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Wisdom Sits Here: Learning from a Ravaged Land

By Carolyn Raffensperger Fukushima, Love Canal, Hanford Washington, Chernobyl, Bhobal. These names represent catastrophes that will linger torpid and toxic for thousands of years. Recently I added another name to this list, the Canadian Giant Mine in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.

A year ago I was invited to draft the principles of perpetual care for the Giant Mine, an abandoned gold mine up near the Arctic Circle. The mine is appropriately named “Giant” because of its size and the scale of its toxicity. It could just as easily be called the Toxic Forever Mine with its 237,000 tons of arsenic trioxide that was blown back into the vast caverns below the surface of the Earth.

The questions that the idea of perpetual care raises challenge human conceptions of time since these sites will be hazardous beyond the range of human memory. Sites like the WIPP site in New Mexico contain radioactive materials that will be hazardous for 250,000 years or 10,000 generations. How do we warn generations that far into the future? How do we protect them? What do they need to know? By what right do we leave a legacy to the future beings that they will have to pay for and that is so toxic?

It would be so easy to forget the Giant Mine. It is far away and the local human population nearby is small. But the Giant Mine holds a story that contains a moral. It tells us the consequences of heedless greed. It is a warning in and of itself: gut the land and you gut yourself. Simply saying the words, Giant Mine or Fukushima invokes an entire history of technology, of place, of human insanity.

The Western Apache, a tribe in the desert southwest of the U.S., tell history in a remarkable way. History isn’t about time, it is about space. They can name a place and simply by naming it conjure the entire story that happened there. The story has a moral with it. The stories tell us how we should live. The Apache say that wisdom sits in places. They aren’t unique in telling history through place names. Vine Deloria says that most American tribes hold “spatial conceptions of history”. Keith Basso, author of the book Wisdom Sits in Places says, “For Indian men and women, the past lies embedded in features of the earth—in canyons and lakes, mountains and arroyos, rocks and vacant fields—which together endow their lands with multiple forms of significance that reach into their lives and shape the way they think.” Pg 34

Basso, quoting N. Scott Momaday says that “men and women learn to appropriate their landscapes, to think and act “with” them as well as about and upon them…” Basso goes on to say that the challenge is “to fathom what it is that a particular landscape, filled to brimming with past and present significance can be called upon to “say,” and what, through the saying, it can be called upon to “do.” Pg 75.

It is our task, I believe, as environmentalists to tell stories of places that allow wisdom to sit in those places. What have we learned from Chernobyl and Love Canal? Can we transform the story of the Giant Mine into a story that takes the great tragedy of that place and all the deaths, contaminated water and destruction that arose from gold mining and make it so that wisdom sits there?

I imagine how we would tell the story of the Giant Mine to the great grandchildren of the great grandchildren as a wisdom tale. Imagine that we cleaned up the Giant Mine so the water runs clean. The animals and plants are healthy and the human community thrives. Imagine that we told the story of gold mining and tearing apart the land and lives, poisoned everything around. And then we gave the ending. We learned. We know better. We restored the Giant Mine to health. We could be beloved ancestors. Wisdom would sit in that place.