Poet and GIS analyst Max Hjortsberg is no stranger to the horrors of industrial gold mining. In 2015, he spent two weeks in the Cortez Range of Nevada working on an environmental impact statement for a proposed expansion of the Cortez Hills gold mine. He watched gigantic trucks haul payloads of earth and rock from a gaping hole in the ground and drive to a factory where each load was leached with cyanide to produce the barest fistful of gold. On his return home to Livingston, he learned of two separate mining interests staking claims on public land bordering the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. He was inspired to fight those projects and rallied friends and family to the cause. The result, with co-editors Marc Beaudin and Seabring Davis, is the latest release from Livingston's Elk River Books, Unearthing Paradise: Montana Writers in Defense of Greater Yellowstone.
The National Park Service turned 100 years old on Aug. 25 last year, and 2016 saw a flurry of books published about the parks. A common theme among them is the idea that national parks aren't simple locations with closed borders, like theme parks. These magnificent landscapes are the hearts of sprawling ecosystems that spread well beyond their boundaries. Protecting the outer, unprotected lands—and the wildlife that move over and around them—is increasingly critical. Unearthing Paradise seeks to add to this conversation. The message? Corporations can't destroy upstream environments and not expect grave ramifications for everything downhill.
The need to protect public and wild places is a common thread in this collection of 30-plus poems, essays and stories, though not all the pieces address industry and only a handful were written specifically for this anthology (many were previously published in regional magazines and collections). The argument isn't so much that mining and other industries need to go away, it's that we need to change our approach to them. For example, concerning gold, Hjortsberg writes, "Gold is nothing more than a commodity and we have plenty of it. The great immutable metal is infinitely recyclable and should be reused and not hidden away in some vault in the Swiss Alps." He owns the fact that he and his contributors are fighting industry in their own backyard, which cynical readers would happily point out. However, he also makes the point that Yellowstone is in a sense the entire world's backyard, and that industrial activities on any public land carry similar significance.
There is no lack for talent among the passionate contributors to the collection. Aside from the trio of editors, Terry Tempest Williams, Rick Bass, Doug Peacock and Hjortsberg's father, William "Gatz" Hjortsberg, all appear. Montana Poet Laureate (and farrier) Michael Earl Craig offers a poem called "Town," a wry look at "opportunistic leeches" aboard a greased pig floating down a river. My favorite is a short prose poem called "Late Spring" from the late Jim Harrison, which originally appeared in his book, In Search of Small Gods. If the line "Nothing in nature is exactly suited to us" doesn't illustrate our seeming inability to exist on the earth without tearing it up, nothing does.
It is a curious collection, mostly in the variety of writing styles. Subjects include anecdotal accounts of encounters with the ignorant (the essay "Cutthroats," by Bryce Andrews), personal relationships to the Yellowstone River (Alan Kesselheim's essay "To the Source"), and appeals to metaphor, like Russell Rowland's essay comparing Montana's relationship with mining to a battered wife's relationship to her husband. Poems are scattered throughout, as are works of short fiction. The mix might be jarring to some readers, and the book may work best as a sampler to be read one or two pieces at a time.
Journalist Todd Wilkinson is one of the most erudite voices defending this region, and it's his excellent essay, "Death Horse of a Different Color," that best sums up the book's message. As he describes the failures and broken promises of modern-era mining companies, he points out the folly of accepting corporate entreaties to "Trust us." "Creating jobs is important," Wilkinson writes, referring to one of the primary arguments in defense of the industry, "but creating resilient communities compatible with nature [is] what lasts."
In his introduction, Hjortsberg writes, "The mission of Unearthing Paradise is to advocate for, and support, effective protections from industrial-scale mining in the gateway to Yellowstone." To that end, a percentage of all proceeds from the book will be donated to the Park County Environmental Council, a grassroots organization fighting the construction of the two Livingston mining projects. With its back-page list of suggestions for getting involved, the book asks readers to reconsider extractive industry in this era of human-influenced climate change. We are a community that shares an enormous wealth in public lands, and Unearthing Paradise is a solid effort to rally us to protect them.