COPPER IS AMONG the earliest of metals to be used by humans, and has been smelted, cast and moulded for over ten thousand years. It is also one of the first to be purposefully alloyed with another, so that copper and tin become bronze, and copper and zinc become brass. I’m not sure how I feel about the word ‘alloyed’. It means to mix a fine metal with one less valuable, to debase something by adding something inferior. But which is the finer and which the less valuable? I know that sometimes I feel alloyed.
When exposed to air, copper forms a layer of copper oxide that protects the underlying metal from corrosion. This is clever. Unlike iron, which continues to rust and corrode when exposed to the elements, copper resists corrosion from atmospheric influences. Copper is also incredibly malleable and has a high thermal conductivity. I like both these words: ‘malleable’ and ‘conductivity’. Malleable feels passive and accommodating, soft and comforting. Conductivity is more active and formal, with its hard consonants. In any case, these features mean copper is an excellent conductor of heat and electricity, perfect for the electrical wiring that is used for power generation and transmission, telecommunications and electronic circuitries. An attempt was made at some point to replace copper electrical wiring with aluminium to save money, but buildings caught fire, and so copper was returned and has never been replaced. Other forms of copper wire are essential for electric motors, transformers, inductors, generators, headphones, speaker coils and electromagnets. The world runs on copper wire, which is fine because at today’s rates of extraction there remains five million years’ supply of copper.
Some of the most extensive copper deposits in the world are found in the marine sediments of the Stuart Shelf in South Australia. One of these deposits is the Mount Gunson copper mine, approximately 400 kilometres north of Adelaide, although it feels a lot longer than that when you’re crammed in the back seat of a station wagon late at night with your four siblings and the bitumen rolls like a never-ending ribbon and the sky is black as pitch and Dad won’t stop for anything, not even if you need to go to the toilet. Leaving Adelaide, you drive out past Port Wakefield and Gawler, past the Port Pirie turn-off and then out past Port Augusta on the only road heading north, to Woomera. Just before you hit Pimba, an old railway siding and the last servo before you enter serious outback territory, you turn off onto a dirt road. That dirt road might have had a name, but everyone just calls it the access road. Every mine site has an access road, graded just enough so that no one complains, but still you have to watch for potholes that appear out of nowhere, stones that fly up to shatter your windscreen, and bulldust that grips at your tyres and turns to mud with the first flickers of rain.
Mount Gunson is a mining town perched on the edge of Pernatty Lagoon, a name that makes it sound prettier than it is. It is really a large mud pit, a salt lake that looks best when it is dry and the salt crystals that fill it glint white and bright in the sun. Those who had lived in the area awhile knew when the salt had dried just enough so you could drive out onto the lagoon and spin doughnuts in the centre. The crust still soft enough that the tyres would catch and spray mud on everyone sitting in the tray of the ute, but not too soft that you would get bogged and spend hours digging and pushing and tamping hard tracks.
Copper has been mined out here since 1875. In 1971, a new and larger copper deposit was found in the area and an open-cut mine was gouged into the land. My dad left Adelaide and moved to Mount Gunson for a job where the pay better allowed him to take care of the five children he found himself raising. He worked there for a year, travelling back to Adelaide for his one weekend off a month before he, or my mother, or my mother’s affairs, led us to pack up our house in the suburbs and move to the outback.
WHEN WE FIRST arrive in Mount Gunson, I am disappointed that it doesn’t have a welcome sign. It doesn’t feel like a proper town without a welcome sign, and of all the things to worry about, this is the easiest on which to focus. I set myself a project to make the sign I feel the town needs. There are only two very short streets on site, each with about ten houses, and a caravan park at the bottom with fifteen more families and couples. The single men live in quarters closer to the mine, in steel dongas with small bedrooms and shared bathrooms, and a large mess serving large meals and beer at any time of day. There are no single women.
The houses in the two streets are all prefabricated and sit above the ground on built-up brick footings for ease of construction and dismantling. They are all of similar size and layout, so when you visit your neighbour you sometimes forget whose house you are in. We have only been in town a month, but I know all the families in all the houses, and I sit down and count them up. There are 176 people. I don’t count the single men. Dad helps me nail a large square of plywood onto an old wooden post, and I paint on it:
Welcome to Mount Gunson
We dig the sign in at the start of the access road, and I am pleased that our town is now official. Mount Gunson, after which the mine is named, is the tallest peak in the area, standing out among the long, flat stretches of salt lake and gibber plains. It is really just a small hill, barely above sea level, but we still take visitors out there, scrambling up through the spinifex and mulga as if we are intrepid explorers of the inland. On the top is a rock cairn and every time we climb, we place another rock, flat and shale-like, into a crevice in the cairn, leaving something of ourselves for the future.
The afternoon before my youngest sister’s death, we drive out to climb Mount Gunson. I have a schoolfriend up from Adelaide for the holidays and we are showing her the sights. There is a photograph of us all, piled around the cairn. My brother is holding up something small and rotted, one sister has her hand up to shield her eyes from the sun, another is crouching, peering into the dirt. I am laughing with my friend, and my youngest sister is smiling, clear-eyed, straight into the camera, her ponytail crooked on the side of her head. It is the last photo we have of her and I wonder, did she remember to leave a stone in the cairn?
Mining copper at Mount Gunson is a complicated process, requiring blasting and drilling and hauling, using dynamite and chemicals and trucks as tall as buildings. To extract the copper from the ore, the rock is bathed in sulphuric acid in dams constructed on the bed of the lagoon. The surface of the dams swirl bright with hues of green and blue. We know not to go near the edges, but still we scavenge the banks for dead lizards and snakes and rocks of crystal. The dams, we are told, are well lined to protect the leaching of copper and acid into the water table.
