When Sam Oberter followed the lights of Morenci off of the highway and into town around five years ago, he entered a new world.
“I’d never seen a copper mine before,” he said Saturday to a smattering of locals seated at folding chairs in Clifton’s old train depot turned visitors center. “I didn’t know there was a company town left in the United States.”
A professional landscape and architecture photographer, Oberter said he had a heyday snapping images of the area, and his curiosity was piqued. The proximity of work, in the mine, to home, in mine-owned lodging ... what did that feel like? he wondered at the time.
Oberter’s colleague, Emily Wettstein, also recognized the uniqueness of the area where Fortune-500 company Freeport McMoRan has one of their largest copper mines. University of Virginia, where Wettstein teaches landscape architecture put $5,000 toward an ambitious project: an all-new Morenci Almanac. During an earlier conversation with the Copper Era, Wettstein dubbed the two generative sessions the duo had planned for July 28 and 30 as “Community Narrative Workshops” that encouraged storytelling, oral histories, participant-led walks and photographic studies.
Thursday’s 2.5-hour session brought in eight people she said; Saturday’s ended up matching.
Reflecting on his journey from Philadelphia, Oberter told participants Saturday, “I used a whole lot of copper.”
And depending on how he traveled, the pounds of Morenci’s star product would indeed add up.
If he took the subway, an electric trolley, or bus to get to the airport, those modes of transportation use from 625 to 9,200 pounds of copper each. Up to 9,000 pounds of a Boeing 747 jet plane is copper. Alternately, if he opted to drive, there's more than 50 pounds of copper in a typical American-built vehicle, while new electric cars from BMW and Tesla are powered by copper-rotor engines.
Inspecting the booklets set atop sheets of vellum for map making, there was the possibility that copper may have been used in the dies for some of the printed material that was part of the project. There was even copper in the smartphones participants carried in with them.
Writing the record
Most folks were seated a bit after the 10 a.m. official start time, and there were a few stragglers, whom Wettstein warmly welcomed. Ages ranged from 74-year-old Barbara Waddell Reyes, clad in a lilac-colored top to a quiet blonde boy in glasses who seemed he might be in middle school. Scott Brack, a member of the Greenlee County Tourism Council and a Freeport employee, was not only there to support the collaboration, but to participate. Bilingual, he offered to converse in Spanish with one participant, who declined, stating her Spanish wasn’t very good.
As Wettstein stood at the front of the room, one foot slipped from her sandal and cantilevered against the inside of the opposite knee. Her direct gaze and alert but friendly disposition seemed to put the room at ease. She advanced a slide show to help define an entire booklet’s worth of activities, ranging from catalogued memories to current social circles. Small recording devices were set on each table top to help catch conversations with complex details.
“There’s really no right-or-wrongs,” Oberter said as participants opened their booklet and surveyed the first activity.
Everyone picked up a marker or a freshly sharpened pencil from a row on their table and got to work.
Social circles ranged from Elsa Seballos', which revolved largely around school-aged kids and activities, to biking, to Brack’s hunting and jujitsu groups, and Susan Breen's position as chair of the Greenlee County Democrats for 16 years. An old-timer named Daniel Cervantez, whose father had survived being a gunner in World War II only to die from a heart attack upon returning to Morenci, had been an elementary teacher in Clifton and Morenci for nearly two decades.
Through the lens of landscape
Cardboard cartons of Starbucks coffee and a flat of bottled water went largely untouched as folks engrossed themselves in the project.
It was self-directed work, open to the interpretation of each person there. Maps didn’t need to be true to scale or detailed: they could act as metaphors for memories. A folding table at the rear of the room was stacked with images, some illustrative, some historic, some taken by Orbeter, of the area. Folks were asked to shuffle through them and pull a few that resonated. Each tabletop was covered in paper printed with a timeline, and breaking into two groups, folks cleared away the workbooks at one point to make a combined memory project timeline of Morenci past and present.
Cervantez pointed to one of the images he’d picked up. It showed a Bashas grocery, photographed in black and white. When it was the company grocery store, he said, he’d worked there for two years as a custodian. He’d tried to work for Phelps-Dodge, the previous mining company, as a smelter cleanup worker. But it was so dirty, he said, he quit to work at the grocery.
But even that got to him.
“I can’t do this,” he recalled thinking. “I gotta go back to school.” Eventually, he left town and graduated from University of Arizona and returned to the Clifton-Morenci area to teach elementary and special education. Both of his parents, he said, had completed their educations at the eight grade.
Brack’s entire life has been shaped by mining. As a child, he was born in Silver City but spent time living in Chile when his father was transferred.
“We moved all over because of the mine,” he said.
But he wasn’t keen on Morenci.
As soon as he graduated from Morenci High School, Brack was out the door. However, after earning a degree in mechanical engineering from UA, he returned.
“By that time, it was a choice,” he said, smiling. He and his family were transferred to Peru before coming back to Morenci, where he wife was born and raised.
“All of her family except one live in Greenlee County,” he said.
Waddell Reyes moved to the Tucson area from Florida, and after working for an assay office, found her way to Morenci in February 1995. When they asked her where she wanted to work, she replied, ‘the pit,’ she said. She was impressed by the leaching process: “Actually, the process is amazing,” she said.
“I learned to drive,” she said. “I drove a haul truck and worked in that mine for 11 years.” She recounted a story of almost slipping off a cambered roadway one day, then going to her supervisor's office and giving him an earful.
The road was fixed, she said, laughing. “I was heated.”
“I loved it,” she said of working at the mine.
Perched beside her was a hand lens. She held the multi-folded pages of the booklet in her hands, searching for the next assignment.
How the past informs the future
Wettstein and Oberter circulated the room, answering questions, gently redirecting conversations to stay on topic, and listening. Occasionally trains running directly behind the depot would blot out all other sound temporarily, but no one complained.
A man helped himself to a plate and heaped on Mexican food from a chafing dish surrounded by tortilla chips, taking advantage of the free lunch.
“Returning home, we will draft a series of visualizations and speculative timelines to be workshopped with the community during the next visit,” Wettstein had told the Copper Era before the workshops began Thursday.
The plan after packing up all of the generated materials this go-round would be to augment them with more workshops this winter, “utilizing the drawings, photographs and timelines developed over the summer as a tool to further facilitate community engagement,” she said.
An actual hard copy of the New Miner’s Almanac of Morenci should be completed by next summer, she calculated. She and Oberter will host an installation, distribute free almanacs, and host a concluding workshop.
Wettstein said the almanac format is unique in that it “collapses time and synthesizes past, present and future speculation into a single document.”
“We are looking at how the landscape itself, natural and constructed, has shaped Morenci and the way that these histories remain deeply embedded in the landscape and those who live within it,” she said.