I’VE BEEN GOING ON TRIPS into the desert to look at holes. I go with friends—there are a lot of holes out there, in the sagebrush. It seems as though the desert collects them.
Thinking generally of a hole as “an excavation into the ground,” this should not be surprising. Depending on who you ask, these regions of the western united states are often understood to be locations for extraction. There is little else of value on that land, the narrative goes, so take what you need and get out. Usually, a hole is left behind.
• • •
Out near Tonopah is a place where all the silica is from. It used to be called silica. They don’t call it that anymore. They call it sand.
There was a truck who went out there to find it.
She was almost there, but the silica said “turn around: this is for playing with guns.”
She went a different direction, but the silica put up a gate and said “this is where I keep my animals.”
She went a third direction, but the silica said “road closed, we dug a hole where your town used to be.”
The sun was setting by now, and her people were all out dancing in the sky far off in the distance. She could hear them and feel their feet pounding the ground.
She doesn’t go backwards anymore. She doesn’t stop for anything in the way.
• • •
Much of our initial impulse for venturing out into the desert was based in a desire to view these sites of excavation, but as tends to happen when you wander around in the dirt and the rocks and sagebrush for long enough, we started to get holes in our clothing. What about these holes, then? These are surely not excavations. We looked up the definition of “hole” and learned that it means simply—“an opening.”
This is even better. What we are after then, is sites of opening. Mostly, we are looking in the desert, because we like the desert. This is more freeing anyway. An excavation implies an absence which, to me at least, conjures a sadness also. Perhaps this sadness around absence even gestures towards a feeling of nostalgia—something of which I am often accused and which I own up to, but with some regret. I do not want to be nostalgic, because that implies living in the past.
An opening however, implies opportunity—for movement, for connection, for intimacy, for freedom. This is also an opportunity, even a necessity, for connections to the past, or to some pasts. Maybe this is a redefinition of nostalgia, or a stepping aside as the pickup of critique roars past, leaving a plume of dust visible for miles behind. But I have an affection for the past. Not because the past is somehow better than the now, but rather because the past is the now—it carries the material components which comprise the present moment. For me, at least, it is in considering the past that the construction of linear time begins to break down as a just that—a construction.
I am not much of a futurist. I connect with Milan Kundera’s assertion that:
People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It’s not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past.1
That’s where the holes come in. But is the future—the apathetic void—the hole? Or is it our incomplete understanding of the past that’s full of holes? I’d assert that the holes, simply defined as “openings” after all, are neither, but rather they are the continuity between the two. They are sites which reflect the lived experience of time, an experience which tends to elude characterizations of being exactly either in “the past” or “the future.”
• • •
They get the lithium in Silver Peak. They come from all over to get it, even from other countries.
It was a little tractor that found it first. She was making a road and she had to stop and rest. She had a big white straw and she drank the water.
That was when they used the lithium to get happy.
These days they use the lithium to get power. They got so much power that they had to connect it all; they had to make it into a network.
The network is down there always now and they’re all connected. No one is off the network.
• • •
From the bottom of these holes in the desert come the critical raw materials of “the future”—copper, gold, molybdenum, tantalum, vanadium, beryllium, lithium.2 But as we look over the edge into the pit, what is irritating us, what is provoking and insulting us from the past?
I remember a discussion that took place at a favorite lecture series, in regards to the difficulty of building new buildings when all the space is taken up by historic ones. One speaker put forward the provocation that when we preserve things from the past, we are robbing the future of its opportunity. Its opportunity to… what? Remake the world? Use resources? Take up space?
I find this assumption fascinating and incredibly troubling. It is as though the future is set perfectly off in the distance, unchanging, waiting for us to finally arrive there and be presented with the vast resources of equity which it has been jealously hoarding in preparation for our arrival. As if the future is not being made and remade daily by the past. As if the past is not being made and remade daily by the present. As if no one lost their land when the white ancestors showed up and began dropping our great grandmothers onto the newly and neatly-platted parcels of the western united states endlessly until they could go no further, stopped by the golden shore of California.