The average human body generally contains between 1.4 and 2.1 milligrams of copper per kilogram. My youngest sister was four years old when she died and would have weighed twenty kilograms at most. Her coffin was heartbreakingly small. She would have had fewer than forty milligrams of copper in her body. The average male working at the mine would most likely have had 200 to 250 milligrams of copper accumulating in their liver, muscle and bone. Long-term exposure to copper significantly damages the liver and kidneys, and these men were already doing enough damage to these organs. Copper can be absorbed through the skin, and the impacts of copper poisoning can mimic mental illness, with symptoms including mood swings, depression, excitement, difficulty focusing and manic behaviour.
I’m not sure copper is the reason, but living in this town is like living in a cheap replica of the real world. Everything seems the same, but falls apart under the slightest pressure. We are isolated, strangers living together with nothing more in common than the fact that we, or our husbands, or our fathers, occasionally our mothers, work for the same company. Most of the people on site are in their thirties, like my parents, or single men in their twenties. Everyone is earning the best money they have ever earned in their lives. Some of them are building futures, others are running from their pasts. There is a party every weekend, all weekend, with Skyhooks and AC/DC migrating from house to house – unless the yanks working on rockets and secrets in Woomera come to visit, and then we hear Neil Young and Joe Cocker instead. Kids play in the shadows and husbands go home with other men’s wives. It is not unusual to come home from school in the middle of the week and find Mum smoking weed with the neighbours.
Not long after we had moved into town, a neighbour was showing mates his new gun. ‘I hope that’s not loaded, with all the kids around,’ someone said. ‘No, of course it’s not,’ the neighbour said, and put it to his temple and pulled the trigger to prove his point. His brains must have splattered onto his mate’s shirt, but I hope not onto his wife, who held their six-week-old baby in her arms.
AFTER MY SISTER’S death, my mother went mad. But I think this was to be expected, and not anything to do with copper poisoning. And technically, my sister’s death had nothing to do with the copper, although we were all in this town because of it.
My mother was driving along the access road when she lost control of the car. My sister was small and liked to look out the window, and so she was standing on the back seat. She was not wearing a seatbelt. Her window was wound down because one of the last things she did was lean out of the window and wave goodbye to her sister. Lean out of the window and wave goodbye to me.
When my mum lost control of the car, the car left the road. As the car left the road, it hit the edge where the dirt had been piled by the grader, and the car rolled. As the car rolled, my sister fell out of the window. As my sister fell out of the window, the car rolled over my sister.
A tyre had blown. It happened out here; peels of black rubber were always littering the side of the road. When the tyre blew, the steering wheel was ripped from Mum’s hand. There would have been a moment when she wondered what was happening. A moment when she wondered why the world was vibrating, gravel spraying and spitting as the car fishtailed down the dirt. Perhaps the cigarette she held lightly in her left hand fell to the floor as she gripped back the wheel, wrenching it left as she tried to regain control. Perhaps her foot lifted and hit the brakes to try to slow the momentum. Maybe those moments felt stretched or maybe they felt like no time at all as the car slipped and skipped until it hit the edge of the road and rolled.
When the car in which I was travelling with a friend of my mum’s arrived at the scene, my mum’s car looked as if it had just driven off the road and stopped. Suddenly, but sedately. And then you notice the small (though you refuse to admit it) dent in the rear car door. And then you notice the small (though you refuse to admit it) mound on the ground that is covered by the blue checked blanket from the boot. The blanket Dad used to wrap his tools in, and that smelled of oil and mould.
I don’t imagine it was Mum who put the blanket over my sister. Maybe it was the person who first noticed the car parked in the middle of nowhere and my mother standing by the side of the road, or maybe she was kneeling in the dirt, or maybe she was cradling my sister in her lap. I hope that person held my mum gently, turned her away from my sister, kindly and slowly. I am grateful they thought to open the boot of our car and get the blanket.
It is, as I said, not unexpected that my mother went mad. When the drink and drugs proved not enough to stem the tide, she was committed to a psychiatric hospital for three months. Neighbours whispered of a nervous breakdown, but now we might speak of post-traumatic stress or depression or suicidal ideation.
The ancient symbol for copper is also the ancient symbol for Venus, goddess of love. Venus is the second planet from the sun and is known as the evening and the morning star, because it is, after the moon, the brightest object in the night sky. After my sister died, our parents told us to look to the sky for her, and she would be the brightest star. It is the only conversation we had about my sister’s death and was the full extent of our grief counselling. We barely spoke of our sister until well into adulthood, and even now she is only mentioned occasionally. I said her name out loud recently and the shape of it felt strange in my mouth.
For months after my sister’s death, I wanted to drive out to the welcome sign and change the population from 176 to 175. Everyone in town had rallied for a while with casseroles and careful condolences, but then drifted back to their everyday lives. Lives still whole and complete. I wanted to remind them she had been here. I wanted to remind them she was gone. But I was twelve years old and couldn’t drive and changing the sign wasn’t something I could ask my parents to do with me. They were hollowed and broken, barely able to speak, and we never really asked them to do anything for us again.
When copper is exposed to the elements, it oxidises and forms a blue-green layer of protective verdigris. I like the word ‘verdigris’ – it makes me think of vertigo, vertiginous, a dizzying whirl of a word. But none of us had enough copper in our bodies to make this shield, and so we rusted and corroded with no protection at all.