Chapter 40: Gold Mining
Up in the mountains to the north, there are several old gold mines. Many petered out during the Gold Rush of the mid 1800s, but a few were turning out significant amounts even up until quite recently. Of the modern mines, most were now shut down. Gold mining is an increasingly difficult enterprise, all the easy stuff having been extracted long ago.
One of my local news feeds recently carried a story about one such mine, telling about how it was being shut down because it was no longer economically viable to run, so I decided to go on a solo site inspection one weekend. Partly it was that I decided that Kaitlyn was right, that I did have to use my powers for good more often; also that I was right, and that I’d do better to concentrate my efforts close to home, worrying less about what was going on in Outer Mongolia.
Kaitlyn and I had had a talk about that while sitting around in the hotel’s lobby early in the a.m. on Sunday, waiting for the wheels of justice to grind on our bike theft case, so we could get home and get to sleep.
“Davie, I was thinking about what you said the other day, about Dunbar’s number and such, and I’m still not happy about it. We can’t just ignore things like unrest in the Middle East, China, and such, merely because we don’t have social relationships with those people. And we can’t ignore things like the effect of rising sea levels, since so much of the world’s population lives so close to sea level. Eventually, all of that is going to come back and bite us, Davie!”
“Oh, undoubtedly, Kaitlyn. You’re kind of misunderstanding what I was saying, though. Dunbar’s number is about personal relationships, which means it matters when you’re talking about individual interactions. What we’re doing here tonight is helping to hold the local social fabric together. By making Moab a safer place to leave a bike outdoors in a parking lot, we ease some of the tension people have. Happy people do smarter things with their lives. Because they’re not having to set aside as much of their money in a savings account or in an insurance scheme to replace their bikes, they can use that money in a more socially positive way. Some of them will doubtlessly do something ecologically helpful, for example.”
“Okaaaaay…” Kaitlyn answered, doubtfully.
“Then because those people are happier, they’ll tend to avoid political decisions that are based in fear, which leads to xenophobia, which leads us away from collective action. You and I aren’t going to stop global warming by going outside the law to wreck the proposed coal mining project we got involved in. The right place to stop that is out in Washington with the laws they pass and the regulations they administer. And we only get people out there to do the right thing if they’re not all busy worrying about decaying infrastructure, rogue countries, and such.”
“I think I see your direction, Davie, but go on, finish your thought,” Kaitlyn said.
“Thank you,” I nodded to her. “And please forgive me if some of this doesn’t entirely make sense. I’m still figuring stuff out myself. I’m no great philosopher, with all the right answers. I guess if I had to sum it all up, it’s that there’s at least two very different levels to act on: socially at home, within our Dunbar’s number circles, and then outward from there in decreasing ripples until you get up to the government level, where our actions join with others’ actions to become collective action. You and I can’t fix global warming, but we,” I stressed, wagging a finger between us, “can. The same goes for other huge problems like poverty, social injustice, etc.”
“I guess,” she said. Then, “No, you’re right: it is a mess, and it is hard. I want to fix it all, but I can’t.”
“Neither can I. What we can do is things like this,” I said, waving my hand to indicate the events slowly happening around us, there in the quiet pre-dawn lobby. “If enough of us do good things in the world, it will tend to get better over time.”
I shifted gears. “I wonder why that tour bus guy even started stealing bikes? Have you considered what would lead someone to do that? It’s not super-profitable, so it’s unlikely to be about greed.”
She thought about that for a while. “Good question. It could be any number of things.”
I offered, “I’m putting my bet on some social problem, and that we’d do better to solve that than go after the thieves.” Kaitlyn looked about to object, so I hurried on, “Oh, don’t get the wrong idea, I’m glad we’ve strengthened our local social fabric by stopping him. What I mean is that I want to live in a world where no one even thinks to steal things like bikes, not because they’re afraid of the law or people like us, but because…just…why would you? You know? A world where stealing a bike just seems like a strange thing to want to do. A world where if someone told you they wanted to do that, you’d go, ‘Are you nuts? Maybe you need to get some professional help?’”
“Oh, that does sound nice, Davie.”
“The tricky bit,” I observed, “is getting there.”
And we went back to staring out the windows at the dark parking lot, having failed to solve the world’s problems once again.
But I was woolgathering. It was about 4 in the afternoon, and I was up at a semi-abandoned gold mine. There was a bunch of idle heavy equipment around, probably waiting to be moved to another mine or sold off. Or, maybe it was just abandoned in place, waiting for the market to turn favorable to mining gold in this country again.
Regardless, no one was around. I was hiding up at the top of a ridge overlooking the site, sitting naked, my clothes down at the foot of the hill on the other side from the mine, down in my FJ, mi burro. I’d hiked up the hill, invisible, and was now melded with Gaia, checking for any signs of life. I found nothing but plant life and the occasional small critter running around.
I stood and began walking down the hill. At the base of the hill, I sat and repeated the exercise. No one was around. I couldn’t see around the heavy machinery, in either the optical or magical sense, but if this were an active site, I’d be seeing someone walking around for sure. Several someones.
