Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Sunday Scribblings: Deepest , Darkest: A Look at the Silver Valley

Immediately this Sunday Scribbling prompt brought to mind Greg Olsen's book The Deep Dark: Disaster and Redemption in America's Richest Silver Mine.

Olsen's book chronicles the 1972 Sunshine Silver Mine fire near my hometown of Kellogg, Idaho. The fire killed 91 miners.

My memory of the Sunshine Mine fire and its impact epitomizes how I have come to understand my relationship to my hometown and my understanding of its meaning to me as a geographical, historical, and spiritual place.

To understand Kellogg, a person must see that historically it's a place defined by danger, death, and gravity.

When Kellogg was a working town, its welfare depended on hard metal mining and smelting and on logging. It's dangerous work. Every one of us who did this work, blasting rock, stripping zinc, running heavy equipment, felling logs, driving log truck, repairing furnaces knew that it was work that could injure him, seriously, at any moment. Wives and mothers and girlfriends and lovers who sent us out the door to go to these dangerous jobs knew we were going to dangerous work.

Danger burdens the body and the spirit. It's fatiguing. It's also a source of excitement. I saw reckless workers in the Bunker Hill Zinc Plant test safety limits, cross those limits, and express profane resentment for safety measures because flirting with danger was the only thing that made the grind of dangerous, dirty work tolerable. It was a way to separate oneself from workers who wouldn't take risks. I saw men get high by testing the limits of danger.

But, it takes a toll. Part of the deep darkness of the Silver Valley was that many men took their flirtations with danger in the work place into the social life of the Valley. Some picked fights. Others drove fast cars. Others snowmobiled, ran motorcycles hard, hunted. Most drank a lot of alcohol. It was as if men who faced danger all day needed something to keep the fires of excitement burning and something to take the edge off at the same time.

The drinking and the adrenaline pumping recreation added to the danger.

I often think of the old Silver Valley as the Valley of Death. Death was everywhere. The slate colored South Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River was a dead river, polluted by metal waste and sewage. The air was toxic, polluted by emissions from the metal smelters. Workers died too reguarly. Too many young men, when I was young, died in vehicle accidents, too often a consequence of high speed driving and too often alcohol.

Mining and logging require an intimate relationship with the danger of nature. Miners go deep into nature by going deep into the earth, into the intense heat; loggers are also in intimate relation with nature.

To be intimate with nature is to be intimate with gravity. The whole mining enterprise relies on gravity and is a fight against gravity. Gravity contributed to the buckling and shifting of the underground that resulted in veins of silver and galena and other metals; gravity makes timber necessary: gravity pulls down on mine tunnels and the tunnels need supports or timbers; gravity causes rockbursts; it pulls men to their deaths when they fall; it pulls rocks down and buries men when something gives way.

Gravity nearly killed me at the Zinc Plant when I fell to the bottom of a roaster. The zinc plant operation depended on gravity as the solution that would be charge with electricity in the cell room to make zinc, began at the upper regions of the plant and ran downhill toward the electrolytic cell room.

In the woods, it's all about gravity as trees are fallen and as these trees are cut in such a way that loggers must work with gravity to guide the tree to fall where there are no men nearby. Otherwise, these trees are so big, they crush whoever might carelesssy be in its path.

The woodlands around Kellogg are dark and deep. The mines are dark and deep. They are dangerous. They put men on the brink of death. Gravity is the killer in these places.

When I think of Kellogg and what has defined it as a unique place, when I think of what makes it a dark, deep place I think of danger, death, and gravity.


Christy Woolum said...

Very good post. I still need to read the book. I plan to do a post on the Sunshine Disaster after visiting the memorial on Saturday.

Katrina said...

Great observations about men who work in dangerous jobs. Your description reminded me of some of the reveries I've heard from my husband's father and two grandfathers about their experiences working in and around logging operations. They worked hard, and they lived hard. As you say, the business of felling trees (or mining) is one of calculated risks, and some end up on the short side of those risks. I'll always be glad my father-in-law went into auto mechanics when he grew up (and not just because he keeps fixing our car!)

Good post.