Too Big to Succeed
By John Mattingly
I’ve always thought of farming, ranching, and mining as fundamentally related activities.
The mining museum in Leadville tells us that nothing happens until someone digs something, or pulls something, out of the ground. Though farmers aren’t usually thought of as digging things out of the ground, they dig spuds, sugar beets, carrots, and other root crops. Farming is a process by which minerals are mined from the topsoil through plants with a farmer’s guiding hand.
Though ranchers often have the idea that grass is a perpetual motion machine driven by sun, rain, and livestock, grazing mammals remove (at a minimum) phosphorus and calcium from the earth and carry it away in their bones and teeth. Ranching is slower motion mining than farming, but mining nonetheless.
One of the biggest differences between prospectors and farmers and ranchers is that the prospector benefits from the notion of discovering wealth and treasure in the earth, whereas a farmer typically manages a resource that has already been found. When a farmer harvests a bumper crop, or a rancher has a year of great gains on grass, she/he doesn’t talk about it as a discovery. It’s just a good year, and the farmer or rancher sometimes cannot resist indirect self-congratulations for timely decisions. Finding a good piece of fertile earth may rank as a discovery, and the farmer can claim some sense of blessing for seeing a crop grow from planting to harvest without hail, bugs, or frost, but it just isn’t the same magnitude of grace that can legitimately be claimed by the prospector who stumbles upon a motherlode.
Miners, ranchers, and farmers are all thought to be rugged individuals, and share a public stereotype that is, for the most part, inaccurate. When someone mentions a miner, we immediately think of the bearded prospector roaming the hills with a pickax and jackass, or the stout man with a headlamp digging into a hole deep in the earth. When someone mentions a farmer, we think of a kindly soul sporting Big Bens and a pitchfork; or a roughcut, weathered individual bemoaning the weather. And when it comes to ranchers, we see hats, belt buckles, horses, open spaces, free ranging spirits, and sometimes a man horseback while smoking a cigarette, clouding the fresh air with his personal brand.
None of these images reliably match up with the reality. Most mining these days is highly mechanized, ranchers sell livestock on video screens, and farmers manage irrigation systems, inventory, and employees from laptops. The degree to which virtual reality systems and information technology have captivated these rugged individuals is remarkable, especially if viewed by contrast with, say, the way things were 66 years ago at the end of WWII.
Farmers and ranchers do have to put something in to the system to get anything out, whereas the prospector is generally just removing the ore. The prospector is often the recipient of pure, gratuitous luck, sticking his pick into a future mine while doing something innocuous, such as chasing his burro or digging a latrine. This may help to explain why prospectors are the source of many more humorous and intriguing stories than farmers.
There is, however, a tale involving at prospector, a farmer, and rancher. It all started in a small Colorado mining town around the time of the silver boom of the early 1880s. Fable has it that a prospector named Big Bob came to town on a white jackass named Lost Soul, who had ample, flexible ears and concentric rings around his eyes that combined to hypnotize anyone who stared too long into his doleful countenance. Lost Soul was said to have a bray that could legitimately be called the Trumpet of Gabriel on Judgment Day.
Big Bob had few enemies, being kind and jolly, and also prompt in his settlements, paying local suppliers with bright silver dollars. Generous at the saloon, he bought drinks for everyone when he returned from a prospecting foray, and though he had reason to lapse into melancholy, being a childless widower, he was famous for saying at the end of each fruitless exploration, “Well, boys, we’re one day closer to finding our fortune.”
After years of prospecting, Big Bob strode into town one summer afternoon with an ore sample that proved richer than any found to date. But Lost Soul, who had carried the sample to town on his back, gave forth an eerie growl, followed by a long, haunting bray. That night, Big Bob fell over dead in the saloon, never having told anyone where he’d found the rich ore.
A rancher name Big Ed happened to be in town drowning his sorrows when Big Bob keeled over, and Big Ed, being a cunning blade, understood that the key to finding Big Bob’s motherlode rested between the ears of the white jackass, Lost Soul. Big Ed snuck off with the jack, even as people of the town were still dealing with Big Bob’s passing. The only person to witness Big Bob leaving with Lost Soul happened to be farmer named Big Jim, who immediately grasped the significance of Big Bob’s departure.