I walked around the machine shop, a few outbuildings, a small mobile office building… Nothing. I was alone here.
I lay down in the clearest part of the open mine area I could get to, roughly equidistant from all of the nearest pieces of heavy equipment and spread out into the Earth. I was looking for badness underground, some sign that the mine operators were up to no good. It wasn’t an especially pleasant patch of ground. All around, there were small spills here and there of various volatile fluids, but really nothing much worse than what you get in a grocery store parking lot. Certainly no seeping horrors, the sorts of images the propaganda arms of the eco movement love to show off while ignoring the fact that they’re rare occurrences.
For the most part, the EPA does their chartered job. But that’s not news, so you don’t hear that. CNN isn’t going to run a story, “EPA inspection caught a leaking tank early, and it was fixed by 9am the next day. In other news…” Or, better, the tank never leaks because regulations required that the mine buy one that wouldn’t spring a leak before it could be removed safely, having given its full service life.
But I was woolgathering again.
Out I stretched, looking for something the EPA or mine people missed.
And there it was. A leaking tank. Well, isn’t that ironic, Mr. Mage? I laughed at myself. Looks like it’s time for me to backstop the EPA.
I got as close, magically speaking, as I could to the tank and its leak. It wasn’t too bad, affecting only a few cubic meters of ground. They’d have to dig the area up, patch the tank, and send the dirt off to be cleaned. I could help with that. I concentrated and began breaking down the leaking material…looks like diesel fuel, maybe? I broke it down the same way as I did when unwinding the hydrocarbon chains in my old bike shorts, weeks back. By working slowly and steadily, I converted the leaked fuel into water, CO₂ gas, and small amounts of other harmless material mixed into the soil. The dirt would be a little dark from the carbon I wasn’t able to recombine, and the area would sigh out the gas as they dug the tank up, but if they sent it off to a lab to test it, it’d just come up a bit higher in carbon than the surrounding soil. Noteworthy, but harmless.
I looked back at the leak in the tank, and didn’t see anything new appearing. Either they’d drained the tank before leaving, or the level of the liquid was now below the break, so that it wasn’t going to re-pollute the area. Good.
I then delved deeper, looking for some of the gold they’d been hunting in this area. It was all around in small flakes and slag-heavy chunks. I pulled a bunch of it towards me, just as I’d pulled up the litter in the canyons weeks back, near home.
Shortly, I had a small pile of gold-laden rocks around me. I concentrated on each one, separating out the gold, causing the rocky parts to fall away in sand and crumbled rock. In a few of those rocks, I found some small gemstones, three small sapphires and one larger diamond. I magically cleaned and cut those gems as well. Among my ore, I even found a bit of silver and copper.
This would all do very nicely.
I then began to concentrate on my materials. Using Gaia’s power, I was able to summon a combination of pressure and temperature to reshape most of the gold into a set of three rings, two broad and gently rounded on their outside surfaces, one smaller than the other, plus a narrower band that was the same diameter as the smaller broad ring. I then infused this gold with copper, giving it a rosy tint and making it considerably harder than the pure gold I’d magically refined, a technique I read about once in a book. What can I say, I’m a nerd.
Into the broad rose gold rings, I pushed a narrow band of silver at the base of a cut incised along their diameter, so that it formed a ridge in the rings’ valleys. I then formed my remaining silver into a simple geometric gem setting for the narrower ring, pushing the three small sapphires and the larger diamond into it forming an offset 4-cornered diamond pattern, like on a playing card. It was…well, syncopated is the only word that came to my mind. Yes, it was visually syncopated. I liked it.
I then adjusted the smaller two rings’ shapes so that they would nest nicely together when worn on the same finger, a notch in the broad ring sliding under the edge of the gem setting on the narrower ring. They looked just lovely together.
The sun was almost down by the time I got up, finished with my labors. I took my new jewelry and the remaining ore-bearing rock and walked into the small office building, which was luckily unlocked.
I dropped my invisibility bubble, not needing it inside the building. The idea of getting caught here like this amused me slightly, but I knew the chances of it were basically zero.
I went into the end of the small building, where the mine manager’s tiny private office was, and sat down at the desk. There, I penned this short note:
Just thought you’d like to know, the diesel tank over by the mechanical shop is leaking about a foot down from ground level on the side facing the garage bay’s side door. You might want to fix it before someone calls the EPA.
— A friend of Gaia.
Then I placed the rough gold nugget I’d set aside in my working atop the note as a paperweight, wiped the pen with a tissue pulled from the box on the desk, replaced it in the desk, and walked out of there, closing the door behind me as I went, wiping the knob just in case.
Growing up in India, I’d learned forms of calligraphy unusual to this country, and I’d made an effort to be as ornate as the half dried-up fountain pen I’d found in the manager’s desk would allow. I doubted anyone would tie the note to me: I was way out of my range up here. They weren’t going to the police over this in any case. They’d be keeping it quiet, which suited me just fine.
The way I saw it was, they’d gotten a regulatory compliance inspection and an area cleanup in exchange for a few ounces of precious metal and some small gemstones. I’d probably sold my talents and labor too cheaply at that.