Come on, fuck that NYT Magazine article this morning. Trust me – don’t you trust me? Read this article by Rebecca Solnit in Orion magazine instead.
Let’s begin with one of the statistics:

“The California Gold Rush clawed out of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada considerable gold—93 tons or 2.7 million troy ounces in the peak year of 1853 alone, an estimated 973 tons or 28.4 million troy ounces by 1858, more than 3,634 tons or 106 million troy ounces to date.”

My brothers used to be in apartment maintenance. Now, standard practice calls for a quick clean up, laying new carpet and a possible paint job once your resident has vacated his place. If the resident was a smoker, inevitably the paint job followed, since the smoke would stain the walls. This is the literal materialization of human aura, but it isn’t just your renter and his Camels. No, we leave our indelible imprint on the landscape long after we have tidily tucked away the event. In human time, measured by the fingernail and hair growth, tumescence and the brief flurry of orgasm, the fleeting memory that flairs up in the night like a ghost of what the angle looked from a height that was just up to mom’s knee or thigh and is gone before you can complete the memory, organize that field of view, events are inevitably more fleeting, more bound to the attention span – but of course, in organic time, measured by proteins and fats, this isn’t so. An event can last a long time. Hence the interest in Solnit’s gold rush story. It is the quintessential Wild West story, the one the American dream life immediately focused upon – the discovery of gold at Sutter’s mill, the arrival of hundreds and then thousands come to stake a claim, the settling of California.

But Solnit brings out other pieces of the rush. For instance, by our manifest luck, we just happened to fight a war with Mexico that gave us both the Sacramento River and the means to exploit the gold we found there. That means was mercury:

“In the northwesternmost corner of old Mexico, in 1845, a staggeringly rich mercury lode was discovered by one Captain Don Andres Castillero. Located near San Jose at the southern end of the San Francisco Bay, the New Almaden Mine was well within the territory seized by the United States by the time it was developed. And only days before the February 2, 1848, treaty giving Mexico $15 million for its northern half was signed, gold was also discovered in California. Thus began the celebrated Gold Rush, which far fewer know was also a mercury rush, or that the two were deeply intertwined.”

Mercury combines with gold, making it much easier to extract from water or earth. Of course, there is the little problem that mercury is extremely poisonous, a neurotoxin that keeps on tickin’.

“During the California Gold Rush, an estimated 7,600 tons or 15,200,000 pounds of mercury were thus deposited into the watersheds of the Sierra Nevada. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that placer, or stream-based, mining alone put ten million pounds of the neurotoxin into the environment, while hard-rock mining accounted for another three million pounds. Much of it is still there—a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist once told me that he and his peers sometimes find globules the size of a man's fist in pristine-looking Sierra Nevada streams—but the rest of it ended up lining the bottom of the San Francisco Bay. Some of it is still traveling: the San Jose Mercury News (named after the old mercury mines there) reports that one thousand pounds of the stuff comes out of gold-mining country and into the bay every year, and another two hundred pounds comes from a single mercury mine at the south end of the bay annually. Some of this mercury ends up in the fish, and as you move up the food chain, the mercury accumulates.

"According to the San Francisco Estuary Institute, "Fish at the top of the food web can harbor mercury concentrations in their tissues over one million times the mercury concentration in the water in which they swim." All around the edges of the bay, warning signs are posted, sometimes in Spanish, Tagalog, and Cantonese, as well as English, but people fish, particularly poor and immigrant people, and some eat their catch. They are paying for the Gold Rush too.

“Overall, approximately ten times more mercury was put into the California ecosystem than gold was taken out of it. There is something fabulous about this, or at least fablelike. Gold and mercury are brothers and opposites, positioned next to each other, elements 79 and 80, in the Periodic Table of the Elements. And they also often coexist in the same underground deposits. Gold has been prized in part because it does not rust, change, or decay, while mercury is the only metal that is liquid at ordinary temperatures, and that liquid is, for those who remember breaking old thermometers to play with the globules, something strange, congealing into a trembling mass or breaking into tiny spheres that roll in all directions, ready to change, to amalgamate with other metals, to work its way into the bodies of living organisms.”

