Flowering sage covers the desert. Layers of rolling hills and a few rocky cliffs shape the horizon. I wander up a dry creek bed lined with trees on Thacker Pass in Humboldt County, Nevada. The dry air is thick with the fragrance of sage, mixed with juniper and pinion. I imagine the artery of long-awaited water that flows here after rain. The three-pronged footprints of a greater sage-grouse dot the sand. The sky turns shades of crimson, orange, and purple. My body relaxes in the novel and hypnotic silence.
For two decades, I have witnessed the healing powers of nature as a wilderness guide. Teaching people to listen to the song of the Earth, track their dreams, and discover their soul’s purpose, I encourage them to partner with the natural world and transform our culture. Listening to dreams is empowering. The intelligence, generosity, and magic I have experienced are beyond what the rational mind would understand.
Transformation, however, is more than a solo act. Soul-making is a collaboration tied to the fate of Earth, stretching us to dream communally, organize collectively, and act—humbly, boldly, and in relationship to the visions we receive. We can organize, resist, and bring down the corrupt order of our culture and its dependence on the enforced misery of many and the brutal exploitation of nature, hopefully while there is still some wilderness left alive.
As I continue to walk, a large hole catches my eye. Who lives here, I wonder, a fox or a pygmy rabbit? Scrambling up a rock face, I peer into crevices, hoping to see a horned lizard, pika, or chipmunk. A few bats fly out and circle overhead. Atop the cliff, I stare into a vast undulating sea of sagebrush, punctuated by dark silhouettes of the surrounding mountains that stand like quiet gods whispering to the waves. Scanning for mule deer, elk, desert bighorn sheep, and pronghorn, for whom this is a primary migration corridor, I wish this place could live on, unharmed.
Reflecting on the lithium mine slated to be built here, I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Why would the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) allow Lithium Nevada to damn this place? There are no lights or human sounds anywhere. This land is so wild, free, and unspoiled—but it may not be this time next year. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2021. I pull my arms out of their sleeves and bring them inside my jacket. Hugging my torso, I try to calm myself. Birdsong pierces the silence. Who will speak for the voiceless, I wonder. Who will make amends for their suffering?
The Thacker Pass lithium mine would destroy roughly 5,545 acres of land, pump up to 3,250 gallons of groundwater per minute, and utilize 2,900 tons of acid per day. Hundreds of tons of sulphur waste from oil refineries would be trucked in and burned daily, releasing toxic chemicals into the air and causing awful smelling acid rain. A semi tanker of diesel—11,300 gallons—would burn daily. All this, while we are told by green-tech marketers, politicians, and even environmentalists that electric cars, the main catalyst behind the skyrocketing demand for lithium, have zero emissions.
Some of the last wildernesses left in the lower forty-eight states are in Nevada. My outrage extends beyond the millionaires who own Lithium Nevada, a subsidiary of the Canadian-owned Lithium Americas Corporation, to those who first made the whole extraction industry–coal, oil, gas, and trees–acceptable. Lithium Americas replicates what oil and gas companies have always done—steal from the land and future generations to make millionaires richer—but now they call it green.
Bright Green Lies
Three of us—John, Max, and me—sit under a star-filled sky on Thacker Pass, remembering wild places we have loved and were unable to protect. Max, a grassroots organizer and co-author of Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It, invited us here, to listen to the land, ask questions, and imagine ways to stop the mine.
“Lithium mining is increasing, because mainstream environmentalists consider it a solution,” Max says.
Green policies promote replacing fossil fuels and nuclear power with renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and electric vehicles. But many are unaware this would massively increase mining worldwide and cause major habitat loss and widespread pollution.
“If we choose cars over wilderness,” Max asks, “what does that say about our values?”
Lithium is only one ingredient needed to make electric cars. Cobalt, neodymium, dysprosium, coltan, and copper must also be mined and smelted. Cobalt is extraordinarily toxic. Located in the Congo, children often extract it from the ground by hand, without protective equipment. Child-miners have been maimed and buried alive.
