It’s about 2pm, Memorial Day, 2018, and my brother James and I pull into the parking lot to view the nation’s largest Superfund site. Thunder cracks and light rain begins to patter our car windshield as the typical mid-afternoon May mountain thunderstorm breaches the western ridge into this toxic valley. Does it Acid Rain here? The green water we see below the cliffs and terraces of scared earth: it’s charged with deadly toxic levels of leached arsenic, copper, and other heavy metals, which is what makes this site so dangerous (last November, 2017, over 3,000 geese landed on the mine site water, and were all dead within hours).
The rain breaks, and James and I exit the car and walk to the gift shop/mine entrance. It seems odd to me that there’s a gift shop at the site of an environmental disaster. James and I pay our $2 entrance fee and begin to walk towards the adapted mine shaft leading to the viewing platform. The size of the pit is overwhelming. Its water is 1500 feet deep and its breadth stretches 1.5 miles. A whole mountain chiseled away.
James and I hang out on the platform for a long time, long enough for several other groups of tourists to come and go, usually after less than five minutes. We are silent the whole time. My friend Gillian Shelley had invited me to make a piece of beauty from the materials there. I look around and the viewing platform is clean—no rocks, no plants, just stained wood, a hard fence and a few wooden benches—no raw materials to build a mandala or other offering to this place. However, the wood railings and support beams are covered in human carvings, most of the ” J+ K” sort. Maybe I can leave a message as an offering. James always has a small pocket knife on him, so I ask to borrow it. I go to the far corner of the platform, away from the other two groups currently there, also gawking at this gaping hole in the Earth. I don’t want to be seen carving into the wood, so I work fast. I’ve never carved into wood in this manner, although I’ve seen these etchings into wood, often in trees, everywhere I’ve ever traveled on Earth. I’ve always considered it a form of graffiti, in its own way just another example of the misguided human thirst to “leave a mark on the world,” and so it seems ironic to leave an “Act of Beauty” to this mine site in this way. And somehow it also feels perfectly right. I can only think of one word—SORRY—and so I etch it in, followed by a heart, so hopefully the place (and those who follow) know I really meant it.