If you look across Thacker Pass from the shoulders of the Montana mountains, the land looks like a quilt the Double-H mountains in the south pulled up to their chin to keep warm during the cold winter nights. The hills that roll towards the valley floor are checkered with patterns. Much of the quilt, where the old-growth sagebrush persists, is an unbroken viridescent pattern. On the edges of the sagebrush, flaxen, rectangular patches of invasive grasses have sprung up from the wreckage created by the Bureau of Land Management’s clear-cutting chains. Separating the green and yellow patches, are lines of muddy brown where dirt roads have been built.
In places – my favorite places – the quilt bunches up into folds. Those folds conceal nooks, crannies, alcoves, and cubbyholes where pygmy rabbits hide from prairie falcons, pronghorn antelope hide from rifle scopes, and I hide from the wind, sun, and the near-impossibility of stopping Lithium Americas’ open pit lithium mine.
Max and I received a second 24-hour notice to vacate Thacker Pass from BLM and the other lawyers we’ve been working with strongly advised us to heed this notice. They warned us that, if we were arrested, a federal judge would likely only release us from jail on the condition that we not return to Thacker Pass. If a judge released us on these conditions, to return to Thacker Pass would risk another arrest and more criminal charges filed against us. If we were arrested a second time, a judge would likely keep us incarcerated until the criminal charges filed against us were resolved.
We decided that being arrested when construction was not immediately imminent was not strategic – especially if it meant keeping us permanently away from Thacker Pass. Meanwhile, reinforcements had arrived who could hold down the occupation site and ensure a continuous presence at Thacker Pass. So, we decided it would be a good time to take a few days to shower and do some laundry.
The afternoon before we had to leave, I wandered down into Thacker Pass’ deepest refuge, into the rolling sagebrush hills that form the warmest section of the quilt – the same rolling hills, the same section of the quilt that will be ripped out for an open pit mine if Lithium Americas has its way.
But, I found no refuge there.
I took a dirt road still covered with the kind of old snow that preserves animal tracks the best. Rabbits, mice, kangaroo rats, sage grouses, red foxes, and coyotes had all found this dirt road useful before me. Seeing my clumsy, heavy boot tracks next to the artwork these creatures created with their feet embarrassed me. Every twenty yards or so, I stopped to study the tracks and to visualize the animal who had left them. When I saw rabbit and coyote tracks converge in the crimson of blood spilled over the cream of snow, the voices of coyotes a few hills away protested my voyeurism. Sacred predation, they insisted, is an intimate thing.
As I wandered, I tried to imagine what it would feel like if a member of each of the species represented by the tracks in the snow walked with me – shoulder to shoulder – to a grand, interspecies council organized to discuss how to stop the mine.
I came at last to the edge of an area that had been cleared for one of Lithium Americas’ exploratory water wells. The tracks disappeared before the clearing surrounding the well. The sagebrush seemed suspicious. The mud that squelched under my boots, upon determining the species my track belonged to, was eager to spit my feet out. I couldn’t blame the sagebrush or the mud. The last humans who had walked here were probably the same humans who bored a hole deep into the earth to learn how much water they could pump up from the earth and how many poisons they could pump down from the mine.
As I faced the sagebrush, they appeared to expect something from me. At first, I did not know what. Then, the harsh sounds of a heavy truck straining to haul a back-hoe up Highway 293, about a quarter-mile from where I stood, shattered the silence. The sage branches quivered. They trembled with fear.
It made me wonder: If sagebrush fear the trucks, do they know what Lithium Americas plans to do?
I began to narrate my premonitions. I saw a future where a line of trucks stretched for miles from Thacker Pass down Highway 293, east towards Orovada. The trucks screamed and screeched as they heaved back-hoes, excavators, tractors, and loads of the sulfuric acid needed to burn lithium from the earth. The air was thick with diesel exhaust. The ground shook as the machines thundered over the hills. Rabbits, mice, and rats scampered west out of the Pass through sagebrush roots only to find a new land already cleared for the hay fields in King’s Valley. The activity so stressed a golden eagle mother that the eggshell surrounding her baby cracked prematurely because it was too thinly formed. Sage grouse awkwardly leapt from the valley floor towards the foothills, but they starved to death when they could not find enough habitat on the heights. Local coyotes – ever the survivors – howled at the horror of it all, tucked their tails, and, slunk over the ridgelines wondering when the new, pale humans would learn to listen to their trickster lessons.
The vision faded and I was left looking at the sagebrush that had gathered around me to listen to the terror I predicted. I second-guessed my decision to tell them. Perhaps it would have been best to let them enjoy the time they have left, I thought. Ignorance is bliss, after all.
As I faced those plants who I had just warned about the destruction that was coming, I wanted to run all the way back up the road to where my car was parked and drive as far away from Thacker Pass and the likelihood of her destruction as possible.
But, I didn’t run. I couldn’t run. I don’t know if it was my own sense of honor or the mud sucking my feet into Thacker Pass that prevented me from fleeing. Finally, I asked aloud: “What do you need me to do?”
In response, my body turned wooden. My limbs became rigid. The hair on my arms and legs stood up like leaves drinking in the sun. I felt the machines through my roots first. My toes and fingers clinched at clumps of twitching soil. I felt vibrations through the bark that became my skin. Something big – bigger than anything I knew existed – was coming my way.
Then, I tasted the screams of my relatives on the breeze and through the root networks. They came as chemical messages – what scientists call “the release of volatile organic compounds” – that my sagebrush kin send through their communities when they are wounded. The screams were distant – just a trickle, at first. I started drinking different minerals to try to change my chemical composition to make myself displeasing to whoever was eating my family. But, then the shrieks saturated my surroundings. I frantically searched for new minerals, dug for deeper waters, and synthesized as much light as I could to create the strongest terpenoid compounds and volatile oils that I had used to protect myself before.
The chemical screams were being drowned out by the approaching, mechanical thunder. I wished I was as fast as the pronghorn who sometimes browsed my branches. There was a moment when the thunder was strongest, the wind stopped, and the sun failed.
My legs cracked, my arms snapped, and the ripping began. My insides tore apart in a series of pops. I tried to grip the earth with the roots I had left but the dirt slipped through my grasp. With one final pop, everything went blank. There were no more minerals to taste. No sunlight to absorb. No water to drink. And, the chemical screams fell silent.
Back in my human body and soaking with sweat despite the cold temperature, I found myself clawing at my own guts as if they really had been torn out. When the wind mercifully blew this horror away, I found myself face-to-face again with the sagebrush.
“Stop them,” they said.