Space-Time Vertigo of Human Designed Geology

Continuing (part 2) with some excerpts and post-script thoughts from Navigating Bigness: Redefining Corporate Landscape:

“I’m standing behind a chain-link fence, and through a pre-cut hole in the fence I’m staring into a stepped canyon created by copper mining. The canyon has been made by blasting the solid earth into bits and then hauling it away. I experience the incremental process as it occurs — shovels scooping up rock into massive trucks in a constant procession. The hum of engines. The haze of dust in the air. This process has been occurring in various technological forms nearly around the clock since 1911. The stockpiles surrounding the open expanse are nearly as large as the canyon itself, colored in diagonal and horizontal bands of brown, beige, purple, ochre, and violet. I feel the urge to explore and touch this odd terrain, yet the fence with barbed wire edging ensures that I do not. This is corporate land: publicly held, yet extremely private.
This human-formed canyon is called the Chino, or Santa Rita Open Pit Copper Mine. The name Santa Rita comes from the town that used to sit above it and disappeared in the late 1950s as the mine expanded. The town itself was owned and willingly demolished by the current owners — The Kennecott Corporation. In the 1980s the mine changed hands and became part of the Phelps Dodge Corporation, which to this day owns all 95,000 acres of it
[Phelps dodge was since bought out by another corporation]. The copper coming out of this pit constitutes less than 0.5% of the total material mined. Due to the massive size of the operations — the sheer volume of earth blown apart, moved, and acid- leached, Phelps Dodge is able to turn a profit from that 0.5%. This contemporary landscape alchemy extracts this material by turning solid earth into pebbles, then to a solution, and then back to a solid as a 350-pound 99.9% pure copper sheet. These copper sheets are then further displaced to various parts of the globe, with the majority of them currently going to China.
The pit itself is an irreversible phenomenon. With current technology it cannot be reclaimed. If one tried to push all the earth back into the hole at the current rate it is being pulled out (100,000 tons a day), it would take 123 years to replace the 4.5 billion tons of material displaced from the pit. The landscape is monumental, residual, and largely unintended in design, yet it is one of the most dramatic and sublime human forms on the planet. Phelps Dodge owns not one of these mines, but nine of them around the globe, with two additional mines under construction…
Welcome to corporate landscape.”

Just 18 miles northeast from the Tyrone mine is the Santa Rita open-pit copper mine, one of the oldest, continually mined sites in North America.  For at least 500 years this landscape has been subjected to various forms of metal extraction technology, with each successive era proving more transformational than the one before it: first the first Native Americans, then the Spanish Conquistadors in the 1800s, leading up to the corporate present.  Just past 1900, the merging of institutionalized corporate financing and industrial forms of technology gave rise to open-pit mining methods, this allowing mining to occur at a much larger scale.

The sequence of USGS maps below show the transformation of the Santa Rita Mine over the last 100 years (all maps in the sequence are overlays at the same scale).

In 1909 the site consisted of the loose, sprawling encampment of Santa Rita arranged according to a series of underground copper mining tunnels.  Open pit copper mining would begin here in 1910.

38 years later the previous settlement is gone, with much of the ground replaced by the void of the growing excavation of the open mine.  The  town of Santa Rita (now company owned) has relocated to the north in gridded and informal layouts.

In just four years shifts are visible in the form of the town and the extent of the pit.  Eight years later Santa Rita was again intentionally dismantled and vacated to make room for the expanding mine: urban removal #2.  An entirely different meaning of ‘urban void’.

The 47 year gap between the maps reveals the massive terrain transformations over the past half century due to improved technologies and accelerated capital investments.

For a linear timeline click on the image below.

The end result of this 100 year process of blasting and moving approximately 4,500,000,000 tons of solid earth is a human-derived crater visible from space:

Anthropogenic strata: the deepest reaches of the solid rock excavation end up on the top of acid leaching stockpiles surrounding the pit.

Tailing ponds (approx. five miles south of the pit).  Solid rock pulverized into dust

What was before: a view of the  informal layout of the eastern half of Santa Rita, circa 1910.

And another view of Santa Rita from the north.  Notice the dust and the encroaching rim of the pit in the background.

I managed to get inside this mine in 2006: a truly intense and disorienting spatial experience.  I had researched all the above information prior to going there, and once inside it all heaped on top of me like an unexpected landslide of mental overburden.  Like up-close phenomenological macro-physics: there were space-time discontinuities that my mind and body couldn’t resolve.  The scene was perversely absurd, yet completely sensible according to how we as a collective go about living.  I’m reminded of a quote from Robert Smithson regarding this collision of matter (or non-matter) and mind:

The city is not only a product of mind, whether the mind be that of an engineer, a developer, a politician, or an urban designer. This is merely a conceit. By definition, the city is impure; it is clogged with matter. No matter how we might idealize its outward aspect, or refine its basic elements there is no escape from matter. There is no escape from the physical nor is there any escape from the mind. The two are in a constant collision course.”

Harrison Schmitt, an astronaut who walked on the moon for one of the Apollo missions, was born in the Santa Rita Hospital.  After being in outer space, he returned to The Silver City area and helped to form the Society for People Born in Space:

“Residents achieved this label from being born in a town (Santa Rita, NM) that no longer exists due to expansion of the adjacent copper mine in the 1950s… Residents gather annually to celebrate the fact that despite their differences, they were all “Born in Space.” Despite the lack of a physical town, residents still gather together to celebrate the fact that they were all born in a place that is now empty space (the former town site of Santa Rita is now the open mine pit).”



(black and White historical images courtesy of  New Mexico State University library special collections.  Photographer of oblique aerials unknown.  Aerial from Google Earth)

View of the  informal layout of the eastern half of Santa Rita (circa 1910)

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