The snow geese die-off in the Berkeley Pit late last year inspired Montana artist Nolan Salix to create a painting he hopes will encourage an in-depth look at all that happened.
Two weeks before the incident, Salix, who teaches art at the University of Montana Western in Dillon, began mapping out a painting about snow geese dying in the Berkeley Pit. But his plan was to commemorate the 342 snow geese that died there in November 1995.
Then history repeated itself.
As many as 10,000 or more snow geese are estimated to have landed in the Berkeley Pit ahead of a snow storm the night of Nov. 28. Due to an unusually warm fall, the birds left their nesting ground in the Arctic later than usual, but found their normal resting spot — Freezout Lake in northern Montana — frozen. This perfect storm of events forced a landing on the pit’s metal-laden water that ended with between 3,000 to 4,000 geese dying within about a week, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
When Salix read about the birds’ fate, he was so upset his students picked up on his dismay.
“I don’t know what I can teach you guys today,” he told them, then explained what he’d read online.
Salix channeled his emotions into the painting he’d already planned.
“I was just so angry. There were thousands of animals dying. I think they (his art students) could see that complex inspiration, that it doesn’t have to be beautiful to be impactful. Perhaps beauty isn’t the correct response to a stimulus,” Salix said.
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Salix painted — on 80 pieces of scrap copper — an image of snow geese landing and dying in the Berkeley Pit. Using copper nails, he attached the copper to plywood and used oils to paint the geese. Acid chemicals and “a lot of grinding” on the copper panels created the image of the pit.
Salix believes some of the copper, which came from old construction sites in Bozeman, could have been pulled from the earth in Butte’s underground mining operations during the 1930s and 1940s. The 10,000 miles of underground tunnels beneath Uptown Butte have slowly been sending groundwater to the pit since Atlantic Richfield Co. shut off the underground pumps in 1982.
University of Montana-Western professor Jack Kirkley, who studies birds and sits on the board of Montana Audubon Society, visited Salix’s classroom to see the 4-foot by 8-foot work as it was developing. Kirkley called Salix’s process of painting on copper “innovative.”
“He used copper as a medium. It’s poignant that he did that,” Kirkley said Monday. “Copper is what put the pit where it is; it gave us that legacy.”
But Salix’s reaction, through his art, to the geese die-off is not anti-mining or judgmental, said Salix, who specializes in industrial landscapes.
“It’s really about being connected to a place, to see what’s going on and be mournful,” Salix said Monday. “Mining and sometimes oil processing are so common here in Montana. It shapes our landscapes and our values; I just want to look at it in depth.’’
The work will be exhibited at U.S. Bank, 10 S. Main St., Uptown Butte, in June. Salix hopes he can find additional venues around Montana that will be interested in showing it.
“I’m hoping to keep our community and society looking at these things,” he said.