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Book Review 269: Changing Mines in America

March 9, 2013 - Harry Eagar
CHANGING MINES IN AMERICA, by Peter Goin and C. Elizabeth Raymond. 208 pages, illustrated. Center for American Places

Working mines are ephemeral. Few stay open more than a few decades, often less. The changes they make to the landscape can last more or less forever.

It was the thought of photographer Peter Goin, after nearly being trapped in an abandoned mine, to examine the meaning of old mines to the human and physical landscape. Elizabeth Alexander provided the historical background.

They examine four pairs of mines, some active, and discover that while most people do not welcome mines as neighbors, once they have them they sometimes object to environmental restoration.

This is said to be true of the hard coal area of Pennsylvania's Wyoming Valley, where removal of spoil heaps was resisted. Removal of mining buildings also raises objections.

In one sense, this is understandable. In many remote places, the mining landscape is the only human landscape around. Goin and Alexander find this to be particularly true of Eagle Mountain, Calif., where an iron mine created an ideal '50s small town in the desert, which its residents bitterly missed when the mine closed.

Alexander does a good job of assembling the disparate viewpoints, although she perhaps understates the desperate situation of what the oceanographer Orrin Pilkey labeled “chalices of poison,” the deadly lakes that result when pumping ceases in open pit mines in the West.

I had never heard of radon tourism at several Montana uranium mines, where deluded people spend weeks underground each year seeking relief from arthritis. But it is reminiscent of the tuberculosis hospital established in Mammoth Cave before the Civil War in the belief that absence of sunlight would be helpful.

Goin's photographs are purely reportorial; there is no effort to exploit the mines for arty or picturesque reasons.

Since few people visit mines, and even fewer have occasion to visit a working mine, this book, a series in a study of American landscapes, would be a fine introduction for the excluded masses; but it was published in such a small edition that it can have hardly any impact.

Good idea, though.


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