There’s a pause in the conversation. I take in the silence. My gaze turns upward. I lose myself in pitch black. Stars flicker. Galaxies twinkle. The band of light referred to as the Milky Way is bright in the moonless night. Adrift in a sea of sagebrush, free of highways and lights, the desert nourishes me.
Water scarcity is one of the most understated global risks. More than two billion people (29% of the world) do not have access to safe drinking water. Current consumption rates predict that two thirds of the world’s population could face water shortages by 2025.
The water rights granted to the Thacker Pass lithium mine are higher than the basin’s ability to recharge. The hydrographic basin is already over-allocated. In Chile, lithium mining consumes sixty-five percent of the water in the Salar de Atacama region. Locals have water driven in from elsewhere. Toxic chemicals utilized to extract lithium have poisoned the remaining water.
I remember our visit earlier in the day to Thacker Pond, an oasis in the desert a few miles down the mountain from Thacker Pass. Birds were drinking and bathing. Locals fished. About twenty-five ducks were swimming, splashing, and quacking. The water is clear. The creek bed on Thacker Pass flows into this pond and other water sources in the Quinn and King River Valleys.
Lithium mines leave mountains of discarded salt and poisoned water, with an unnatural blue hue. Research on another lithium mine in Nevada found impact on fish as far as 150 miles downstream. In Tagong, Tibet, toxins leaked from the Ganzizhou Rongda Lithium Mine into the water supply, destroying the entire ecosystem.
In Defense of Wilderness
Amidst the darkness, we hear the distant rise and fall of staccato yips, yaps, and barks, howling coyote. Two of these tricksters can sound like eight. The sagebrush desert, one of the most imperiled ecosystems, is home to an abundance of creatures. The rare greater-sage grouse, a highly endangered species, only lives in the Great Basin. Sagebrush plays a critical role in the hydrologic cycle, and serves as a nurse plant to hundreds of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. Wildlife who live in the arid West require large areas of intact habitat to survive.
Yet Nevada government and federal agencies fast-track the destruction of this quiet mountainside, aiming to turn the spawning grounds of Lahontan cutthroat trout and the habitat of bighorn sheep into an industrialized zone. The Thacker Pass lithium mine could produce tens of billions in profits.
“Getting mines approved in Nevada is easy,” Max said. “There are already so many.”
But Thacker Pass would be the first green-tech mine, and many more are being planned for the near future. The local ranching community in Orovada opposes the mine and has spoken against it in meetings and letters, but Lithium Nevada is focused on rapid production to meet expected demand. Public process has been rushed due to national concern about foreign control of “critical” minerals. Locals have also expressed concern that mining lithium could expose naturally occurring uranium, and they worry Lithium Nevada will expand into the neighboring Montana mountains, where they also hold mining claims.
Three Hundred People
I revere dreamscapes, as I love landscapes. Throughout history, dreams have been a key to survival—enabling us to experience possible futures and connect to wisdom beyond the ordinary mind. Huddled in my sleeping bag on Thacker Pass, I ask for dreams that will guide us.
I awaken at dawn to the sweet scent of flowering sage. It relaxes my body and alters my mind. As the dark orange sky grows lighter, Max is preparing to wander on the land. John has already left. Max holds up a red-tailed hawk feather.
“Did you put this here last night?” he asks, “It was sticking out of the ground.” He points to where he found it, a few feet from his sleeping bag.
“No,” I answer. “Unless I did it in my sleep.”
He holds up a prairie falcon feather and then a raven feather. “How about these?” he asks.
“No,” I say.
He shows me where he found them. “They weren’t here last night,” he says.
Goosebumps rise on my arms. I wonder if the spirits of the land are glad we are here. “And your dreams?” I ask.
“I dreamt a woman was here, leading three hundred people to defend this mountain,” Max says. “With three hundred people, I think we could stop this.”
