We have created every living thing from water.
– The Koran, Chapter Al-Anbiya, Verse Number 30
The first story I was told about rivers can be summed up like this: there is direct line from the Sumerian Ziggurat of Ur to the Chrysler Building. I was around nine.
2. Civilisation II
Rivers allowed us to grow food, store it, build houses, libraries, museums, cities and empires. I was maybe ten when I heard this one.
In sixth grade, the story shifted from history to science when we memorised that our hearts and brains were 73% water. I have always seen fresh water as precious, magical. I used to believe that water could think. If my brain was mainly water, why not?
Every single living and non-living, visible and non-visible object around us – our computer screens, the retinas in our eyeballs, the dust in the air – all of these rely on fresh water. Our body is a walking river. Water flows from us. The liquid inside us will out eventually.
In middle school, we were taught about the water cycle: river to rain to snow to mountain glacier to melting ice, back to river. We coloured in those diagrams and added those arrows diligently. But we were not told that this cycle was one of the many ways the earth breathes in and out. Nor were we told that bathing in the River Ganges frees the bather from sin, the outward cleanliness symbolising inner purification. This waterway is fed by the glaciers in the Himalayas, the Mountains of the Gods, and feeds the Indian plains as if descended from the heavens.
The fact that we as humans spend nine months growing in water also passed us by at school. The giggles of embarrassment in ‘Hygiene’ class drowned out any information about babies rolling around in their water-filled pods.
Water’s ability to seemingly clean itself, to rejuvenate, to flow and keep flowing no mater what we throw at it is a strange sort of illusion. If you fell a forest, the trail of destruction is there for people to see. But water is different, it keeps the secret for you.
Many rivers – despite their dams, their drying out, their dead fish, their pollution – are still flowing. Sometimes they run yellow or orange or green. Some may look crystal clear but are carrying thousands, if not millions of particles of arsenic, cadmium, phosphorus, nitrogen, mercury and lead. Two hundred and twenty-six million pounds of toxic chemicals are dumped in American rivers every year. Of this, 1.5 million pounds are carcinogens, 626,000 pounds are chemicals linked to developmental disorders and 354,000 pounds are associated with reproductive problems. Some rivers, such as the 1,900-mile long Rio Grande, are drying up and disappearing altogether, but many, in a heartbreaking display of trying to do the right thing, just keep flowing.
When I lived in Western Montana, ‘floating’ was what you did on hot days. You’d drive to the Blackfoot or the Clark Fork with a spare inner tube strapped to the roof of your car or in the bed of your pickup. You’d throw it into the river, stick a hat on your head (that searing Montana sun), lean back into your rubber doughnut and let the river take you. We were lucky in Montana: 40% of its rivers are deemed ‘good’ by the Environmental Protection Agency as compared with, for instance, 21% in the coastal plains around the Gulf of Mexico. You know things are bad when the best bill of health is one in which you are more sick than healthy.
9. White Sulphur Springs
Here’s another story. A more recent one, which isn’t taught in schools because it is about me and a guy I once met near a river:
It is a damp December morning in 2016 and I am driving through a starlit, pinky dawn from Missoula to the town of White Sulphur Springs (population 1,000). The morning light has crested above the distant mountains as I roll down Main Street. The town is a mixture of boarded-up storefronts and some new, thriving businesses. There is a real estate office, a cinema, a pizza place, a few gas stations, a couple of bars, and, off the main street, a library. And then there is the unfussy Hot Springs Spa Motel with its pools of sulphurous, health-enhancing spring water. It was while soaking in one of these springs a few months ago that I heard a man with an Australian accent talking about the mine. My ears immediately perked up. I bumped into him later that day in a bar down the road from the motel and we started up a conversation. We were two out-of-towners waiting for our drinks.
I Googled him that night only to discover that he is Bruce Hooper, one of the directors of Tintina Resources – a Canadian and Australian mining company which is behind the proposed copper mine in White Sulphur Springs. I find out that he also worked for BP and Rio Tinto – companies behind some of the worst ecological disasters of the past few years. Tintina are dying to get their hands on the world’s largest lode of copper which is buried 13 miles from Sheep Creek, a major trout-spawning tributary of the Smith River. The Smith is one of the last great untouched rivers, and it pays its keep: about $4.5 million a year is made from floaters who travel its 60-mile limestone canyon between the Little and Big Belt Mountains. But none of this matters in this story.
