The Google aerial above shows the Tyrone open-pit copper mine, located in the undulating topography of the Burro Mountains of southern New Mexico, near Silver City. The mine is one of the many massive, yet largely unseen landscapes of monumental earth moving. Open pit mines like Tyrone are our irreversible earth works for future generations; infrastructural byproducts enabled by abstracted regimes of agglomerated capital and economies of scale. Open pit mines are the largest human derived earthforms we’ve created; a human geology whose form is ironically incidental, yet pragmatic, precisely engineered, and fairly oblivious to context.
I studied and traveled through this landscape in 2006 as part of a research study called Navigating Bigness: Redefining Corporate Landscape; a study which formulated an alternative corporate annual report for the company that owned this mine and a dispersed network of others like it around the globe. The reporting inverted the values of corporate reports, foregrounding the landscape effects of production (which is typically concealed), rather than the profit data. The field work also served to test the theory of the modular similarity of corporate networks at operations of this scale.
The mines were indeed remarkably similar in form and structure, even if there are hundreds or thousands of miles between them. And because of that standardization there were many poignant instances when the modular programs of production interfaced with (or ran over) the local context…
Within the map there is a dashed darker brown line starting at the lower left corner and exiting at the upper right. The line seems to be an approximated sketch rather than anything definitive as the path it originally took is completely altered by the new landscape…incidentally, for over 7 miles.
Aerial detail of the same area
I tried to model the change in the continental divide in GIS using digital elevation models meshed with data layers ( I tried a variety of 3D modeling software at the time but none of them could handle the scale and complexity of the terrain without crashing). The inadequate mismatches between the DEM and the continental divide shape file (dashed white line) proved telling of the temporal dynamics of human-derived geological processes.
The dramatic earthworks have their obvious environmental effects (immense alteration of local hydrology, loss of vegetative cover, accelerated erosion, etc.) as well as veiled, sardonic cultural overtones. I kept thinking of all the people who hike the entire continental divide for the scenic views, from Mexico to Canada as they encounter this, and being forced to trek an extra day to get around it on dusty roads loaded with over-sized trucks. I thought of the Center for Land Use Interpretation and what a field day they could have with this one.
The ambiguous topographic puzzle of which water now flows to the Atlantic or to the Pacific (or sits in the toxic acid pool at the bottom of the pit) remains a mystery to anyone who might look at a map and notice it.