Jan 042011

by Deborah Phelan

Join Deborah on a trip through the great American West, Alan Weisman’s classic, “The World Without Us,” as her companion. Beautiful and daunting, this essay connects the scars of the land with the tears of the soul.

What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?

When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence, that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality.

Henry David Thoreau

December 22 2009. Driving towards Denver. Just this side of Laramie, Wyoming. Sunset. 17 degrees. Snow. Alongside the road, a large black truck, engine open, two heads bent over the engine. Hard to measure distances in this vast seemingly endless swath of emptiness, so maybe the red pickup pulled over some 1/8 a mile up. Slowing from 80 to pause to help some stranger suspended in the wilderness. I’m shivering at the strangeness of it. Imagining myself. Walking alone alongside Route 80. A pinprick on an alien landscape, shuffling in my brokenback boots through the middle of nowhere, to offer assistance to …. who?


Without us on earth, in 10 years, a barn roof with a 18″x18’leaking hole a decade earlier, would be long gone. Link
I admit to having second thoughts when I chucked Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us into the back of my friend’s 4WD Subaru earlier that morning. I’d picked the book up the week before at Steward Brand’s The Long Now Foundation headquarters in San Francisco’s Fort Mason. I knew a mindless fiction was more in order, but, hey, I admit to being prone to ODing on sanity shredding bytes of reality.

chimney And so, by the time we pass through the stink of Sinclair, Wyoming, home to the Sinclair Pipeline Company’s control center, a 24/7 toxic Pez dispenser, I’m already strangling in a toxic tonic; Weisman’s book is already way too  dog-eared. I’m mesmerized and I just keep ingested chapter after chapter of eco-terror so that my fragile mind is subconsciously over-emitting frantic distress signals. Not that I’m paying that much attention. It’s almost like an addiction to me. How much truth can you handle before … Before what? Besides, his words are as tantalizing and bewitching as the Odyssean Sirens.

Take this, for example …


In his chapter on Polymers, which deals extensively with the 10 million square mile North Pacific gyre plastic dump (almost as large as Africa), Weisman equates the post WWII explosion of plastics into the world to the Big Bang, still expanding and, even if contained, would leave us has already ravaged by potentially insurmountable damage to all life forms.

Senior research scientist Anthony Andradyat, author of the 800-page book Plastics in the Environment, discusses the longevity of plastics life cycle in terms of “orders of magnitude” and says “virtually every marine species, including whales, is in danger of being snared by great tangles of nylon loose in the oceans.

“Egyptian pyramids have preserved corn, seeds, and even human parts such as hair because they were sealed away from sunlight with little oxygen or moisture,” says Andrady, a mild, precise man with a broad face and a clipped, persuasively reasonable voice. “Our waste dumps are somewhat like that. Plastic buried where there’s little water, sun, or oxygen will stay intact a long time. That is also true if it is sunk in the ocean, covered with sediment. At the bottom of the sea, there’s no oxygen, and it’s very cold.”

It’s unlikely, he says, that anaerobic organisms might exist at these ocean depths capable of biodegrading plastics. “So we expect much-slower degradation at the sea bottom. Many times longer. Even an order of magnitude longer.”

What exactly does ‘an order of magnitude” mean, Weisman asks? One thousand years? Ten thousand? “No one knows,” he writes, “because no plastic has died a natural death yet. It took today’s microbes that break hydrocarbons down to their building blocks a long time after plants appeared to learn to eat lignin and cellulose. More recently, they’ve even learned to eat oil. None can digest plastic yet, because 50 years is too short a time for evolution to develop the necessary biochemistry.” link

The holidays in Denver are pristinely beautiful, the snow swept Rockies as ever majestic …. but The World Without Us has wrecked havoc on my soul … I feel utterly detached, as if entombed in an out-of-body experience, servile to a sense of being hopelessly disconnected. Incapable of being heard, seen, of interacting. I put Weisman’s book aside, yet eerie terrifying thoughts about the earth without us constantly filter upward to consciousness. We walk through Boulder on Christmas Eve, drive up to Ft. Collins for Christmas dinner, walk the dog through Washington Park on Boxing Day.  The highways through my eyes are cemetaries of abandoned cars, the streets unpeopled, the restaurants silent. The houses frozen in time.  I imagine my daughter’s home abandoned forever.  Would the dogs be gone too? Are they part of this imagining process? I have to finish the book, I know, because as I understand, Weisman’s final answer is not necessarily all that bleak.   An interactive experience ranging from 2 days to forever.

When we leave Monday morning, I am in a no man’s land, hovering between a sense of impending hysteria and a total lack of affect.

December 28, 2009. The Great Salt Flats, Utah.

salt lake flats

On the north shore of the Great Salt Lake, the horizon dissolves into the sky, the earth blends with the heavens, and the spiral jetty, in the foreground, lies encrusted and submerged in the fluctuations of the unpredictable void.”

-Damon Farragut, From the essay, For a Romantic Realism

The Great Salt Flats. 7:30 PM. 11 degrees. I’m behind the wheel when the car starts heaving and sputtering.  Time just kinda freezes as the MPH gauge moves slower, slower … we’ve run out of gas.  We pull to the side of the road into deep darkness.   Cell phone service cutting in and out…. I’m underneath a blanket, red gloves, huge white scarf, hat. No idea how much time goes by before up ahead I notice a rear red signal light flash as a vehicle barreling by us slows down and skirts over, maybe 1/16 of a mile ahead of us.  An enormous bright white light begins backing towards us. Closer. Closer. Stop. Door swings open. A lean, heavily bundled thirty-something man steps out. “You need some help?” he shouts.

