Of Miners, Toads, and Harlequin Ducks

Why Space Trumps Time in the Silver Valley

By Robert McCarl

In August 2010, I ride my bike down the Coeur d’Alene bike trail toward Harrison. I’m staying at the not-so-palatial Rio Hotel in Kellogg while I talk to people in the Silver Valley about their lives and the landscape they inhabit.

Idaho’s Silver Valley is a bicyclist’s dream.

The Coeur d’Alene Bike Trail extends from Mullan in the east to Lake Coeur d’Alene and points west as it follows the route of the Union Pacific trains that carried billions of tons of zinc, lead, and silver out of the valley.

I started doing ethnographic fieldwork and interviews in the Silver Valley in the early 1990s, recording miners and union activists as they talked about their experiences underground or on the picket line. In 2010, I began a project focusing on the changing relationship between the people of the valley, their environment, and the impact of the Bunker Hill Superfund site on their lives. “Superfund” is the common name for a 1980 federal law aimed at cleaning up abandoned or uncontrolled sites nationwide that contain hazardous waste. With the support of a Library of Congress Archie Green Fellowship, I found that the residents of the valley are caught in a collision between the mining culture and their efforts to shape the environment. This conflict—between the individual desire for success and the collective experience of ecological stewardship—lies at the heart of the American struggle for balancing capitalism with the future of the earth. Our history teaches us that the land is there for our unquestioning use, while our local interaction with the land tells us it must be respected and acknowledged if our communities are to survive.

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