, the geese extended their black-tipped wings and tensed their bodies for impact and dropped beneath the rim of the earth's surface and drifted past a series of weathered tiers cut into the granite walls and chose to rest their exhausted bodies in the largest vat of acid from here to Siberia. Welcome to Butte America.

Welcome to the shadow of paradise, to the scorched garden where the rich soil is best avoided. This is the topography of paradox, built on the side of a hill, an inhabited ghost town whose 35,000 defeated and defiant residents share the broad avenues with the agitated souls of a mythologized and obsolete treasure-hunting past. Pigeons roost in scarred masonry against the backdrop of blue-tinted mountains. The central streets--Mercury and Quartz and Copper--are nearly deserted at midday, their ornate facades separated by gaps driven through the town by arson and demolition. Junk shops occupy the storefronts of buildings designed to flaunt the wealth of turn-of-the-century industrialists. Faded Victorian homes are studded with For Sale signs; most of the remaining population has long since moved down the slope to the tidy, drab grid on "The Flats" below. Beyond the center of town the streets grow narrow and sinuous, crisscrossed by old rail lines, often dead-ending at blasted dump sites. Here and there small fires burn among the rubble. Until recently, it's said, cats could not survive Butte--the dirt they cleaned from their fur was tainted with arsenic.

"No doubt about it," a local politician tells me, "people in Butte aren't as concerned about the future as they should be." The much-touted growth industry here is pollution technologies, and there's plenty of pollution to go around. A student at Butte's College of Technology--formerly the School of Mines--suggests building a fence around the town and posting a Keep Out sign for a few thousand years. Another proposal involves transforming the region into a National Environmental Disaster Monument. Butte may not be Yellowstone, but it speaks just as vividly of the American encounter with wilderness.

Welcome to a town perched on the edge of an abyss. Viewed from above on a perilous night, with the assistance of superior avian eyesight, the gutted town appears drawn to the funnel-shaped depression at its edge, a funnel whose bottom lies beyond view, exerting a pressure, like an ache, on the troubled landscape. Butte and its exposed underside are bound together in a kind of absurd ritual dance, partnered like lovers, like desperate enemies, like snakes and geese in an apocryphal struggle.

Say it's early September in a place on the fringes of the imagination--say Wrangel Island, Ushakovskoye, Siberia, high in the Arctic Ocean, hundreds of miles above the Bering Strait. Wafers of ice have begun to appear, floating in the marshes and swamps; wind currents have begun to shift. A flock of lesser snow geese--formerly known in ornithological circles by the Latin name hyperborea, "beyond the north wind"--responds compulsively to the seasonal stirrings, restless, occupied, writes a nineteenth-century observer, "in adjusting their feathers, smoothing and dressing them with their fatty oil, as athletes might for the ring or race." The brief summer has been consumed with nest-building, breeding, tending to goslings. For a few weeks in July, the birds are grounded by molting. By the time the northerly autumn winds arrive, their five-foot wingspans are adorned with fresh layers of creamy white feathers.

They take to the air in aerodynamic V's, fanning out in long diagonals, drawn like taut string across the sky. They endure days of nonstop flight, suspended a few thousand feet above the sea, pushed by favorable winds at 60 miles an hour, sighting rough shoreline at the northwestern corner of Alaska. They cross into Canada, following the Mackenzie River down the Northwest Territories. Endless Canadian prairie awaits them, the stubble fields and pastures where they graze, tugging roots and aquatic plants from inland swamps. They parallel the eastern slopes of the Rockies, vast plains to their left, a wall of mountain to their right. Their path is as relentless as it is habitual. They have no choice. Loyal to their mates, obedient to their leader, they pitch themselves ahead of winter, their bodies a white blot on the horizon, their cries a piercing falsetto.

The snake lies in wait. Its pool of poison offers an inviting spot for a cool and tawdry splash. The snake of phantom Butte is itself a specter, the sloughed-off and abandoned skin of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, aka the Company. Think back to 1876, year of centennial fireworks. The railroad has not yet reached Butte. Electricity and the telephone are embryonic technologies whose development will consume conductive metals with zeal. Marcus Daly, an Irish immigrant with a precocious talent for locating mineral wealth, arrives in the remote silver mining camp, population 1,000. He prospers. Backed by George Hearst, he buys the Anaconda mine near the center of the low-slung, barren Butte hill in 1882 and proceeds to locate a soaring vein of the red metal, copper. The silver camp is thus transformed into the world's greatest producer of copper, its population ballooning toward 100,000 during the First World War. "A mile high and a mile deep," Butte--and, eventually, the Snake--assumes economic and political dominion over Montana.