As if many of us are not also on the verge of learning what it truly means to see everything you know collapse, and be left alive to sort it out. As if we are the first ones to arrive here, and look over the edge.
There are sites of connection to all this. Usually, they are sites of opening. They are holes.
• • •
Everyone knows Dihydrogen monoxide is just water. It’s not special; it happens all the time. Some of it happens at Ash Meadows.
The pup fish have been using it for a long time; longer than anyone. They don’t call it water or dihydrogen monoxide. They don’t call it anything.
A few people wanted to use some of that water too. They dug some holes and started drinking, they said “this is mine.”
A few other people had different ideas. They said “don’t use that water, don’t use it at all.”
The pup fish didn’t say anything, but they put them in fish jail anyway. They don’t go anywhere now. They are in fish jail all the time.
• • •
As openings, sites through which the past explicitly and materially becomes the present which becomes the future, holes are a portal where time begins to leak out and shed the metaphorical constructions we are prone to use—sand in the hourglass; the thread through the needle. The material accumulations which have brought us this present moment are visible as the tailings pile off to the side. The racists are not simply mean people—they have specific material agendas driving the accumulation of power. We are caught up as users of computers, occupiers of land, eaters of food.
There’s a bumper sticker that you sometimes see out on back roads in the middle of Nevada that says “If it isn’t grown, it has to be mined.” It’s hard to argue with an industry where the measurements are in millions of tons. But it seems worth it to go have a look for yourself.
I love that bumper sticker. I love the roads where I tend to see it. They are not like dirt roads you might imagine— rough and rocky and slow—they are flat and smooth and straight. They are places where you can really fly. Like the bumper sticker, they collapse complexity into something smooth and easy to pass over at 70 miles per hour.
But I can’t shake the need to try and explain what we are doing when we are driving around looking at holes. It seems as though there should be a point.
I want to believe that the landscape itself is enough, but I don’t think this is true. The landscape will not save us, though it may still be a comfort in rough times. Besides, we cannot avoid the fact that our trip is a type of voyeurism. We are, after all, “looking at holes.”
• • •
There is one place with more holes than any other place. That’s where the plutonium is. They call it Sugar Bunker or Yucca Flat or Smokey Junior or Ff.
Out there, there are so many holes that things are more taken away there than they are there there.
Once they had the plutonium, they brought the smartest people they knew to that place. The smart people said that the smart thing to do was to dig some holes.
They dug and dug and they took it all away. Pretty soon one of them took a look at another and realized he was a hole.
He looked at himself and realized he was also a hole.
Then everyone looked around and saw that there wasn’t anything left of anyone. They were all holes.
• • •
I am an interloper in these places and I spend much time trying to reconcile feelings of connection to a stolen land. I don’t think the connection is false, after all. The connection that the miners and the ranchers and the murderers feel to the ground they occupy is not false, but it is still problematic. It is worth examining.
We—especially the we that are white westerners—construct our realities and our supremacies with every cultural project we bring or embrace in the arid places of the western united states. These projects are many—geology, history, mining, physics, hydrology, ranching, industrial agriculture, engineering, military aviation, atomic science, white supremacy, freight railroading, conspiracy, highway design, utopian new communalism, public lands; all serve a cultural purpose of framing, explaining, establishing. Much work is done to obscure the ways in which these realities are constructed, to make them seem given. But there are holes, there are openings through which to look and see where the survey stakes are, what plans are being drawn and what mechanisms sketched up, what terms of exchange will govern.
Wandering around in the sagebrush we stumble upon these things. I have never smelled another plant like sagebrush. It is sharp and deep, like something provoking us from the past.
• • •
1. Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, trans. Michael Henry Heim (New York: Penguin Books, 1981), p. 22. [cited in LeGuin, Non Euclidean View]
2. Fortier, S.M., et al, 2018. Draft critical mineral list—Summary of methodology and background information—U.S. Geological Survey technical input document in response to Secretarial Order No. 3359: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2018–1021, 15 p., https://doi.org/10.3133/ ofr20181021.