Turns out we’re some 30-miles outside of Wendover. He offers to take one of us with him there for gas. We’re too terrified not to be honest. We are afraid to get in the truck with him. No problem. He grabs the empty red gas container and $20 and says he’ll be back.  I think it is me who says “Can we trust you?”

He’s backing into the wind  towards his truck as he spreads his arms wide. “Hey, I work in two of the plants along this route.  I ride this road all the time. A lot of people get stuck out here. I’m just helping out.” He pauses …. “I’m not white. I’m not black. I’m not Hispanic. I’m a Native American.”

Then just like that he’s gone. As if that explains everything.

About a half an hour later, a warm and cuddly state trooper pulls up behind us. Informs us he could give us a ticket for venturing unprepared into the Salt Flats, but instead offers us sanctuary in the back seat of his car. Turns up the heat. Calls ahead to Wendover for gas. Warns us about trusting strangers. Then he shares some information about where we’re located. Nonplussed. Like he’s a tour guide at the Great America Amusement Park or something.

Gazing across the flats around Wendover, it is easy to imagine a landscape of purity and agelessness, perhaps what a world would look like without any humans at all. Parts of the area can even look like an alien planet, from the red and turquoise water of the Great Salt Lake, to the treeless hillsides marked with the shorelines of even greater ancient inland seas. One sees a world governed by geomorphological forces, by erosion, and evaporation.

However, this view is incomplete. To see the full beauty of this landscape, one has to understand the integral role that humans have had in creating and transforming it. Around Wendover, the scale of the engineer’s interaction with the comparatively inert material of the earth suggests a relationship that is geologic in time and space. Around Wendover, it is clear that man too has become a major geomorphological agent.

Chemical industries pump brine into massive evaporation ponds, using an elaborate system of canals to channel the water, and levees to contain it. The valuable compounds removed from the evaporite come from the surrounding landscape, from minerals which melted from the mountains and collected in the deep packed powder of the flats over millions of years, within this basin without drainage to the ocean.” Link

chemical plant

That horrible smell and the long yellow plume of smoke we’d driven past before sunset? That’d be the Magnesium Corp. of America (now US Magnesium), a 120-acre processing plant long renowned as the largest industrial air polluter in America. (In 1994 alone, MagCorp coughed out some  56 million pounds of toxics)

The military has used over three million acres in the region for bombing and training activities, and more than a thousand square miles of land outside of military reserves has undocumented and unexploded bombs buried in its soil. Rocket engines, explosives, and propellants are manufactured at two large industrial sites in the region, and explosions from the disposal and testing of munitions at nearby military grounds still shake and crater the landscape.

Large-scale extractive industries in the region create new topographies of pits and tailings mounds, causing changes in the landscape that are clearly recorded by the contour lines of successive editions of topographical maps. Link

The Kennecott Copper Company, the largest open pit copper mine in the world, is over half a mile deep and more than two miles wide. Plans are to enlarge the pit until the ore runs out circa 2020. In the 90s, it was ranked as the largest toxic polluter in the nation.  Kennecott employs 2,400 people. Because of its mining operations, it has one of the world’s largest its ground water ranks among the world’s most contaminated.  In 2008, Kennecott ranked #2 on the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory.

Also along our route is Envirocare, one of three US commercial radioactive waste disposal companies, stores 71% of the radioactive waste sent to the three sites. In the 90s, it was the only commercial facility licensed to accept mixed radioactive and hazardous wastes. It is the depository for DOE radioactive material from generators, military and industrial sites.

EarthJustice (page sited no longer active)
Online News Hour: Christine Todd Whitman

“Man does not weave this web of life. He is merely a strand of it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.” Chief Seattle

We’re just about warmed up when a truck pulls up in front of us. The Native American returns. He wears no gloves as he empties 5-gallons of gas into the tank. Will only accept $10 for his help.

“I don’t know how to thank you.” I gaze deep into his eyes, hoping to memorize his face forever. For eternity. And for what seems like eternity we just stand out there, staring at each other. I don’t have the words to express my sorrow. To ask for forgiveness. It’s all too painful. Too raw. An open wound he has not only learned to live with but also to look beyond.

God only knows what he sees.

now what do we take on our long journey?
The secret fear that wherever we go
we are superfluous?
The sense of loss
that revealed the essence
of a strange and sudden kinlessness,
showed that our calamity is not
shared by those who might, one day,
themselves face annihilation?
. . . We are doomed to be left behind by the flock
in the harshest of winters . . .
You, fly away!
But when you fly off
don’t forget us, grounded in the field!
And no matter to what joyful faraway lands
your happy wings bear you,
may our charred wings
protect you from carelessness.

Chernobyl Poems by Liubov Sirota

*    *    *
walden by jeloid
Give me a home…. by 4Real
Great Salt Lake, Salt Flats by fred h
Sinclair – Wyoming by Deb and Dave.
Fish Larvae Growing on Plastic by Scripps_Oceanography
MG_5018 by Mvejerslev
magnesium production by normaltoilet
radioactive well by tenjitsu71
last exit by jeloid

Deborah Phelan is a regular contributor at Wiser Earth.