Few places have been mined with such intensity for so long. No one can say precisely how many mines have been sunk in Butte, but the number surely runs into the hundreds. A 1925 photo of the hill shows a town mingled among the steel girdering of 40 mine frames and a half-dozen smokestacks, tokens of a time when the American industrial adventure was shot through with utopian yearning, when the frontier seemed both available and boundless. Something on the order of $25 billion in mineral bounty was extracted from the hill. Exorbitance of scale was the order of the day. In 1955, in an effort to increase the viability of mining low-grade copper ore--ore that yielded on average 15 pounds of metal from every ton of crushed rock--the Company largely replaced underground drilling and blasting with open-pit mining, mining as indiscriminate earth removal, executed by outsize mechanical shovels and trucks that moved on 11-foot tires and could bear away 170 tons of earth at each go. "We moved as much as 300,000 tons in a 24-hour period," says a former mining boss.

Whole working-class neighborhoods--Meaderville and McQueen and East Butte--were also hauled away, swallowed by the pit. The pit ran night and day for 28 years. "Never thought it would end. Nobody did," an old man tells me in the darkness of the Helsinki Bar and Sauna, which calls itself the Last of Finntown and dangles a hundred yards from the pit's edge. In 1977, the Company, its Chilean mining properties nationalized by the Allende government, was absorbed by the oil giant ARCO, which shut down operations at the pit in 1983. On Earth Day that year--a hundred years plus one after Daly's epoch-making copper strike--ARCO turned off the pumps that had removed water from the pit and the underground mines at the rate of 5,000 gallons each minute.

Listen closely to the Butte hill. Water--kept at bay for a century so that the traces of metal could be followed ever deeper into the hill--is returning, spilling through vast subterranean channels of abandoned mine workings, creeping toward the surface. In November 1983 a faint pool appeared at the bottom of the pit, 1,800 feet below ground. Twelve years later, the lake was some 850 feet deep, a 26-billion-gallon tank of water growing by five to seven million gallons each day--enough water lost each day to supply the needs of a town of Butte's size. Over the past several years the water level has risen about 30 feet annually, and as it rises the collective gaze of the people of Butte is increasingly compelled toward the surface. "It's a big bathtub," I've been told. "Somebody left the tap on and went to the store."

Russ Forba, the Environmental Protection Agency's project manager for the Berkeley Pit, says that the facetiously labeled Lake Berkeley is "the largest body of severely contaminated water in the United States. There are smaller, more toxic bodies of water, and there are larger, less contaminated waters, but at this size this is the most contaminated water in the country." The stew is laced with copper, cadmium, zinc, nickel, lead, and arsenic and, in the summary terms of a scientific paper on hazardous wastes, "contains metals and sulfate concentrations thousands of times those found in uncontaminated water." The water is sizzlingly acidic. Its pH level, around 2.5, is characterized by various interested parties as comparable to lime juice or battery acid.

A hundred thousand visitors stop to look at the pit each year. The cars and minivans and RVs pull up behind the barbed-wire fence on Continental Drive, and the road-weary passengers wander through a timbered faux mine entrance and down a hundred feet of concrete tunnel to the modestly appointed pit viewing stand. About a mile and a half wide and a mile across--600 football fields of excavated turf--the scope of the pit and the sheerness of its vertical drop are starkly disorienting. The encroaching lake below stretches out innocently and daintily, like a wading pond in which children might race toy boats, until, with the assistance of high-power binoculars, one spots collapsed telephone poles floating in tiny clusters like driftwood. The surface is a thick gloss, and its dark cherry skin reflects clouds and sky and the pastel shades of the surrounding walls, a hypnotic play of light and shadow. It's Big Sky in a tube. Tearing open the hill has exposed a disarming spectrum of colors, pale greens and yellows, rich alluvial burgundy, bleached white. The walls, streaked by erosion, have a watery, stricken quality. The cliffs are scored with vivid geometric patterns, the effect of some 2,500 miles of road cut into the pit walls at vertical intervals of 40 feet--crumbling tiers visible for miles, grand pyramidal slopes, accented by sharp diagonals. It's the haunted geography of a ruin. It's the insides of a town cast brutally into sight.