In the tv series westerns, nobody ever complains about mercury fumes. In real life, the landscape after gold mining is laced with poisons, the sources of the water are diverted and fouled, and of course vegetation, which likes mercury no more than the human body, dies off:

“The volume of mercury-tainted soil washed into the Yuba was three times that excavated during construction of the Panama Canal, and the riverbed rose by as much as eighty feet in some places. So much of California was turned into slurry and sent downstream that major waterways filled their own beds and carved new routes in the elevated sludge again and again, rising higher and higher above the surrounding landscape and turning ordinary Central Valley farmlands and towns into something akin to modern-day New Orleans: places below water level extremely vulnerable to flooding. Hydraulic mining washed downstream 1.5 billion cubic yards of rock and earth altogether. "Nature here reminds one of a princess fallen into the hands of robbers who cut off her fingers for the jewels she wears," said one onlooker at a hydraulic mine. “

Well, what is good for the nineteenth century is good for the 21st, especially in the Bush culture of infinite waste for the betterment of the upper 1 percent income bracket. Nevada is now the place to go to watch humans poison the earth and the sources of water (in a state that is developing million plus cities, without any visible means of water in, say, fifteen years) because, well, the sacred and wondrous effects of private property are what brought down the communist menace. Notice how it all leads to the kingdom of God, who has a funded position at the Cato Institute.

“The current gold rush in northeastern Nevada, which produces gold on a monstrous scale—seven million ounces in 2004 alone—is also dispersing dangerous quantities of mercury. This time it's airborne. The forty-mile-long Carlin Trend on which the gigantic open-pit gold mines are situated is a region of "microscopic gold"; dispersed in the soil and rock far underground, imperceptible to the human eye, unaffordable to mine with yesteryear's technology. To extract the gold, huge chunks of the landscape are excavated, pulverized, piled up, and plied with a cyanide solution that draws out the gold. The process, known as cyanide heap-leach mining, releases large amounts of mercury into the biosphere. Wind and water meet the materials at each stage and create windblown dust and seepage, and thus the mercury and other heavy metals begin to travel.

“As the Ban Mercury Working Group reports, "Though cumulatively coal fired power plants are the predominant source of atmospheric mercury emissions, the three largest point sources for mercury emissions in the United States are the three largest gold mines there." The Great Salt Lake, when tested in 2004, turned out to have astonishingly high mercury levels, as did wild waterways in Idaho, and Nevada's gold mines seem to be the culprit. The Reno Gazette-Journal reported that year, "The scope of mercury pollution associated with Nevada's gold mining industry wasn't discovered until the EPA changed rules in 1998 to add mercury to the list of toxic discharges required to be reported. When the first numbers were released in 2000, Nevada mines reported the release of 13,576 pounds in 1998. Those numbers have since been revised upward to an estimated 21,098 pounds, or more than 10 tons, to make Nevada the nation's No. 1 source of mercury emissions at the time." Glen Miller, a professor of natural resources and environmental science at the University of Nevada, Reno, estimates that since 1985, the eighteen major gold mines in the state released between 70 and 200 tons of mercury into the environment.”

Don’t you love it? The Western states, with their large GOP populations, are also the ones suffering from the various poisonings they bring down on themselves. In the AEC dialectic that has dominated the West since 1945, the low use population is hooked on the conditions that make it a low use population. The embrace of a rabid individualism that masks the grab of the corporate collectives is the route traveled by mercury into the brain, an ideological analogue of the actual route from the air and water via the pores, mouth and tongue to the internal organs, the weaving nerve tissue and up ever heavenward to the brain. In comic book terms, at least, this is no disadvantage -- far from it! As the low use human product gets literally stupider with mercury poisoning, it gets more apt to believe anything.

... And they wonder where that 35 percent of hardcore Bush supporters come from.