Transcending Landscapes Through the Lens of an iPhone

An Essay from Katrina Castro: Part 2 in a series

Sublime landscapes are characterized by their expansive and extraordinary qualities that overwhelm us to a point that we temporarily lose ourselves in an inexplicable sense of awe.  The Bingham Canyon Mine is certainly an extraordinary site to see; however, after the experience I had upon my first visit, I’ve realized that contemporary landscapes contrast with the historical landscapes revered in Romantic painting.  Beyond the obvious shift towards less “natural” landscapes, the sublime today depicts landscapes that have been disassembled and reshaped by some immense hidden hand we struggle to see.  Unlike the historical sublime that focused on the awesome terror of nature and its unpredictable forces, the contemporary sublime looks at human intervention on the natural world as the source of terror and uncertainty.  Why is it that the sublime has gone from fearing uncontrollable natural forces like thunderstorms and insurmountable peaks to fearing the landscapes manufactured by our own kind?  Experiencing the sight of the Bingham Canyon Mine complicated my idea of the sublime in that I opened my eyes to a landscape so immense and so limitless, that it transcends its actual physical size and connects with the invisible systems of civilized life that lie just outside of our apprehension.  To see the Bingham Canyon Mine is to conceptualize and put form to the abstract forces that drive the ‘advanced’ society we live in today.  To experience the sublime in human-made landscapes is to awaken from the disconnect between human and nature that has led us in the blind destruction of the natural world we are a part of.

The Bingham Canyon Mine is located roughly 26 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.  The Bingham Canyon Mine is the largest open-pit excavation on the planet.  The drive takes just under two hours.  The complicated journey to the site itself elicits feelings of remoteness comparable to those of the High Uinta Wilderness or of any other recreational destination far enough away from a major city.  Interesting that a place so close and so massive could be so far removed from life in the Salt Lake Valley.  Remoteness has historically been an integral part of the sublime.  Remote landscapes remove the individual experiencing the sublime from daily life to create a sense of the unknown; sublime places are unfamiliar.  Unlike Mt. Ktaadn though, the remoteness of the Bingham Canyon Mine removed me from daily life to reveal the destruction that results from the day-to-day activities I rarely stop and think twice of.  Traveling to the mine was like retracing the invisible steps that have been swept away by the disconnect that is a result of our society’s advancement.  Little was I aware of that hidden deep within the van that took me there were bits and pieces of the mine itself; only now they had been molded and reformed and molded again through countless processes I remain unaware of.

The journey we took to the Bingham Canyon Mine not only evoked a sense of remoteness and mystery surrounding the site, but also of the magnitude of the mine’s operations.  We passed tailings ponds and smelting plants early in the journey, continuing towards mountains of displaced rock, and eventually winding up a narrow canyon road, gaining hundreds of feet of elevation.  A note about the “mountains of displaced rock”:  The tailings heaps at Bingham Canyon Mine are in fact mountains.  I had even mistaken one particular slope for a mountainside from a distance.  In my defense, they were mountains once, only now they had been put through the grind of our ever-advancing society and its material needs.

At the end of the canyon road, high in the mountains near the looming clouds, I found myself standing at the edge of the biggest hole in the world.   You cannot see the bottom from where I stood.  What I couldn’t see was left for my other senses to grapple with, the most prominent being the sounds I heard.  As I first approached the pit I was overwhelmed not by the sight, but by the mosaic of sounds that seemed to originate deep within the pit.  It was as if all of the sounds in this remote place originated at the center of the obscured floor of the mine, echoing out in erratic babbles across the walls of the pit.  The sounds sank deeper and deeper and quickly faded to a vague and distant murmur, like a once familiar hymn lost to some bleary dream.

Resonating from the center of the Bingham Canyon Pit is the origin of an all too familiar white noise.

There’s cell service at the top of Butterfield Canyon, at the overlook of the Kennecott copper mine.  Turns out, it’s a real convenience when you need to run a last minute Internet search for a PDF of a Thoreau poem.  It’s too bad it’s also a real inconvenience when you can hear a new text alert above the noise of the mine, it disturbs the awe of the moment.  I’m sure everyone in the class had a smartphone on them as we looked upon the spectacle before us.  I think every single one of us took pictures with our phones, all of us driven by an unclear need to photograph what lie before us.  Maybe this strange need is an attempt to better understand this engineered landscape, maybe to look at the mine through a different lens, a new medium, or maybe to post pictures on Instagram, complete with filters that over enhance this ominous landscape.  As I stood at the edge of the Bingham Canyon mine, taking pictures on my smartphone just as all of my classmates were, I experienced one of the most powerfully ironic moments of my life.  In all of our hands was a scoop of earth from the biggest hole on the planet.

Every single day we use and rely on an ever-growing number of products that guide us through our lives.  We only see these artifacts as a final product.  Our house is a house to us.  Sure we are aware that it is a collection of wood and brick and pipes and concrete, but we rarely think of our home as a grocery list of the materials that compose it.  Even less often do we think about where those materials come from.  We blindly flip a switch in the darkness of night and have light when nature doesn’t.  We fail to see the copper wires hidden within our walls or the coal that burns in a power plant somewhere far away, both come from holes we dig into the Earth.  The aesthetic movement away from untamed nature towards the human ability to manufacture and mold the once wild and untamed lands parallels the deepening disconnection our civilization has with the environment.  At the same time though, the contemporary sublime depicts immense awe-inspiring human-made landscapes comparable to landscapes of the natural world; we shape nature because we are nature.

Who digs these pits?  Who creates those toxic landfills?  Who started the river on fire?  Who scarred the face of our one and only planet?

Me.  You.  Everybody.  One hundred years ago our grandparents started digging in Bingham Canyon.  They were a lot like me and you, and everybody else.  Only now there are seven billion of us.  I heard somewhere once that we are born to be awake.  Not to be asleep.  One hundred years later people began to open their eyes.  One by one we learn to be awake.  A fourteen billion eyed monster tells stories to the next generation.  They try to remember.  Don’t go back to sleep.  Don’t go back to sleep.




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