Nineteen ninety-five brings an unusually mild fall to Montana. In early November, Freezeout Lake, 150 miles north of Butte in Teton County, is blanketed with snow geese. Eighty thousand birds are observed in a screeching mass at this traditional migratory stopover point. A feeding frenzy ensues. The depleted geese scour nearby fields for grain and insects and for the gravel that helps grind food in their gizzards. They stay for a few days or a few weeks, until they feel the freeze approaching.

Thanksgiving is near. Hunters linger in the predawn chill in the ponds and marshes surrounding Freezeout Lake. Five dollars for a Montana waterfowl stamp buys a daily bag limit of three white geese. Twenty thousand such stamps are issued each season. The birds are wily, though, and make uncertain targets. They are fleet and jittery and protect one another with blaring calls. The lone hunter wading in the mist is watched by the telescopic gaze of hundreds of eyes. Fewer than 2,000 geese perish in Montana during the autumn hunt.

Those geese that weave through the spiked trap of bullets will cross into Idaho and follow the coils of the Snake River into the Columbia River Valley. They will veer south across the rangelands of eastern Oregon and wait out the season in California's Sacramento valley, whose pesticide-dusted fields provide their winter feeding grounds. This is what snow geese do: feed, fly, avoid the lures of predators below.

​Oran Brazington is a field technician at the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology who monitors an array of Butte's polluted waters. On the morning of November 14, a clear and calm fall Tuesday following a wintry Veteran's Day weekend, he drove to the edge of the Berkeley Pit water to gather a 2,200-gallon sample for a company investigating the commercial potential of the mineral-rich bath. "We were down hooking up the pumps and we saw a few geese floating around," he says. "And one lying behind the pump on the ground with its head chewed off. I climbed up the berm, another ten feet, and there were white spots everywhere. I counted something like 177, real quick, floating in the water. There could have been twice that many behind logs, or sunk, or on shore. They were all over the pit."

In the past, Brazington had occasionally glimpsed scattered numbers of dead waterfowl in the pit: "One here, one there." Something of an entirely different order was suggested by the white specks now littering the lake's still surface. "It was just a massive kill," Brazington says. "We were all in awe."

News of the die-off was first publicly reported the next day. Viewers of local television squinted at serene images of distant commotion: a tiny drift boat, its embattled crew in hard hats and Tyvek suits, maneuvering around the pit, skimming the water with nets suspended on long poles. The carcasses, once retrieved, lined the bank of the pit, wrapped in plastic to prevent scavenging and potential contamination of the food chain. After three days of work, a death toll of 171 snow geese was announced. Within a week, assisted by the elegant logic of fables, the body count precisely doubled to 342.

Sandy Stash, ARCO's Manager of Montana Facilities, is a contemporary breed of corporate animal, in masterful charge of the gestures of sincerity. Assured, energetic, an intently focused Company Woman described to me by her opponents as a "mouthpiece," Stash has the unenviable job of presiding over ARCO's local exit strategy. The company's Montana Facilities are defunct; in 1985, two years after the Snake closed its last mine in Butte, it bailed out of town entirely, selling its properties at fire-sale discounts to a Montana investor. Under a provision of the federal Superfund law that ARCO would dearly like to see altered, the progeny of the Snake is held liable for its ancestors' misdeeds.

While the snow geese were being swept from the pit, Stash established a ubiquitous presence in the local media, expressing the Company's aggrieved perplexity. In the first newspaper reports of the die-off, Stash was said to have "no idea" about the cause of death. "We're as anxious as everybody is to find out what occurred. At this point, nobody is making any guesses at all." The following day, however, Stash was more inclined toward speculation. The headline in Butte's Montana Standard--sometimes referred to as the ARCO Standard--read, "Fungus May Have Killed Snow Geese." It appeared that one of the Berkeley Pit geese, sent by ARCO to a Colorado laboratory, was determined to have been suffering from an acute respiratory infection linked to a fungus. Rotten Canadian grain was suspected. No other unexplained deaths were reported along the length of the Pacific migratory flyway. The Berkeley Pit, it seemed, was merely the magical site upon which the hapless birds had converged to die.

