Unreal Nature

October 20, 2012

Took and Gone

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:04 am

… They took what they took and were gone …

This is from Annals of the Former World by John McPhee (1998). This book is a combination of what was originally four separate books; today’s extracts are from what was Basin and Range (1981):

… It was dawn at the summit. We had been awake for hours and had eaten a roadhouse breakfast sitting by a window in which the interior of the room was reflected against the black of the morning outside while a television mounted on a wall behind us resounded with the hoofbeats of the great horse Silver. The Lone Ranger. Five A.M. CBS’s good morning to Nevada. Waiting for bacon and eggs. I put two nickels in a slot machine and got two nickels back. The result was a certain radiance of mood. Deffeyes, for his part, was thinking today in troy ounces. It would take a whole lot more than two nickels to produce a similar effect on him. Out for silver, he was heading into the hills.

… We were off on dirt roads now with a cone of dust behind us, which Deffeyes characterized as the local doorbell. He preferred not to ring it. This talkative and generous professor — who ordinarily shares his ideas as rapidly as they come to him, spilling them out in bunches like grapes — was narrow-eyed with secrecy today. He had stopped at a courthouse briefly, and — an antic figure, with his bagging sweater and his Beethoven hair — had revealed three digits to a county clerk in requesting to see a registry of claims. The claims were coded in six digits. Deffeyes kept the fourth, fifth, and sixth to himself like cards face down on a table. He found what he sought in a book of claims. Now, fifty miles up the valley, we had long since left behind us its only town, with its Odd Fellows Hall, its mercantile company, its cottonwoods and Lombardy poplars; and there were no houses, no structures, no cones of dust anywhere around us. The valley was narrowing. It ended where ranges joined. Some thousands of feet up the high face of a distant and treeless mountain we saw an unnaturally level line.

“Is that a road?” I asked him.

“That’s where we’re going,” he said, and I wished he hadn’t told me.

Deffeyes, in order to consult maps, had turned over the wheel to me.

… Now far above the basin, we were on the thin line we had seen from below, a track no wider than the truck itself, crossing the face of the mountain. It curved into reentrants and out around noses and back into reentrants and out to more noses. I was on the inboard side, and every once in a while as we went around a nose I looked across the hood and saw nothing but sky — sky and the summits of a distant range. We could see sixty, seventy miles down the valley and three thousand feet down the mountain. The declivity was by no means sheer, just steep — a steepness, I judged, that  would have caused the vehicle, had it slipped off the road, to go end over end enveloped in flame at a hundred yards a bounce. My hands slid over the wheel. They were filmed in their own grease.

The equanimitous Deffeyes seemed to be enjoying the view. He said, “Where did you learn to drive a truck?”

“Not that it’s so god-damned difficult,” I told him, “but this is about the first time.”

… We turned a last corner, with our inner wheels resting firmly on the road and the two others supported by Deffeyes‘ expectations. Now we were moving along one wall of a big V-shaped canyon that eventually became a gulch, a draw, a crease in the country, under cottonwoods. In the upper canyon, some hundreds of acres of very steep mountainside were filled with holes and shafts, hand-forged ore buckets, and old dry timbers. There were square nails in the timbers. An ore bucket was filled with square nails. “Good litter,” Deffeys said, and we walked uphill past the mine and along a small stream into the cottonwoods. The stream was nearly dry. Under the cottonwoods were the outlines of cabins almost a century gone. Here at seven thousand feet in this narrow mountain draw had lived a hundred people, who had held their last election a hundred years earlier. They had a restaurant, a brewery, a bookstore. They had seven saloons. And now there was not so much as one dilapidated structure. There were only the unhappy cottonwoods, looking alien and discontented over the moist bed of the creek. Sixteen stood there, twisted, surviving — most of them over four feet thick. “Those cottonwoods try an environmentalists soul,” Deffeyes said. “They transpire water like running fountains. If you were to cut them down, the creek would run. Cottonwoods drink the Humboldt. Some of the tension in this country is that miners need water. Getting rid of trees would preserve water. By the old brine-and-mercury method, it took three tons of water to mill one ton of ore. There was nothing like that in this creek. They had to take the ore from here to a big enough stream, and that, as it happens, was a twelve-mile journey using mules. They would have gone out of here with only the very best ore. There was probably a supergene enrichment here over a pretty good set of veins. They took what they took and were gone in six years.”

We walked back down to the mine, below which the stream — in flash flood once or twice a century over several million years — had cut the deep sharp V of its remarkably plunging valley. A number of acres of one side had been used as a dump, and Deffeyes began to sample this used ore. “They must have depended on what they could see in the rock,” he said, “If it was easy to see, they got it all. If it was complicated and gradational, they couldn’t differentiate as well, and I think they threw it here.” The material was crumbly, loose, weathered, unstable underfoot, a pyramid side of decomposing shards. Filling small canvas bags at intervals of six feet, he worked his way across it. With each step, he sank in above his ankles. He was about two hundred feet above the stream. Given the steepness of the ground and the proximity of all the loose material to the critical angle of repose, I had no trouble imagining that he was about to avalanche, and that he would end up in an algal pool of the trickling stream below us, buried under megatons of unextracted silver. The little stream was a jumble of boulders, testimony of the floods, with phreatophytes around the boulders like implanted spears. Deffeyes obviously was happy and without fear in the world.

… To make a recovery operation worthwhile, he said, he would have to get five ounces of silver per ton. The figures would turn out to be better than that. Before long, he would have a little plastic-lined pond of weak cyanide, looked after by a couple of technicians, down where the ore from this mine had been milled. A blue streak in the tailings there would come in at fifty-eight ounces a ton — richer than any tailings he had ever found in Nevada. “You put cyanide on that ore, the sliver leaps out of it,” he would say. “I have enough cyanide here to kill Cincinnati. People have a love-hate relationship with cyanide. Abelson showed that lightning acts on carbon dioxide and other atmospheric components to make hydrogen cyanide, and hydrogen cyanide polymerizes and later reacts with water to form amino acids, which are the components of proteins — and that may be how life began. Phil Abelson is an editor at Science. He’s a geochemist, and he worked on the Manhattan Project. To get the silver out of here at an acceptable price, you need small-scale technology. You need miniaturized equipment, simple techniques. In the nineteenth century, they made sagebrush fires to heat the brine to dissolve the silver chloride. When mercury picked up the silver, they knew they had ‘the real stuff’ from the squeak. A mercury-and-silver mixture is what the dentist uses, and when he mashes it into your tooth it makes the same squeak.”

Deffeyes‘ methodology would depend on more than sagebrush and sound. In time, he would have a portable laboratory there, size of a two-hole privy, and in it would be, among other things, a sliver single-ion electrode and an atomic-absorption spectrophotometer. He could turn on a flame, close two switches, and see at once the amount of silver in a sample. For a short while, he would have a five-pound ingot of raw silver on the floor, propping open the door. When he was finished with his pond, he would withdraw the cyanide and turn it into a marketable compound known as Prussian blue. He would cover his pond with dirt and sow it with crested wheat.

My most recent previous post from McPhee’s book is here.



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