Monday Dec 03, 2007

Evel Knievel and My Mother-in-Law



Last week, world famous daredevil Evel Knievel died. The fitting way for him to go would have been jumping his motorcycle over some big river canyon. He didn't. He died of something less dramatic but just as deadly: idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a disease in which your lungs slowly fail due to scar tissue. It's not pleasant.

My mother-in-law has also been struggling with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. She missed our daughter's graduation from college several years ago due to pneumonia, and since then, we worry every time she comes down with bronchitis or even a chest cold. She's been on oxygen since last spring.

What they share is living in Butte, Montana.

I remember my first trip to Butte. Scott and I were newly serious about each other, and I made the pilgrimage one summer between college terms. I was astonished at the beauty of the area. Soaring mountains, rushing rivers, deep blue skies....but it was all contrasted with the Berkeley Pit, the 1.5 mile wide open pit copper mine that had eaten parts of the town and large expanses of the mountains.The accompanying sights that went with the mine were the smelter smokestacks and the "dead zone" - the bottom third of surrounding mountains where all the trees had died, unable to survive in the toxic air.

About 10 years ago, the Berkeley Pit became one of the biggest Superfund clean-up areas in the country. The water that filled the bottom of the pit was so toxic, filled with heavy metals such as arsenic, zinc and sulphuric acid, that migrating snow geese were killed after landing in the poisonous brew.

My husband and his four siblings grew up in Butte. They rode their bikes around the copper mine, sled down steep hills where snow covered a multitude of sins. He still claims it was the best childhood ever, with the old mining town offering so many places for a curious child to explore.

With my 2007 ears, I listen to his stories and shake my head...growing up in a town where the bottom third of the mountains couldn't sustain trees? Good lord.

Coincident with this week's news is my reading of The Road by Cormac McCarthy. A powerful vision of a destroyed earth paired with the devotion of a father to his son, the book shows a terrible vision of a world gone mad. Where instead of the bottom third of the mountains being the "dead zone," the entire planet is barely habitable.

Today, Butte is a charming town (but no thanks, I don't care to live there). Its downtown has been restored, the smelters are shut down and the forest has recovered. It's dirt poor, however, as mining was the town's lifeblood. That industry fed thousands of families and gave them a living, while dealing a blow to the health of people and the environment.

No easy answers here. But a silent thank you to advances in knowledge and technology that may allow us to give job opportunities to people without the heavy price we've paid in areas such as Butte. Meanwhile, when my husband comes down with bronchitis, I have to silence the fear in my heart that he, too, will pay the price for the once wealth of his mining hometown.


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