After a few weeks, ARCO's hold on reality was confronting distressed skepticism. The birds had been buried en masse in a dump site not far from the pit, but they could not be made to vanish from local consciousness. A branch of the Montana Department of Justice had run its own tests on pit geese and had found no evidence of murderous fungus. It did, however, describe carcasses that loomed like a nightmare version of Mother Goose: feathers matted with sticky yellow residue, skin blistered with lesions, bodies ravaged with a grisly variety of internal injuries--corroded esophagi and tracheae, livers and kidneys bloated with presumably toxic levels of copper, manganese, zinc, and cadmium. Candace West, the Montana Justice Department's lead lawyer on the case, was not unaware of the emotional and symbolic value of pristine wild birds that lacked the capacity to distinguish pollution from nourishment. West told the Standard, "One thing that became very clear to us is that they really suffered an agonizing death."

Nonplussed by the findings, Stash chided the state for irresponsibly jumping the gun. "From our perspective this is still an unexplained kill," she said. She admits to me that the fungus could be ruled out as the likely culprit. "There's no obvious sign of what killed the birds," she tells me. "Perhaps they were sick when they landed." It didn't look like cholera or botulism. Pesticides would have to be considered. "But there's nothing jumping out as The Cause," she says. "Pit effects are one of the three factors we're looking at. Understand, I'm a scientist, an engineer by training, and one does not state a conclusion until one has a conclusion to state."

Another scientist, Johnnie Moore, a geologist at the University of Montana, tells me that he wasn't surprised when he heard that geese were found dead in the pit: "The only surprising thing was hearing Sandy Stash say it doesn't have anything to do with the chemistry of the pit water. That's the most incredible thing I've ever heard. This stuff is unbelievably contaminated. If you drank a glass of pit water instead of that cup of coffee, you'd be lucky to get out of this room."

TO FOLLOW THE CLARK FORK OF THE COLUMBIA River from Missoula, where I live, eastward to Butte, is to undertake the pursuit of a trail of waste. The relevant "migration" here is not that of birds or of destitute job-seekers, but of riverborne toxins. The 120-mile stretch of Interstate 90 that connects the two towns is lined with the detritus of gold, silver, and above all the red metal. It might aptly be named Copper Road. The Montana Bureau of Mines notes in one of its publications that the copper removed from below Butte could pave the four lanes and shoulders of I-90 with a radiant six-inch-deep surface for 90 miles.

Consider the seemingly lush waterfowl habitat of the Milltown Reservoir, just east of the Hellgate Canyon, eight miles outside Missoula. Formed by the damming of the Clark Fork at its confluence with the Blackfoot River, the reservoir sits atop a bed of sediments so metallic that the EPA in 1982 was moved to seal the arsenic-contaminated wells that provided drinking water for Milltown's residents. In February of this year, after an ice jam forced the dam to be drawn down, an influx of heavy metals swept downriver, far beyond Missoula, carrying, it's suspected, a huge number of dead fish.

The "Mill" in Milltown was for many years the lumber division of the Anaconda Company, one of the world's largest sawmills, providing timbers for mine shafts and tunnels in Butte, railroad ties, and fuel for upstream smelters. The hills of western Montana still bear evidence of the swath that the Snake cut through the state's forests.

In Deer Lodge, more than halfway to Butte, the Old State Prison dominates the center of town. Wayne Hadley, a fisheries biologist in the state's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, sits in his cramped office in the converted kitchen of the old Warden's Residence and offers me an hour of instruction in the deceptive nature of appearances. I am thinking of the blue heron I saw gliding to the surface of the Clark Fork outside Deer Lodge when Hadley tells me, "From my perspective as a biologist, the river is crippled, and it's crippled by metals. A good estimate is that there's one-third as many fish as there should be." He relates the progress he has made documenting the fish kills that the Clark Fork regularly suffers. "It's very difficult to detect a fish kill," he explains. "The river's dirty, and you can't see into it. The duration of the evidence is surprisingly short. You can kill thousands of fish, and in a matter of days you're hard pressed to find any of them. The ravens and the crows and raccoons take care of them pretty quickly." Hadley waves a keepsake in front of me, the bones of a trout stained green with copper. Before coming to Montana, Hadley lived in western New York and had a son enrolled in day care in Love Canal. He has unwittingly followed a broad band of toxicity on both sides of the Divide. "Punishment for bad behavior in a previous life," is his exit line.

