‘Open Ground—Trespassing on the Pilbara’s Mining Boom’
The Best Australian Essays 2015. Melbourne: Black Inc, 2015. (Originally published in GriffithREVIEW ‘Looking West’ Edition 47, 2015).
Edited by Julianne Schultz
… My uncle told us other types of stories too. Stories about alluvial gulches of red rubble that ran over dead watercourses, and how the stones clinked like spoons when you walked on them as they were made of so much iron. The sparse trees, he said, were glossy on one side of their trunks from the rubbing of cattle being driven past. I read of Dampier’s great solar salt flats, which are periodically mowed. The mowing machines shave a thin crust of salt crystals off for sale to chemical factories. Those wet salt flats are inhabited by milkfish, introduced to control algae, and birds sometimes come to prey upon them—though they must not taste as mild as their name suggests, for all their lives the fish occupy the bitterns and brines and they are full of Y-shaped bones. Hardly any other animals can tolerate it. There are salt ‘gardens’ too: smaller-scale operations, tended by salt gardeners who must feel a certain enviable pride when the light hits their immaculate paddocks in the morning, like so much unmarked paper.
Folklore has it that fossickers and small-claims prospectors once believed the Pilbara’s buried metals could be read upside down in the sky. They’d scan incoming storms for ‘lightning nests’—electrical clusters towed around the low-hanging cloud cover by the polarity of minerals below ground. Where lightning lingered, or struck the ground repetitively, a lode was thought to lie folded between sedimentary layers. Earthing—a word from my electrician father’s argot. Compasses flicked, uncertainly magnetised. This was a compelling idea, and for me it rhymed with the American ‘thunder eggs’ that Perth Museum displayed under spotlights on the second floor. Thunder eggs are geodes, the granite exterior of which divulges nothing of the glittering yolk within—starry crystals, formed in a cavity called a ‘vug’, which are only revealed when the stone is halved. They are remarkable objects. You could buy smaller thunder eggs at the Subiaco Markets on Rokeby Road and of course, I did. Last year, as if to verify the faith of those early prospectors who scanned the clouds, the moon was found buried under Eel Creek. Researchers from the University of Western Australia and Curtin University were surprised to identify ‘tranquillityite’, a lunar basalt with fox-red crystals, in their rock wafer scans.
From those formative days of imagining a landscape in abeyance, the Pilbara taught me how places are compiled from reticulated systems as much as by discrete objects. The pull between geology and sky, the pull between the south and the north, the pull of the past on the present. Flying in, flying out. To understand a landscape as a series of stories, energetically tugged between voices, means no place can be entirely isolated, nowhere is amnesiac. The ground is opened here, here, again here, always as it is there.