Pit of Death, Thermodynamics and Karma

One of my earliest memories of Butte was the fight to save the Columbia Gardens. I barely remember the Columbia Gardens but what I do remember seems almost magical. I remember it as lush, green, and full of life. People laughing, playing and all-around having a fun relaxing time. There was a large, terrifying wooden roller coaster, an amazing hand carved wooden carousel, and a variety of other rides (deathtraps) to test your courage (sanity).

The park had been around since 1899, when the 68 acres were purchased by Senator W. A. Clark (one of “The Copper Kings”) in 1899. The park was sold to the Anaconda Company upon his death in 1925. The Anaconda Company (founders included the Hearsts, the Rothchilds, and the Rockerfellers) kept it running until it started to get in the way, both physically and financially, with their open-pit strip mining ventures. There was a campaign by the people to keep the gardens open but conveniently (suspiciously) enough, the gardens burned to the ground in 1973 and the dispute ended. But Butte had already been beaten down by then, in the 20 years leading up to losing the Gardens big chunks of the historic uptown area had been flattened or burned, and the working class ethnic neighborhoods of Meaderville, Dublin Gulch, and McQueen, were also gone. Jobs were gone, homes were gone, neighborhoods were gone, and bit by bit the town was being consumed by “The Pit”.

Columbia Gardens…Then
Columbia Gardens…Now

Berkeley Pit “Fun” Facts:
Created by:The Anaconda Mining Company in 1955
Size:5600 ft wide by 1600 ft deep
Water Volume:37 billion gallons (2007 data)
Status:Slowly filling with water at a rate of 2.55 million gallons per day
Current “Owner”:BP/ARCO (Yes – the same BP that brought us the Gulf Oil Spill disaster just last year)
Water Quality:The water in “The Pit” is highly acidic and contains high concentrations of arsenic, copper, cadmium cobalt, iron, manganese, zine and sulfate.
Goal:Keep “The Pit” a terminal sinkto contain the contaminated water from the nearby mining operations.

Berkeley Pit, Butte Mt

So what you  might ask is the big deal?  A big hole in the ground in the middle of nowhere is filling with water, so what?  It turns out that just as “The Pit” looms over Butte, it also looms over a large part of the Pacific NW.  To better understand this we have a talk a little bit about Watersheds.

Butte sits at the headland of the Clark Fork river, the Clark Fork river travels  320 miles from Butte to Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho’s largest lake.  Water from Lake Pend Oreille ends up in the Columbia River…which happens to be the biggest river in the Pacific Northwest…which happens to run just a mile or so from my current home.  The Clark Fork is one of the largest water systems in the Columbia River Basin, there are 60 tributaries in total.

Columbia River Drainage Basin

Again, So what? Everything is under control right? The government is monitoring the water level in “The Pit”, the goal is to keep the water level below the water table and keep all the water that is currently in the pit, in the pit.  And surely with ARCO/BP in charge of the cleanup (monitoring) everything should go smoothly – right?  (GULF  OIL SPILL ANYONE?)

BP/ARCO is still mining copper in Butte.  They are mining copper from the leftover water and they are mining in the newer Continental Pit, alongside the Berkeley Pit.  The current plan, as agreed to the consent decree by the EPA, DEQ and BP/ARCO, allows BP/ARCO to let the water in the pit continue to rise, and for them to continue to mine, until it reaches a predetermined level, 5,410 ft.  At that point, estimated to be in 2019, they will run the pit water through a treatment facility to remove the metal contaminants before allowing it to discharge into the silver bow creek (headland to the Clark Ford river mentioned earlier).

Pit History

As long as there isn’t a big earthquake or  flood or any changes in the regulations agreed to by the government and ARCO/BP, then everything should be “A-O-kay”. I applaud Butte, the Government and BP/ARCO for addressing this issue at all…but….”color me skeptical”….I’m just not convinced that the current plan will be executed as envisioned…and even if it is….that it will hit all it’s goals. (GULF OIL SPILL ANYONE?)  Never-the-less, I have to trust that people are doing the best they can and that everyone involved carries with them a sense of responsibility to the current and future residents that live downstream.

Bringing this back around to my personal journey…envrionmental distaster areas like the “The Pit” and the wastelands around it,  in the past, have left me paralyzed with hopelessness, fear and dread.  I’ve handled these feelings by employing varying unsuccessful  techniques of distraction, disregard, and delusion.

