The scale of an open-pit copper mine feels impossible; it is a Bible-grade phenomenon made by machines. Vehicles called bucket-wheel excavators, nearly five times the size of the largest dinosaurs, rip up the surface and gradually descend, piling 200,000 cubic meters or more of rock behind them every day. Once the copper is extracted, waste products and unrecoverable metals stream out as tailings, snaking tributaries that turn psychedelic-looking as they oxidize in open air for the first time in millions of years. Each excavator, meanwhile, turns the land it is standing on into a ledge and leaves a succession of these steps, or ‘‘benches,’’ behind it as it goes. The Chino Mine, for example, in Grant County, N.M., has been excavated persistently for more than a century and now stretches almost two miles across and 1,350 feet down. It’s a chasm, a void, a deep and disordered amphitheater built around an abyss. It gets four out of five stars on TripAdvisor.
‘‘Wow is that place HUGE If you get time go visit this mine it is just huge,’’ writes one reviewer who visited the overlook point on the side of Highway 152. ‘‘What a huge pit,’’ says another. Another: ‘‘Wow!’’ Another: ‘‘What a hole in the ground’’ And: ‘‘Dange [sic] it’s deep. What a hole!@!!!! Huge hole in the ground.’’
Stupefied giddiness, disbelief: these seem to be universal responses to open-pit mines. When the photographer Edward Burtynsky started taking pictures of mining complexes in 1981, it was, in part, out of this same simple wonderment. ‘‘I look for the biggest mines in the world,’’ Burtynsky says, and these photographs, shot in Arizona and New Mexico in 2012 and published here for the first time, include both the Chino and the continent’s largest copper mine, the Morenci Mine, which is projected to produce 900 million pounds of copper every year for the next five years.
Open-pit mines are wounds we’ve inflicted, and the wonderment they excite easily becomes tinged with pangs of remorse or dread. Burtynsky calls that storm of feeling ‘‘a reversal of the sublime. In the beginning, ‘the sublime’ meant us in fear of nature,’’ he explains. We would look up at a thundercloud or mountain, or across a heavy sea, and be ‘‘awe-struck or powerless. But fast forward to the Industrial Revolution, and 150 years after that, and now we are the awesome and fearsome force that’s reshaping the planet.’’
And that power can’t be disowned. ‘‘We work in a world of atoms and molecules,’’ Burtynsky told me. ‘‘I’m talking to you on a phone. There’s copper in this phone.’’ It’s in our appliances and cars, inside the walls of our homes. ‘‘If you feel revulsion to this landscape,’’ he said, ‘‘you should have a revulsion to your whole life.’’
That tension is irreconcilable, maybe inevitable. Humans have always ripped materials out of nature, but the pace and scale of that extraction has accelerated so quickly that it challenges, or even outpaces, the individual human imagination’s ability to make sense of the consequences. It’s a strange predicament: to feel dwarfed by the momentum of your own species; to feel yourself being threatened, even swallowed up, by problems and to recognize that you’re also complicit in them. Think of how the person operating the excavator must feel, disappearing down the mine.
Burtynsky’s photographs are opportunities to stare that dilemma in its abysmal eye and let that tension in; to look down — way down in these mines — and allow yourself to feel unsettled, to lose your balance a little.
Read original article @ The New York Times Magazine