Pretty, Poisoned | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Pretty, Poisoned 

Alan Berger's photographs blur the line between natural wonder and polluted wasteland.

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Landscape architect and photographer Alan Berger visited the Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana, two years ago, and the president of the copper-mining company chauffeured him around the premises. When they got within 300 feet of the pit the president stopped the car, saying he'd wait while Berger went down and took his pictures. "I thought he was giving me a little freedom," Berger told an audience at the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts on November 20. "But after two minutes down by the water my eyes were burning."

The pit contains 30 billion gallons of water that's polluted with heavy metals and mine waste. This blue lake is 1,000 feet deep at the deepest part and has been a Superfund site since 1984. The water is very acidic. Berger said he briefly set one leg of his tripod in a spot where the water was shallow. "When I took it out the glue holding the rubber foot on the tripod had melted and the rubber foot had deformed." A few years ago a flock of 130 snow geese landed on the lake. They were all dead within minutes. Now the company fires a cannon to scare off migratory birds.

Berger, who teaches landscape architecture at Harvard, has a new book out, Reclaiming the American West, that's based on five summers he spent visiting, flying over, photographing, and otherwise researching mined and reclaimed landscapes in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. (Almost half of the book's 174 striking color images were paid for by the Graham Foundation; a selection of them, along with maps and diagrams, will be on display at the foundation, 4 W. Burton Place, through January 9; call 312-787-4071 for more information.) Foundation director Richard Solomon calls the book "a tremendously exciting and refreshing way of seeing things."

Berger's aerial photograph of the Berkeley Pit doesn't make it look ugly or threatening. And, he told the audience, it's not even dead. More than 40 different kinds of microorganisms live in it, adapted to the extreme acidity and benefiting from the lack of competition. These "extremophiles," he said, may ultimately reclaim or detoxify the pit, and research into the way their metabolisms work is already suggesting cures for some dread diseases.

He clearly isn't using this story to denounce copper mining or to lobby for stricter environmental standards. He's using it to make his audiences see landscapes differently. His aerial photo of the pit includes some Ansel Adams mountain scenery in the background, but he's an anti-Ansel Adams--he shows what every Sierra Club calendar leaves out. "What is often viewed as unproductive, dangerous, litigious, destructive," he said, "I embrace as generative."

He also believes that as long as there's a demand for copper, land will continue to be mined. Eventually it will have to be reclaimed, and Berger is one landscape architect who'd like to help.

Reclaimed how? "Reclaim" is a word that's rarely defined or used consistently. In the midwest a century ago it meant draining swamps to create farms; today it means flooding farms to create swamps. Berger generally uses "reclamation" to refer to what humans do but occasionally to what extremophiles do. In his book he sometimes uses the word to mean any human alteration of the landscape--by which definition the creation of the Berkeley Pit would be "reclamation" just as much as detoxifying it would be.

If Berger's words sometimes puzzle, his images don't. One after another they, well, undermine the idea that you can tell natural from artificial landscapes or even beautiful from ugly. One photo shows what looks like a manicured lawn in the foreground and in the background an orange yellow butte glowing in the sunshine. Artificial versus natural? No. "The reclaimed wasterock dump [at Bingham Canyon Mine near Salt Lake City] is in the foreground," he writes, "and the unreclaimed wasterock dump is in the background."

Berger's message seems to be that we can't turn an omelette back into an egg, so we shouldn't bother trying. Instead we should make it into whatever seems appropriate. As he told the foundation audience, "The first axiom of reclamation is that we can't return the land to its original condition, only a likeness." He also calls reclaimed landscapes new landscapes, arguing that they're ecologically open-ended and therefore deserve site-specific experimental approaches--something the federal standard requiring all coal mines to be returned to their "approximate original contour," for instance, doesn't allow.

He showed slides of one site where reclamation involved using dump-truck tires (artificial?) to stop erosion (natural?). At another, the mining company employed a rancher (artificial?) to feed cattle native grass seed (natural?) and let them wander around a barren area to distribute the seeds. (Are the cattle unnatural because they're being used in place of planting machinery?)

At one point Berger showed a photo of a copper mine looming above an Arizona town's Wal-Mart. "The city leased the mine's tailings impoundment for sewage treatment," he explained. "Now it's a wetland--a rarity in the middle of the Arizona desert. Migrating birds land there, and the water meets federal standards." Is that natural? Artificial?

How many angels on the head of this pin? "It all begins with acknowledging that we created these places," Berger said afterward. "They're as natural as we are."

He wrapped up his talk by saying, "I hope that what you have seen tonight has shocked and disoriented you," but he'd already offered a career reminder for any landscape architects in the audience: there's a lot of reclamation work out there, and design professionals shouldn't ignore it. He estimated that in the eight western states in his book 100,000 square miles of land will have to be reclaimed. "I want that project," he said. "That's a real big landscape project."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Alan Berger, courtesy Princeton Architectural Press.

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