Thirty miles from Butte, the Clark Fork begins at the juncture of Silver Bow and Warm Springs Creeks. A series of ponds was constructed here to try to separate metals from water before they are carried downstream. The process has created as its by-product millions of tons of sludge. As you approach Butte, the dispersed signs of mine waste begin to emerge more openly. The town of Anaconda, the Company's past headquarters for smelting and administration, lies in the shadow of the Washoe Smelter, whose 585-foot smokestack was the world's largest masonry structure. At the base of the stack, behind fences marked with signs reading "Danger. Contaminated Area," lies an enormous hill of glossy black slag. The smelter has been shut down since 1982. Vegetation is scarce for a few hundred square miles. In 1902, a ranch downwind of Anaconda sustained losses of about 1,000 cattle, 800 sheep, and 20 horses: arsenic poisoning. In the mid-1980s, the nearby Mill Creek community disappeared from the map, its residents relocated when elevated levels of arsenic were found in children's urine. ARCO is sealing the contaminated soil of Anaconda with a golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus. Slag is said to make superior sand traps.

Silver Bow Creek leads to Butte, about 25 miles distant. The creek, so named because of the way settlers saw its water lit by sunlight, is barely alive. Mine tailings blanket the floodplain, sometimes four feet thick, for the full length of the creek. As it slips through the bottom of Butte's valley, the creek is channeled by thick, 12-foot-high walls formed from molten slag. Silver Bow Creek begins near the Continental Divide, from which point one can gaze straight down into the Berkeley Pit, whose scooped-out interior, pulverized, rinsed with chemicals, set to intense heat, was carried off by the creek and then the Clark Fork, through Western Montana, bound for the Pacific.

FRITZ DAILY IS THE ANCIENT MARINER OF THE BERKELEY PIT. He has been seized by an apprehension of calamity and is doomed to issue his warnings of impending peril to all who stop to listen. Daily represented Butte in the Montana legislature from 1979 until 1995, and his style is that of a street fighter, scrappy, impassioned. He speaks in staccato bursts about his obsession, the Berkeley Pit. When I first meet him, Daily hands me a hundred pages of documents he has compiled to demonstrate a conspiracy of neglect. Pestering the authorities--the EPA, Montana's Department of Environmental Quality, ARCO--has become Daily's hobby. Butte plundered itself for the good of the country, according to his version of the fable, and deserves fair treatment in return. "The United States wouldn't be what it is without this town," he says. "We built the communications, the electrical system. Without this town we might not have won the war."

Butte has always been struck by theatrical notions of itself and tends to conceive of its future in apocalyptic terms. "The disaster hasn't happened yet," Daily tells me, "but every day it comes closer. There's going to be a disaster." Plague imagery accumulates in Butte on a matter-of-fact basis. The EPA's strategy for staving off the pit's floodwaters mandates perpetual containment--allowing the water to rise a few hundred feet more and then pumping off further inflow. Daily is not alone in his fear of a cleanup plan that requires perpetual vigilance, and he contends that the cracked bedrock walls of the pit make for an untrustworthy vessel. Discharged pit water, he says, will fan out in an implacable toxic stain. Daily also notes Butte's location astride the Continental Fault, in an active seismic region, and points to the possibility of an earthquake that could foist an acidic tidal wave on the residential neighborhoods below the pit.

THE MOST OPULENT IMAGE OF CATACLYSMIC BUTTE is one of literal collapse. Beneath the Butte hill winds viscera of extravagant proportion--at least 3,500 miles of spidery, interconnected mine tunnels, extending more than a mile underground, flooded with metal-laden waters that have risen more than 3,000 feet since the abandonment of the pumps. At times, wandering through Uptown Butte, I was stirred by an intimation of the lives that passed through the dark cavities of the world inside the world. "Honeycombed" is the term most frequently used to describe Butte's depths, and Butte is rather like a disused beehive that one might stumble upon in a hedge--brittle, more air than substance, a shell that evokes the faint drone of relentless activity that stopped long ago.

