Julie Shafer – THE MALAKOFF DIGGINS (about one hour and a half from Sacramento, CA)
The Diggins are amazing. They are located deep, deep in the woods, and the man-made crater is one mile deep, and about three miles in circumference. In the pit it looks like a Southwestern Desert canyon, and at the top and all around the crater is a lush, thick, dense forest. All along the rim are tree roots that are exposed, and stretched thin, desperate to find earth to hold onto.
I had never heard of hydraulic mining before, but immediately saw how devastating this type of mining is. High-powered hoses, more like canons, were pointed at a mountain washing away everything. All of the run-off was funneled to a man-made ravine, and it is there that the gold, silver, copper, zinc and any other valuable mineral was sorted from mud, trees, roots, branches and rock ore. Mercury and arsenic are magnetically attracted to these other highly sought metals, and so they were used to separate the valuable from invaluable ore. This type of mining is the most lucrative, and the most destructive.
I walked into the pit, and thought I should walk the entire loop. My heart was racing. I was a sitting duck in this bowl. Do bears hunt during the day? Would a mountain lion think I was threatening or a good sized meal? If I blocked the sky and top of the pit I was swear I was walking through a slot canyon in Zion National Park. I could feel this space. I could feel the destruction and the pain. I mean really, really feel it deep in my bones. The sides of the pit were scarred, and scraped. I could see where several high-powered water canons sliced into the mountain, eventually inverting a mountain top into a deep, raw pit. Reddish, brown earth covered the bottom and sides. In some places it felt stretched thin, in other places smooth, but most of all I saw jagged, rough slices weaving in and out of the sides of the bowl. I saw the tunnels that were used to direct the run-off into a ravine where the valuable ore was collected. The tunnels could fit three of me side-to-side, arms stretched wide, and another of me sitting on my shoulders. I imagined I was like one of those human pyramids cheerleaders make at high-school football game half-time shows. I was shaking. Years of rain-water collecting at the bottom of the bowl meant there was a little pond, and really thick brush. It looked a little bit like a nature preserve. I walked the most of the length of the bowl, but at one point the brush was so thick, it was impossible to navigate through. I didn’t worry about getting lost since I was in a circular space, but every step I took deeper into the bush made me start to feel like it might be my last. I honestly thought a wild animal might be hiding in this brush waiting to pounce on me.
“C’mon. You are being stupid. There is nothing out here.”
One more step
“Look Julie, you want to walk all three miles of this bowl, and you’re probably about at the half-way point. So, whether you turn around or keep going you would end up walking the same distance. So, keep going.”
“Let’s count our steps. I wonder how many steps I will take during the remainder of this walk? My guess would be 7800. Where did I get that number you say…”
At this point my own voice was swallowed by the sounds of something I have never heard before. An animal was sending a signal, either to me, to a pack, to a predator. It was one long, low register howl, followed by about 10 short howls in a row. Silence. Repeat. Silence. I could hear and feel my heart beat in my ears. I have no idea whether or not the sound was coming from inside the bowl or from the rim. Had I been stalked this whole time? I don’t remember anything about my walk back except for the fact that I walked quickly, stood as tall and as big as I could, I tripped a lot and that I repeated something to the affect of, “Everything’s fine. Every – thing – is – going – to – be – fine. I am going to take a few more steps, and then I will be closer to the end. I’m good. Just be cool. Be very cool, and all will be good.”
This place scared the shit out of me, and was absolutely going to be the next place I would shoot. How I was going to carry a 6 foot by 40 inch plywood box, and a darkroom a mile into this pit was beyond me. I couldn’t use the U-Haul like I had before. There’s no way it would make it on the drive to the Diggins. I was going to have to carry everything into the pit, and set-up from there. This shoot seemed ridiculously elaborate. I seemed to really be teetering on the edge of reason with this one. Heroics aside, I didn’t feel safe. Why was I willing to return to a site whose history terrified me, and physicality terrified me, whose remoteness chilled me to the bone. Why I would spend a week shooting here is still something I am asking myself.