My first thought as we came in for a landing at the Butte, Montana, airport on a gorgeously sunny fall day was…What the heck is that?! What is that giant sculpted hole right next to town that looks like it could spill over and destroy everything in its path? Very soon I would learn the story of that extremely large copper mine—and all the other wonderful highlights of Butte—which is beautiful in an odd sort of way.
The second thing I noticed was a giant white statue of the Virgin Mary looking out over the town from on top of the mountain. She’s called our Lady of the Rockies (or, as the locals call her, Your Lady of Our Rockies), and apparently, on foggy night truckers driving through Butte see the lit-up lady high in the sky and think they are having a vision. Butte was getting more and more interesting by the minute.
My daughter Maya and I were in Butte to start a three-day adventure speaking to citizens and farmers about my book, Organic Manifesto. But first, we were starving from a day of flying with no time between flights to eat, so we had to go straight to Nancy’s Pasty Shop. Pasties (that’s pronounced pah-stees) are a local specialty and are often served near mines because they are so filling and easy to eat—although Nancy’s, which were covered in gravy and as big as my head, would not have fit very well in a miner’s lunch pail. While Nancy’s Pasties filled our fuel tank, they weren’t nearly as good as my mother’s pasty recipe!
I had been invited to Butte by the National Coalition for Appropriate Technology—otherwise known as NCAT (pronounced en-kat). I confess I didn’t know much about NCAT when I landed in Butte, but soon I understood just what a great organization it is. It helps farmers and non-farmers alike navigate all sorts of issues related to growing things, farming, and alternative energy. It even has a hot line staffed with REAL people who answer questions and send out extensive free booklets funded by the USDA ATTRA (National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service) program. In case you need to call, the number is 800-346-9140. And if you want to talk to someone in Spanish, the number is 800-411-3222.
If you are lucky, you might get to speak with the extremely lovely Emily Post, who shared the most incredible maple cream iced donuts from the Talk of The Town bakery. She is married to Justin, a reporter from the local paper, who gave me all the best food tips, including Nancy’s and the famed “Wop Chop” from Muzz and Stan’s Freeway Tavern.
Throughout our visit, we learned that Butte is polluted with lead and arsenic from the former mine known as the Berkeley Pit. Ironically, lead arsenate was a popular pesticide used in farming in the first half of the 1900s. Even though it was replaced by the LESS-TOXIC DDT, lead arsenate still pollutes former orchards, farms, and now the housing developments built on them (like the one I mention in my book). It struck me that mining is a lot like chemical farming…it’s not so much the product that is taken from the ground that is toxic, but the waste that’s left behind that can destroy the land for thousands of years. And what’s left behind for the people are high cancer rates and hard living for everyone.
Fortunately, there is a budding environmental and organic community in Butte, and its gathering place is the Hummingbird Café. We ate there three times in less than two days. Every town needs a place like the Hummingbird—comfortable, clean, casual, friendly, and serving yummiful organic coffee and tea, and breakfast and lunch.
Unfortunately, the War Bonnet Hotel has seen better days. Although, I did check in via Foursquare. Fun!
Butte seems like a really great place to live—though not without some toxic risk. Out west, up high in the mountains, it’s hard living. Thin soil. A short growing season. Long winters. But the openness and toughness are appealing. And fortunately, there are farmers and families who are committed to making their town and their lives more organic, despite the odds.
GO BUTTE! And THANKS NCAT and especially Jeff Schahczenski for an awesome trip!
Next stop, Missoula…