The dream of the frontier range was one of horizon and expanse; Butte plumbed the vertical dimensions of the dream. Its cramped, narrow streets, its rowhouses and battered shotgun dwellings, sketch a diagram above ground of the dim, stagnant spaces of Butte's underground habitat. For years, Butte was Bad Sky country, clouded day and night with sulfurous fumes from roasting ores in the midst of town. Neighborhoods grew up around mines, and a dozen "gallows frames"--the imposing, latticed steel triangles that dropped miners into the earth in iron cages--still dominate the town's skyline, strung with colored lights at Christmastime. Daily guides me through some of the remaining Uptown neighborhoods, where hordes of immigrants drawn to Butte by mining settled in ethnic enclaves. Butte, America, was an island set in unfamiliar territory, distinct from the rest of Montana ethnically, religiously, politically, economically. "My mom grew up here, in Dublin Gulch," Daily says. His Butte is full of memories and waste sites. He pulls up to a sunken patch of dirt, about three feet across, crudely blocked off with sawhorses. "See how it's caved in?" he says. "There was actually a dog down there. They got the dog out."

Daily dislikes the EPA and ARCO with equal vehemence; he charges environmental groups with being elitist and ineffectual and resents the Snake for abusing and abandoning the town. His love for Butte, though, is nearly inarticulate. He drives me, on this St. Patrick's Day, along a muddy, rutted road through a desolate field above the pit and points to the five mountain ranges visible around us. We're 200 yards from the edge of the Yankee Doodle tailings pond, an enormous impoundment of mine waste, and Daily convinces me that this is great elk-hunting country. Butte is the sight of such paradoxes. One former miner told me, mournfully, of his memories of sledding down a pile of waste rock behind his childhood home. "When you see Butte you probably think it's ugly," Daily says. "To me it's beautiful. But, when I drive through Kellogg, Idaho"--another folded-up mining camp--"I know it's ugly."

There's a fatalism in Butte, it's often suggested, that's the result of generations of submission to the Snake, an acceptance of the risks and hardships of mining. Butte has had privileged access to the dim strata below visible surfaces and has learned through this experience the true lesson of the underworld: What you see down there can change you, if it doesn't kill you first.

"Cancer" is a word on everybody's lips in this town. It doesn't matter where I do my eavesdropping--in the M&M Caf‹, whose fluorescent lights bleach the linoleum 24 hours a day, or in the affected confines of the Uptown Caf‹, offering "civilized dining in the wild, wild west"--it's not long before cancer stories are traded. Johnnie Moore, the geologist, has summarized available epidemiological data in a published report that notes extraordinarily high rates of cancer, kidney disease, and cardiovascular disease in Butte. While Butte was actively mined, it had one of the country's highest rates of death from disease. For its rate of cancer among women, who only rarely descended below ground, the county ranked among the top 5 percent of U.S. counties throughout the 1970s. Sickness follows Butte's trail of waste through the Clark Fork basin. Butte and Anaconda high schools enroll the largest proportion of learning-disabled students in the state, a suspected result of exposure to lead. Butte's reputation as a place that breeds sickness is cruelly acknowledged, around the state, in jokes about "Butants."

MAGICAL THINKING THRIVES IN BUTTE. In the late seventies a man named Bob O'Bill pledged to God that if his cancer-afflicted wife should be spared, he would erect a monument of praise in the mountains. Thus was born Our Lady of the Rockies, a hyperreal, grandiose model of the Madonna, set astride the Continental Divide, watching over Butte, surveying the pit, her gaze turned ever westward. Our Lady, whose floodlit figure appears in the distance like an ornament that might top the cake after a child's first communion, is the grace note in Butte's symbolic landscape. Last December, putting the recently plucked snow geese out of its mind, Butte celebrated the tenth birthday of its statue, recalling the breathless moment when Our Lady's shrouded head was deposited by a Ch-54 Sikorsky Sky Crane 8,500 feet above sea level.