As I said in my last post Why Biophilic Design, “I can do better”.   One of the first steps on my journey is to decide where to focus my energy. A very good friend of mine, whom I respect a great deal, explores and coaches people on how to recognize and change the way they create and transmit energy in their lives in her blog , Goss Coaching.  She discusses in great detail the concepts of catabolic (destructive) and anabolic (constructive) energy in our spiritual/mental lives.  I strongly encourage you to read her blog to learn more – it could change your life.

I’m an engineer by training, so the study of energy and how it’s transmitted has been an integral part of how I view life.  Catabolic and anabolic energy are the two main driving forces in nature.  Catabolic energy is released when matter decomposes, and anabolic energy is consumed by processes that create life, right down to the cellular level.  Again, from a scientific point of view the 1st law of thermodynamics (The Law of Conservation of Energy) states that “Energy can neither be created or destroyed.  However, energy can change forms, and energy can flow from one place to another.” (I did warn you there would be geeky stuff….)  In Buddhism, Karma, is the “The Law of Conservation of Moral Energy”.

These are very important concepts and will come up again and again in this blog.   But for the purposes of this post, it’s important to simply take away that you really have two choices when it comes to spending your energy.  You can spend it breaking this down (catabolic) or you can spend it building things up (anabolic).   Also, it’s known from science, that “like attracts like”, so doesn’t it stand to reason that we have a much better chance of attracting positive, rebuilding energy in our lives if that is what we are projecting?

One of my favorite authors/teachers these days is Pema Chodron (teaches the Shambhala Buddhist lineage), I will be liberally referencing her and her teachings throughout this blog. One of her primary teachings is to help people learn to take the very situations, people and events that cause us to shut-down and numb out and use them as tools to help us tap into and open up our ability for limitless love and compassion. I want to use my early memories of destruction based on greed, my life in Butte amongst the mining wastelands, and ever-present looming “Pit” as reminders that I can choose to take that destructive energy and turn it into something productive and beautiful.

Why Biophilic Design?

The term “biophilia” literally means love of life or living systems, and biophilic design is about understanding the human-nature connection and designing with that in mind.  This appeals to me on many levels.  I’m an Engineer by training and an Environmentalist at heart.  My life has been a study in contrast, compromises, and now, my journey towards enlightenment.  In order to help understand why I’m drawn to understand biophilic design, I want to share with your some of my personal background.

I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life working in a highly technical field.  A field rooted in science, logic, and mechanics.  My chosen occupation has been devoid of any consideration for, or interaction with, nature.  In fact, the products I’ve spent my time designing, building and selling, have relied on the mass destruction of trees.  I live in, and love, the Pacific Northwest, and yet when I drive to the beach and see the clearcutting scars, I feel deeply responsible for my part. From the very beginning of my career I have recognized the dissonance between the choices I was making and the intrinsic, biological understanding of the beauty, importance and vulnerability of the natural world around me.

Before embarking on my oh so rewarding career, there were the many many many years (some would argue too many) spent at a technical university in one of the most beautiful settings in the country, San Luis Obispo, CA.  I split my time between the large, cold, concrete mechanical engineering building learning how the world functioned according to the laws of physics and mathematics, and blowing off steam exploring the abundant and breathtaking central coast beaches, mountians and trails. And before that blissful yet grueling interlude, being the product of a 70’s style divorce,  I spent my life going between Butte, MT and Palm Springs, CA.

Butte, Montana
Palm Springs, California

Both located in amazingly beautiful natural areas.  Both existing in complete incongruity with their natural surroundings.

Butte, best known for, and most dramatically illustrates, a turn-of the century, hardscrabble  “Company Town”, that was completely spent by the time I came along in 1968.  The 70’s and 80’s  in  Butte were a time of depression, decline, and the realization that they had a very big mess on their hands and nobody responsible willing to clean it up.  The corporation that created that mess, the Anaconda Company, (initially known as the Amalgamated Copper Mining Company,  later bought by ARCO, and now owned by BP) had moved on to more fertile grounds in South America.  In the 80’s Butte was declared the largest Superfund Site in North America, due to the heavy metal groundwater pollution that caused the rivers to run red when it rained.  The Berkeley Pit in Butte contains some of – if not the – the most toxic water on earth.  In the 90’s the city finally admitted the tap water was unsafe to drink…who knew your water wasn’t supposed to be tinted red and smell funny?