Tintina’s project is called Black Butte, after the black butte which sits atop the deposit of pure copper. It has been on the table for several years, and Tintina are waiting for the green light. Judging by who holds the power these days, it’s probably not long until the trucks start rumbling and the ground is ripped open. The copper will make the company millions, and the River, well, it’s a river. It will keep flowing no matter what shit they dump in it.
10. The Tour
I book myself into a tour of the proposed Black Butte copper mine in White Sulphur Springs. I ask about the tailings – the toxic water that is the result of blasting the copper-laden rock from the earth – and am told that they’ve got a ‘great idea’ for that. The guy leading the tour speaks in a soothing homespun way which does the opposite of reassure me. Doesn’t he know what mines do? All his metaphors for the violence of this proposed mine are couched in Pinterest-style baking terms. The rocks left over from the excavations will be pulverised to the consistency of ‘icing sugar’ and will be blended with the chemical-laden water until it is a sort of paste. They’ll be made into ‘cakes’ and will be shoved back into the holes in the ground. ‘Cheesecloth’ is involved. No-one will ever know the land was ever mined. According to my tour guide, this story has a really happy ending, like a Martha Stewart cake recipe: everyone gets a piece of it.
In 1872, when miners were flocking to Montana to stake their claims, a law was passed which allowed them to dig up what they wanted, inject whatever chemicals they needed to separate mineral from rock, gold from stone, copper from its vein, and walk away without cleaning up the waste. There are thousands of abandoned mines all over the state. Exactly a hundred years later, the Clean Water Act was created. The 1872 act is older but often supercedes the Clean Water Act.
It is difficult for people outside of the American West to grasp the enormity of the reclamation problem. Scott Fields, an environmental health writer, admits there is plenty of controversy around abandoned mines: how many, how lethal, how best to clean them up. But according to him, experts can agree on at least a few major points: ‘the scope of the impacts of abandoned mines isn’t well understood, the damage that untended mines cause is increasing, and adequate funds aren’t available to address even the largest, most harmful mine sites. And although scientists are developing new methods to treat abandoned mines, the field of mine remediation is still in its infancy.’
There are two main types of mining: placer and hard rock mining. Placer mining is all about water. The word comes from the Spanish, placer, meaning a shoal or alluvial deposit. It has also given us ‘place’ and ‘plaza’. Gold is the place, roads are paved with it in our imaginations, it is central to our way of thinking, our economy, our myths, our histories. It centres and grounds us.
13. Twin Creek
This is a more recent story. This one has a happy ending:
It is the end of April and Paul Parson is driving me to Twin Creek, 20 miles west of Missoula. Paul is a restoration coordinator for the river conservation group Trout Unlimited. In his late thirties or early forties, Paul has an easy, relaxed manner and speaks quietly and deliberately, choosing his words carefully – something I have come to associate with this part of the world.
Steering his truck with his knees, he looks over at me and asks if his driving makes me nervous. ‘Not at all,’ I say, trying to be nonchalant.
We turn off the I-90 onto Nine Mile Road. This landscape is the stuff of screensavers and calendars. Mountains in the distance, wooden fences and photogenic barns slanting at attractive angles. It was once ranching land but is no longer.
Paul is talking to me about mining. He sees it from the other side, from the side of the rivers that have had just about everything poured and leached into them and left for dead. ‘Private mining claims often follow rivers as you need a lot of water to mine. And mines just decimate them. Rivers can heal themselves if you give them a leg up and plant the right things near them and get their meanders right, but…’ he shrugs, leaving me to finish that thought.
This is what Paul does all day: he reclaims, remakes, and designs rivers, although he dislikes the term ‘designing’ when it comes to what he does – too pretentious.
Paul and I park a short walk from Twin Creek and meet up with two of his co-workers, Dave and Rob. Paul says we can kill two birds with one stone by doing some planting – he is too humble to call it rewilding – and checking out how Twin Creek, one of Trout Unlimited’s latest reclamation projects, is coming along. To an outsider, the stream looks perfect – too perfect. Small waterfalls of aesthetically piled rocks appear at intervals. Each stone, dip, and curve of the creek has been ‘designed’. It is alarming how this near-perfection in nature looks unnatural. I watch the three men walk along the stream. If you didn’t know them, it would be clear to you that they were not out for a hike. They run their fingers through the grasses and shrubs they planted from seed: willow and hawthorn and rose. They touch the trunks of the three cottonwoods they left in place which have seeded others nearby naturally, as well as the conifers which they planted as saplings. They poke at the mushrooms and squat to examine some scat: elk and bear and goose, full of seeds. It’s all looking good.
