Journalist Tyer deftly weaves memoir and reportage in a tale of the reclamation of a river and the failed reclamation of a father’s love.
The Clark Fork River in southeastern Montana, writes the author, was “the most fucked up river I’ve ever met.” The culprit was copper. The river’s watershed had plenty of it, and as Edison’s light bulb ushered in the age of electricity and hence the need for copper, millionaire owners and hardscrabble workers mined the area literally to death. A century of mining and smelting had left behind a river poisoned by tons of lead, arsenic, toxic heavy metals and other detritus of a blind “attachment to progress, and estrangement from consequence.” In the 1980s, reclamation of the river and region began and is ongoing downstream near Missoula. But the issue remains: where to put the tons of waste dredged up. The answer was upstream, at Opportunity, Mont., a town of apparently no particular consequence already surrounded by 4,000 acres of dumped mine waste. The new poison would simply go on top of the old waste, and Opportunity would unfortunately be collateral damage. Tyer explores how and why this happened, as well as the lives and disappointments of Opportunity’s residents. He also turns to thoughts of his father, a man he didn’t like and who didn’t like him, and whose death a decade earlier made reconciliation an impossibility. Waste, as with regret, never goes away. The debt owed Opportunity, and the debt owed a father who perhaps gave his son more than the son realized, maybe cannot be paid: “Better perhaps to just bury the debt….You can’t save everything.”
In lesser hands, such a story could be maudlin or gimmicky, but Tyer’s evocative prose of quiet melancholy and gentle humor avoids such pitfalls.