“That reminds me of your other dream,” I say, remembering one from a few days earlier. “Lots of people showed up then, too.”
“I have been imagining a lot of us camped here,” Max says. “Standing watch from atop the cliffs, lying in front of machines.”
Images arise, memories of Max’s dreams from weeks earlier—stopping people from getting sprayed by tear gas, helping others escape from imprisonment in a metal box—his actions succeed in the dream, an uncommon experience in the environmental movement of waking life.
I remember other threads too—Max becoming the mountain on Thacker Pass, listening open-hearted and full-bodied to its past, present, and future. I remember his grief cry. “Where are the warriors?” he called out to a group of us over and over one night. His words seemed to yearn for right action. A poetic lament, they resonated like the howling coyote calling out to his pack.
We dream not only for ourselves but also for our communities. The dream images of others can speak to us as deeply as our own. Images arise about the art of battle while being with Max’s dreams. As a child, I wished to learn how to defend myself—karate, boxing, fencing—but fighting was frowned upon. In ancient times, training to be a warrior was a revered and necessary part of life.
What if we could train ourselves now to become guardians of the megaannum of existence that are this mountain. Edward Abbey said the idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs more defenders. What if it is not too late, if even whilst living under the yoke of late stage global capitalism in an age of ecological debasement, we could call forth what Max’s dream envisions?
Protecting wild places is a prayer that weaves together dreaming and embodying, imagining and manifesting, listening and acting. To the Iroquois, the dream world is real, and our dreams give us authentic power by which we can shape-shift the world. Dreams wake us up, strengthening us to follow our deepest intuitions. They invite us to step beyond the veil of consensual reality, inhabit a poetic consciousness, and live in greater conversations with the waking dream that is life. A failure of imagination is just as possible as a failure of action.
Closing my eyes, I place my hands on the Earth. Max’s dreams intermingle with my own. I remember my work—teaching people to listen to the more-than-human world. It occurs to me that deep, loving relationships involve being with those you love in hard times. We can become closer to the natural world by turning our attention to the places being harmed and fighting for their sanctity. I remember that dreams are only a seed, easily lost in the wind. What they reveal unleashes a responsibility to act.
Looking up toward the hillside, my imagination swims in Max’s dream. I see three hundred people standing strong, perched and ready to defend the mountain with their lives. I envision a community of warriors who listen to their dreams every day for direction. I see us there, planting our bodies in the land, remembering alive a way of life similar to our most ancient ancestors. I see us asking the Earth what she wants, fighting for the wild places we have left, and living in service to the future generations of all species.
1. https://desertfog.org/projects/lithium-mining-in-the-mojave-and-great-basin-deserts/exploration-sites/lithium-americas-thacker-pass/ ↑
2. http://gbrw.org/proposed-thacker-pass-lithium-mine/ ↑
3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_largest_wilderness_areas_in_the_United_States ↑
4. https://www.lithiumamericas.com/thacker-pass/ ↑
5. https://www.maxwilbert.org/ ↑
6. https://wsimag.com/science-and-technology/63818-proposing-cradle-to-grave-evaluations-for-all-vehicles ↑
7. https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2020/apr/16/green-new-deal-would-fuel-massive-increase-mining-/ ↑
8. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/dec/16/apple-and-google-named-in-us-lawsuit-over-congolese-child-cobalt-mining-deaths ↑
9. https://ourworldindata.org/water-access ↑
10, 11, 12. https://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/water-scarcity ↑
13. https://www.wired.co.uk/article/lithium-batteries-environment-impact ↑
14. https://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/factsheets/Sage-steppe_022814.pdf ↑
15. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1XN29nKx8-YDzyQdywhvWhQ634wUnkKLO/view ↑
16. https://www.blm.gov/press-release/bureau-land-management-seeks-public-input-proposed-lithium-nevada-corporation-thacker ↑
17. Robert Moss, Dreamways of the Iroquois (Destiny Books, 2005). ↑
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