Lessons from the Wasteland

My latest story for New Zealand Geographic LESSONS FROM THE WASTELAND

photo by Bryce McQuillan

photo by Bryce McQuillan

Rust, lichen and wild Central Otago thyme combine forces to consume and cover the last traces of human industry at the Earnscleugh Dredge Tailings near Alexandra. Mined and washed of their gold from the 1890s, the river gravels have become a sanctuary for rare species, and one of the country’s most unusual wildlife reserves.

Between Alexandra and Clyde, on the true right bank of the Clutha River but walled from its swift flow by a thicket of willows, there is a patch of the most unusual landscape you will find anywhere in this country. Dunes of river gravels, loose, barren and arid, wind-blown and burnt by the fierce Central Otago sun and frosts. Their forms are surprisingly regular, with parallel ridges and troughs and frequent cone-shaped craters, though only an aerial view fully reveals the place for what it is—a man-made moonscape, an undulating heap of industrial wasteland from a century of mining for gold.

The Earnscleugh Dredge Tailings are a historic reserve, a 170-hectare memento from heady days when plundering the land while pursuing its riches and simply walking away when no longer profitable was considered an acceptable use of a valuable resource.

From the outside, the reserve appears desolate and lifeless. The gates to it are locked, and now the footbridge over the Fraser River is washed out too, requiring a detour. Not that anyone seems to mind; even locals avoid the place. Earnscleugh is a most unlikely wildlife refuge, unless you visit with Brian Patrick.

photo by Bryce McQuillan

photo by Bryce McQuillan

Patrick is New Zealand’s butterfly and moth man, an ecologist specialising in insect-plant relationships, with particular and life-long interests in Central Otago’s weathered rockscapes. He knows the name of every plant and every insect here, making distinctions out of the multitude.

“Walking around the Earnscleugh and following Brian Patrick, I cannot shake an impression that, if by some grandiose human folly, life on Earth was completely wiped out, this is what its rebirth might look like.”

One spring day, just as another rainstorm was clearing and its spent clouds were drawn like a heavy drape off the Otago sky, I walked into the unlikely wild of the Earnscleugh Tailings with Patrick. What from the outside appeared like an industrial apocalypse proved to be an oasis of wildlife—a treasure trove of beauty, small and delicate, though apparent only if you are prepared to get down on your knees and look closely to see what poet William Blake called “a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower.”

photos by Bryce McQuillan

photos by Bryce McQuillan

The world’s first gold dredges were developed near here. No one in particular can claim the credit for them as the process of evolution and refinement was at once collaborative, competitive and decades long, but the machinery perfected on the Clutha, with upgrades and modifications, is still in use today, in gold-mining operations as far afield as Alaska and Malaysia.

In just two months of work prior to August 1862, prospectors Horatio Hartley and Christopher Reilly washed up and collected some 1100 ounces (34 kilograms) of colour in the Cromwell Gorge, instantly earning the Clutha and its tributaries worldwide fame as rivers of gold. But with the subsequent boom and massive influx of diggers, the easily found gold was quickly exhausted and extraction became more industrial in scale and technology. The dredges—scooping out the auriferous gravels from the river bottom and washing, sorting and separating them in tumblers and over mesh screens—proved the most productive.  Continue reading here …