Butte and Palm Springs have some things in common, they both have lakes (albeit Butte’s lake full of heavy metals instead of golf balls), mountains, trees and…um…air.

Living the Good Life

It’s easy to see that Palm Springs stands in stark contrast to Butte. Palm Springs was, and is, posh, glamorous, self-confident and relaxed.

I guess you could say, though, they have something more important in common, they both owe their successes to the exploitation advantages realized from their natural surroundings.  For Butte, it was the rich earth that seemed to provide an endless supply of copper, silver and gold that drew hundreds of thousands of eager for work  immigrants, and eager for profits corporations.  For Palm Springs, it’s the warmth, clean air and natural beauty, combined with the proximity to Los Angeles – and the very important  fact that it sits on a massive aquifer that enables the many splendid man-made golf courses, lakes, lawns and pools to continue to seduce the rich and famous and keep it lush and green while sitting in the middle of the desert.  Without all that water, now topped off by the Colorado River (while parts of Colorado are in drought), Palm Springs would be barren.

There is something else that connects Butte and Palm Springs – electricity.  Air Conditioning made the greater Palm Springs area inhabitable year round, and that required electricity, and moving electricity required copper – copper from places like Butte.

Walkerville, Montana

Anyway, back to Butte…I began my formal education (if you consider kindergarten formal) in Walkerville, Mt. I ended up attending 5 grade schools in Butte by the time we moved out of state. I had a pretty good “lay of the land” and by the age of 12 felt I understood what Butte had to offer me…I was not in love.  I was not broken-hearted when my Mom, Sister and I moved to Spokane Washington before eventually ending up in Palm Springs. I would miss the family we were leaving behind, but there was nothing about Butte for me at that time that represented anything but hopelessness.

Given my parents’ divorce, after we moved my Sister and I still had the opportuntiy to spend most holidays and summers in Butte while growing up.  I will share more about life in Butte, then and now, in future posts.  Suffice it to say I have enormous respect for the people of Butte, their character, their fortitude, and their ability to see past the obstacles and stark realities of what is staring them in the face and hang-on to hope that Butte will once again be rich, vibrant and important.  At one point in history Butte was known as the “Richest Hill on Earth”, it played an integral part in supportting the war efforts by supplying critical metals when we needed them most, and due to its immigrant make-up,  it was one of the most culturally diverse and lively cities in “its day” (okay, that “day” was in 1916 – but still).

Butte has a future, I believe that out of the ruins and decay something beautiful can grow, I believe that man’s instinctual Biophilic Nature, “love of life”, combined with science and technology will fuel clean-up and restoration innovations that will once again put Butte “back on the map”.  This time Butte can make a name for itself by leading the way towards saving the environment instead of aiding in its destruction.

Which brings me back to this post’s introductory question: “Why Biophilic Design?”  I have a wealth of knowledge, insight and firsthand experience when it comes to science and technology’s ability to shape our environment.  I have the openness and willingness to explore how I can put my skills to work to “do no (more) harm” and instill that spiritual practice in my everyday life.   I have the honesty to say, and most importantly mean, “I can do better”.

1st Entry!

My first entry was intended for January 1, 2012, a nice “clean” beginning.  Good intentions (a.k.a overly ambitious goal setting).  Given that I’m only 81 days, 1944 hours, and 116,640 minutes behind…I’m going to “breath in”…”breath out”….and acknowledge that clean beginnings are just like clean endings and unicorns.

This blog is about my journey into biophilia.  What is Biophilia?  Glad you asked.  The term “biophilia” literally means “love of life or living systems.”  We will be exploring this topic together in excruitating (fun/lighthearted/humorous) detail throughout this blog.  I must stress this is a journey and this entry is the very beginning.  I’ve been through a major transformation over the last 4 years, and although much has changed in my life, I feel that the work I’ve done so far has just gotten me to the point of real enlightment, real growth, and real happiness.  I feel it’s finally time to put the work into exploring my passions and seeing where that leads me.

This journey will involve spirtual explorations (lots), scientific findings (think graphs and excel), environmental topics, human interest and motivational stories, food and health, random geeky stuff,  and most of all it will be my attempt to genuinely document my experiences.

I’m learning to set “manageable goals”, and my goal this week was to write and publish my first ever blog entry ().  My goal for my next entry is to share my plans/goals/aspirations for this up-coming year.

 Life Lessons:  Set Manageable Goals & Life is not “Clean”