“… the DNA of the human being—my bone, flesh, and blood is literally made up of the metals, minerals, and liquids of the Earth. We are literally shapes and forms of the Earth. That’s who we are. And we have being …” — John Trudell, “What it Means To Be A Human Being” performance at The Women’s Building, San Francisco, California, 15 March 2001.
About ten million years ago fluvial deposition from the Rocky Mountains established what is now known as the Ogallala Aquifer. Historically found from fifty to three hundred feet below surface, this loosely confined collection of fossil water extends from northwest Texas to South Dakota. Changes in continental geomorphology severed the originating hydrologic linkages. Large scale irrigation beginning in the 1940s caused water levels to drop by more than one hundred feet. The disappearing resource has minimal recharge from surface rainwater and snowmelt.
Late nineteenth-century records note the appearance of oil seeps at Rozel Point in Box Elder County, Utah, within the basin of Great Salt Lake: a terminal vestige of ancient Lake Bonneville. Efforts to extract marketable fossil energy began by 1904 and continued intermittently until the mid-1980s, resulting in the creation of an oil exploration jetty. Evidence of ongoing activity was present in 1970 during the making of Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson. The artwork—also created within the lakebed, and oil jetty line of sight—was mostly submerged from not long after completion until the early 2000s when lake levels began dropping precipitously from drought and overuse of sustaining watersheds. The revelation of Spiral Jetty brought increasing interest and visitors, prompting the State of Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands in coordination with the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining to “cleanup” the oil exploration jetty in 2005. Abandoned oil wells were plugged, industrial debris (pipes, tanks, junked vehicles, and an abandoned trailer) left over from extraction attempts were removed. Disappearance of materials within the larger site significantly altered the work’s context, enabling essentialized views of Spiral Jetty as object rather than temporal index marking ecological, cultural, and planetary relationships between immediate vicinity and expanding audiences.
From 1863 to 1868 the US Army forcibly interned Diné (Navajo) and Nde (Mescalero Apache) at Hwéeldi (Diné for Bosque Redondo) on the banks of the Pecos River near Fort Sumner in De Baca County, New Mexico. Today a cairn at the site is part of a memorial for the thousands who perished in captivity and during the long journeys. Hózhó náhásdlíí’.
From 1903, Bingham Canyon Mine has been chewing into the Oquirrh Mountains in Salt Lake County, Utah in search of copper and precious metals opening a hole over three-fourths of a mile deep and 2.5 miles across. Once mountain, now pit, persists, adding billions of tons in mine waste, with overburden spilling down from the void and massive tailings piling up near the smelter miles north.
From 1953 to 1982 the Jackpile-Paguate open-pit uranium mine was operated by the Anaconda Company on the Pueblo of Laguna Reservation in Cibola County, New Mexico. Approximately four hundred million tons of rock were moved within the mine area to extract about 25 million tons of uranium ore. The operation was abandoned when domestic uranium prices were no longer subsidized by the US government. The half-life of hazardous uranium isotopes found on-site are 4.5 billion years for U-238, seven hundred million years for U-235, and 246 thousand years for U-234. Partial stabilizing reclamation occurred between 1990 and 1995 by the Pueblo of Laguna. Radioactive water flowing from the area caused it to become a Superfund Site in 2017. Remediation has yet to begin.
In 1973 artist Robert Smithson, pilot Gale Ray Rogers, and photographer Robert E. Curtin were killed in a plane crash in Potter County, Texas while viewing the layout of Amarillo Ramp. The work was posthumously completed by Nancy Holt, Tony Shafrazi, and Richard Serra. Immediately north of the artwork is another earthwork, a now breached dam, formed to impound Tecovas Creek flowing north to the Canadian River. Between the two works a steel pipe rises from the catchment basin through an engine driven pump (with nearby fuel tank) to relatively level land where it once fed a network of irrigation infrastructure. This tableland is part of the northern edge of the vast Llano Estacado, formerly a sea of grass that sustained bison and Nʉmʉnʉʉ (Comanche), mammoth and peoples of the Clovis period. The pump, pipe, and complicated history of human and more-than-human altered landforms, ecologies, and narratives remain central to Amarillo Ramp, credited as Smithson’s final earthwork that rests dryly atop the Ogallala Aquifer.
In 1992, the late Barry Lopez framed a pivotal question in The Rediscovery of North America. What if upon first contact between Europeans and the Americas, wealth emerged from situated relationships between people, places, and all life forms, instead of ruthless material extraction? In laying bare five-hundred years of colonial exploitation Lopez proposes it remains possible to flip the definition, “to mean something else in the world” through the “cultivation and achievement of local knowledge.”