‘We know what a healthy stream looks like,’ Paul says, ‘it’s in our mind’s eye’. They stop and listen to the sound of the water and talk of the meander. Like artists or physicians, they call upon all their senses to review their work. Certain plants are thriving more than others. For the first time in a long time, the creek meets up with the Nine Mile River and will soon be able to support trout. This is a success story.
‘Native trout are really sensitive to climate change,’ Paul says. ‘They can’t survive in warm water. They are an ice age fish. Ex-mining water is the worst for them. It’s often standing water, doesn’t flow, gets warm as a result, and the flows that were created from the digging go in straight lines and this causes a lot of sediment. Trout are very sensitive to sediment.’
Paul wants to show me what a creek looks like before he and his team have done their work, so I have something to compare Twin Creek to. We head to the Mattie V Creek, named, I believe, after Mattie Hixson who married a Montana man in the 1920s. Mattie died in 1985 at the age of 83 and her namesake creek has been sitting stagnant and polluted for a long time. Paul took Mattie’s great grandsons fishing to show them what a good stream looks like and said, ‘This could be on your property’. They got totally behind the clean-up. It is a horribly ugly spot. The still water is split-pea green. It buries the trees half way up their trunks. Hills of sludge have been piled into grassless tors around the site. It is unnervingly quiet and claustrophobic. We don’t stay long.
We are lulled into thinking that because these sacred waterways – and every river is sacred – are constantly flowing, they possess what we desire more than anything: eternal life and an ever-changing nature that gives the impression of permanence. They are everything we want to be. But even rivers can die.
The first known use of the word ‘reclaim’ is in the 13th-century anonymously penned poem Cursor Mundi, whose title in English means ‘Runner of the World’. Its 30,000 verses were written by a cleric in the North of England as a way of tracing history and religion up to his lifetime. In the Cursor Mundi, to ‘reclaim’ is to ‘call back a hawk’. In the 14th century the word was used to mean ‘to reduce to obedience’. And today the word retains that sense of control in its definition ‘to bring land under cultivation’. But now among ecologists, rewilders, and environmentalists, to ‘reclaim’ land is to return it to a pristine Eden-like state. But just how far back do we go in reclaiming a river or a tract of land? Does one try to ecologically wind the clock back to pre-ice age times? Or to one of the interglacial ages? If so, which one? They are all very different with their own unique flora and fauna. Does one go back to 1492 when Columbus set foot on American soil, which is what some American rewilders used to think. Others, however, believe that 1778 is more desirable – the year Captain Cook landed in Hawaii. Whereas for some the foundation of Yellowstone Park in 1872 is the ecological baseline to which we should be aiming in our reclamation projects. And for the more dedicated contemporary rewilders, we should be looking to our Stone Age ancestors, to the hunter-gatherers, for the most ecologically healthy baseline. The debates are ongoing. But we all seem to think we need to look back in order to move forward.
In 1963 the National Park Service published the Leopold Report, named after the zoologist and conservationist A. Starker Leopold. Starker was the son of Aldo Leopold, one of the founders of the land conservation movement in the United States, whose book A Sand County Almanac contains a chapter on Ecological Conscience in which he put forth the idea that ‘conservation is a state of harmony between man and land’. But the authors of the Leopold Report were already aware of the problems and the conflicts in reclamation. They wrote: ‘restoring the primitive scene is not done easily nor can it be done completely … a reasonable illusion of primitive America could be recreated, using the utmost in skill, judgment, and ecologic sensitivity.’ Even in 1963 there was the awareness that wilderness could only exist in America as a ‘reasonable illusion’.
The rivers Paul Parsons reclaims are not wild rivers, they are illusions of wild rivers. Just because a river flows does not mean it is not dead. We can and we should reclaim as much of the earth as we can even if it means dreaming ourselves back to a time very few people can remember, before history was written and stories were on paper. I would much rather wander through the reasonable illusion of Twin Creek than the toxic reality of the Mattie V. For now, and probably for the rest of our time on earth, humans will have to come to terms with the reasonable illusion of wilderness, because the real thing is disappearing fast. The story goes that we can call back the hawk, although we know in our hearts it is too far away to hear our cries.