I enter the offices of Our Lady of the Rockies through the copper doors of the former St. Mary's Church, across the street from the gallows frame of the Original mine, and am handed the obligatory stat sheet: height, 90 feet; weight, 51 tons; and so on. A statement of one of the early developers of the project maintains that "the economy of this town will begin to turn around when we turn the lights on her." I pause before the Heart of Hope, a hollow five-by-six-foot valentine sculpted from quarter-inch steel in proportion to the mountaintop figure. Visitors are invited to deposit notes of prayer into a slot in the heart. "As there is no way to open the heart," a sign assures me, "nobody will ever read what is placed inside. Once the heart is full, it will be permanently sealed."

WAS A TIME WHEN BUTTE LOOKED BELOW ground, not above, for guidance. Was a time when anonymous pleas for prosperity would have seemed frivolous, and no one lost sleep over the prospects of toxins remaining "permanently sealed." What a reckless, dreamlike adventure it must have been--crossing the sea, crossing the sweeping American landmass, groping farther and farther inside the earth for metal that could carry light and sound. Before railcars were run through the mines, perhaps a thousand horses were kept underground, hauling ore. When the horses lost their strength, they were hoisted up the cages and put out to pasture, blind from the years of toiling in darkness.

Emmett Murphy has been described to me several times as "the man who dug the Berkeley Pit." ("Emmett forgot more about the Berkeley Pit last week than Russ Forba [of the EPA] ever knew," Fritz Daily has promised me.) Murphy is close to 80 now, gentle and grandfatherly and surprised that anyone would be interested in what an old miner has to say. We sit in the family room of the house he built in 1950. One wall in his living room displays a framed picture of the Belmont mine set against a western sky streaked crimson. On another wall hangs a copper plate inscribed "John Emmett Murphy, Engineer of Mines." Murphy worked for the Anaconda Company for 38 years. His first job was to wipe down the rail tracks in the tunnels; he rose to be superintendent of the thousands of men working in the Berkeley Pit.

Murphy knows what happened there: "That pit water--no birds could live in it. You could take nails and put them in the copper water and it'll eat them up. Whenever we had copper water down in the mines, we never had corns on our feet--the acid would eat the corns out. Almost everyone's overalls would get eaten up. So I don't know whether it's a warning, but a lot of people think so." The geese, it seems, are this generation's version of canaries, returned from the mine as harbingers.

Yes, says Murphy, the miners of his time knew perfectly well that the pit meant trouble down the line. But nobody thought that the almighty Snake would ever be finished with Butte. Murphy still talks about metals with a connoisseur's passion. His vision of Butte's future is drawn from dimming memories. "I look to see Butte as a great mining camp again some day," he says. "There's more ore left in Butte than has been taken out in 100 years. It's all been sampled, all plotted on maps. Oh, beautiful ore there underground, beautiful ore."

ONE SATURDAY AFTERNOON IN FEBRUARY, when most of the snow geese were long settled in their wintering grounds, about 200 people convened during a blizzard at Butte's Knights of Columbus hall to commemorate the 342 that got left behind. The hall was strung with pale white origami geese. A Chippewa-Cree prayer ceremony began, and a carved pipe was passed among celebrants. Mourners rose with linked arms to sing a round whose chorus proclaimed, "There's a river of birds in migration, a nation of people with wings." Speeches were read and poems were recited and the inexorable flow of water into the Berkeley Pit was bemoaned and the microphone was open to any who were seized with the elegiac impulse and by day's end it was agreed that a healing time was had by all.

The memorial, sponsored by the Helena chapter of a group called Women's Voices for the Earth, was cohosted by a tightly wound Butte woman in her early fifties, Mary Kay Craig. Craig is the very face of extremism to many Butte residents, who have been convinced that the environmentalist affront to Butte's values is somehow orchestrated by a cabal of wealthy urban fly fishermen. Craig presides over Butte's sole environmentalist group and is the one local figure of sufficient daring and eccentricity to tell Butte that the idealized collective enterprise of its past was an ecological horror. For its efforts in sifting through the daunting mass of documentation related to Butte's Superfund sites, Craig's group--Citizens' Technical Environmental Committee--has been called an "environmentalist cult" in The Technocrat, the student paper at Montana Tech. In the weeks before the memorial, a local television news broadcast ran a story mocking the planned "parade for geese." Neither ARCO nor the EPA sent representatives to the event. "It just wasn't appropriate to attend," Sandy Stash said. Fritz Daily told me that the snow geese memorial had been received around town as a joke. "The true Butte person doesn't go for that kind of thing," he said. "The true Butte person wants the mines to come back."