Soon after Big Bob was laid to rest, Big Jim tracked the white jackass and the trail of Big Ed, being familiar with jacks as beasts of burden on the farm, and practiced at tracking them when he needed to catch wild jacks and burros that occasionally wandered into his fields for a free lunch. Jacks and burros who were troublesome in this regard were marked by the removal of the tips of their ears.
Big Jim came upon the remains of Big Ed lying in a gulch, mostly ravaged by scavengers, though his pockets and palms overflowed with silver dollars. Big Jim saw the white jackass standing in the trees up the gulch, and pursued, the jack taking flight. Big Jim followed the jack, bushwhacking his way up the gulch to a fork, where he went to the right and climbed a ridge dense with tree-fall and underbrush. At the crest, he came upon a clearing that led to cabin perched on cliff, next to a mine with both a horizontal and a vertical shaft, each coupled to a jigback and bullwheel.
Big Jim noticed a large rock had been moved near the bullwheel, and in a cavity near to it, he found hundreds of two inch pipes, about two feet long, each packed with silver dollars. Big Jim uncapped enough pipes, counting the silver dollars within them, to know that this was a fortune that could keep him farming for the rest of his life. In his excitement, Big Jim didn’t mark the trail to the mine, nor did he take any of the silver dollars.
When he descended to the fork in the gulch, he saw Lost Soul, off in the distance, framed by two Bristlecone pine. He called out, coaxing the jack to come to him, but the jack stared at him with such an intense and probing gaze that Big Jim nearly fell to the ground. Lost Soul then brayed a haunting and vile warning before disappearing.
Big Jim fled back to his farm where he told his wife, Little Alma, about all that had happened. She didn’t want Big Jim to go off in pursuit of the silver dollar fortune, pointing out that their crop was ready to harvest, but Big Jim was determined. Little Alma tried to hold him back, but Big Jim gathered his two strongest jacks, and headed out over his wife’s protest. He was never seen again. His two jackasses returned home with their ears laid down flat upon their withers and thereafter refused to leave the farm.
To this day, hikers and hunters have reported seeing a wild, white jackass in the trees or underbrush, but the jack has never been caught by rope or camera. Little Alma told many people the story of what Big Jim had gone after, and people have roamed the hills looking for the Lost Soul Mine, but it has yet to be found.
Perhaps the moral of the story is that just because your name is Big, doesn’t mean you’ll get a bigger piece of life’s pie. There are many stories of lost mines in Colorado, and anyone who has hiked the Rockies knows there are lots of mines in them thar hills, many of them unpatented claims that didn’t yield and thus were abandoned. Few have buried pipes full of silver dollars. Despite the charm of lost mine stories, some areas in the Rockies look like the miners were mimicking the digging habits of their predecessor mammals: gophers.
When buying mountain property, it can be an unwelcome surprise to find that you have an old mine in the back corner that is leaching heavy metals into a nearby stream. The interesting thing about this is that the polluting mines on public land are not being mitigated, but the mines on private land are required to be mitigated. On public lands, a person can still go prospecting under the auspices of the Hard Rock Mining Act of 1865, stake a pedis possessio (possession by foot) claim, and start mining. A patent can be issued only if the mine proves to be economically viable, a restriction that put a stop to people staking a claim next to a nice creek and digging a couple holes with a backhoe.
I once asked BLM and Forest Service folks if they would consider a program of auctioning off the unpatented mining claims on public lands with the condition that the new owner provide a bond and clean up the abandoned mine. The answer I received at the time suggested that neither of these agencies are willing to sell off any public lands, nor are they able to do the mine clean up job due to budget constraints. One official told me, “We’re so big, with so much land, close to 40% of the land in Colorado, that we have to set priorities.”
Failure to clean up unpatented mines is, to this day, one of the largest factors contributing to heavy metal pollution in the state’s streams, yet the BLM and FS are too big to do anything about it.
Just like Big Bob, Big Ed, and Big Jim, the BLM and Forest Service are too big to succeed.
John Mattingly cultivates prose, among other things, and was most recently seen near Creede.
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