Is it a jewel? A crystalized pool of ancient minerals glittering on the underside of a stone? It is beautiful, isn’t it?
In fact it is an aerial view of a pit of toxic mercury waste left over from the gold mining process at the Carlin Trend Mine in Reno, Nevada. This photograph by David Maisel is one of several in a new exhibition featuring the artists’ views of “Unsettled Nature,” currently on view at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
Suddenly we are jolted from a first response of curious admiration to an aftershock of horror.
And yet, in its way, the image is still beautiful.
We face so many challenges to the Earth, from mineral extraction to deforestation, from the extinction of species to the cruelty of factory farming. As the repercussions of climate change gain force and fossil fuel exploitation powers ahead, none of us will be immune from the dying or degradation of the places we love.
For our own sanity—and to take on a new and urgent way of making a real contribution in the world—we must balance beauty and grief like a feather in each of the palms of our hands. The more we become aware of all the strange beauty in the world, even as we mourn what we’re losing, the stronger and more resilient we become. This balance is not about ousting either grief or joy in favor some more realistic, more palatable other. It is knowing with mind, body, and heart that both can be true at the same time.