APRIL 11, MY FINAL DAY IN BUTTE. I WAKE IN a dollhouse room at the Copper King Mansion bed-and-breakfast, the former home of one of Butte's storied mining barons, overlooking the local Job Service center. The radio broadcasts a report of chlorine spilling from a derailed train near the now-evacuated town of Alberton, 30 miles west of Missoula along the Clark Fork. Scores of people are sent to the hospital, and one man is killed. The rail line that transported the chemicals is owned by a man whose holdings include the single pit mine still running in Butte.

Mining continues to be regarded by many Montanans as economic salvation. A huge gold mine has been proposed for Lincoln, Montana, hovering just above the Blackfoot River--the famed trout stream of A River Runs Through It, now considered by one national group to be the country's most endangered river. The mine is expected to leave behind a chasm comparable in size to the Berkeley Pit. Mine developers, however, say that they've hired an "environmental artist" to sculpt millions of tons of waste rock into an artificial mountain that will be aesthetically compatible with its surroundings.

Under federal wildlife protection statutes, the accidental taking of a migratory bird is punishable by a fine of $5,000 per bird. This spring's snow geese have already passed through on their route back to the arctic, but no enforcement action has yet been taken. An investigation is still underway. Sandy Stash has let me know, however, that at this point ARCO is fairly certain that the deaths were related to the acidic water in the pit. She described a study that ARCO has undertaken in which snow geese deprived of fluids were exposed to a choice between freshwater and pit water. The geese opted for the tastier stew of contaminants, which they imbibed, Stash said, "at extraordinarily high rates." Within eight hours the birds began to show "effects," including lethargy and "acting funny." Within 18 to 24 hours, "mortality" was the observed effect.

ARCO has now set its sights on shooing birds from the pit water. On my way out of town, I stop by the pit viewing stand for a final glimpse of my personal grand canyon. An explosion echoes in swirls around the pit walls like a crisp thunderclap. A series of high-pitched electronic noises follow. Through binoculars I see two men at the rim of the pit with shotguns raised. They've spotted a bird landing in the pit and have sprung heroically into action. It's twilight, and though I can barely make out a speck of brown life--perhaps a duck--near the center of the pond, I can follow the unmistakeable wispy V of its wake. For the next hour I watch the two men strain to haze the bird from the pit. They drive close to the bank of the water and fire their blasts at closer range. They vainly toss rocks toward the bird. They experiment with a Phoenix wailer, a high-priced piece of audio equipment that tries to frighten waterfowl with simulated noises--the calls of predators like eagles and falcons and the mechanical sounds of helicopters and chainsaws. Pageantry in Butte: a cross between Keystone Cops and religious allegory, complete with highly amplified sound track. I can no longer see the bird, but the men's increasingly frustrated mime on the far bank of the pit leaves no doubt that this is an animal beyond the reach of human intervention. They set off flares whose red streaks are scribbled in reflection across the water's surface, and finally they return to their truck and climb from the pit.

LOOK AT THE WATER. WATCH IT RISE. Imagine the surface spreading out, enlarging as the basin fills. Water is all you can see now, crimson, set aglow by the sun. Look at the water. You have traveled a long way and are savagely thirsty. Make your approach. Slide into the water, gently, feet testing the temperature, like a child climbing into a chilly chlorinated pool. Does it sting? Just a little. You're very tired, and the world is very quiet. Relax. Float. Feel yourself uplifted toward the rim. The water begins to spill over, a tentative trickle, gaining speed, developing a current. You are gliding. You are gripped by the tug of the flooded valley beyond the pit. You look at the sky, at the thin gauze of a midday moon. You see a white sheet descending toward you, streaking the sky--white birds, wings tipped black. They are circling and circling, and you watch them; you watch them as you plunge over the edge of the pit toward the decimated settlement below; you watch them as long as you can, which might be forever, and forever they have no place to land.

Mark Levine lives in Missoula, Montana. He is the author of Debt.

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