Earthly Reordering

A common way coal is extracted from the earth by opening up its outer layer. In one technique called surface strip mining, a coal seam is identified in the strata and the digging begins. Overburden, the name given to earth lying above the target elements, is removed and piled beside the mine and the long, exposed strip of raw coal is ready to be exploited. Mighty machines break up the coal and take it away to be processed. A new strip is excavated next to the first which becomes host to the overburden from that new strip. The first pile of overburden is eventually moved to fill in the last stip mine[1]. And in this pattern, a line of upheaval sweeps across landscapes, extracting what it will and leaving tilled earth in its wake.

These altered landscapes—waste landscapes—dot the surface of the earth. In his book, Reclaiming the American West, Alan Berger claims that there are “200,000 abandoned mines covering hundreds of thousands of acres in the western United States” alone [2]. What is common to all of these mines is that they require reclamation by law[3]. Given that these waste landscapes are often environmentally hazardous, they are reordered before they can be released from the responsibility of the miners. The considerations of reclamation include quantitative factors, such as the removal of contaminated materials and reaching target pH levels, but Berger stresses that qualitative factors, such as aesthetics and ethics, are just as pressing [4].

When we reorder the earth, the ground and human activity synthesize and form a hybrid. The act of reclamation is never a restoration and we cannot fit the pieces of waste from mining back together [5]. Suspending judgment of whether they are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, these landscapes have been fundamentally altered by human restructuring activity and we must question our next actions. Could they heal on their own? Do we reclaim out of necessity or guilt? As more and more land is exploited for resources, the historical distinction between nature and technology (that is, nature and humanity) spatially diminishes.  The ways in which we reclaim can say a lot about how we situate ourselves. Exploited surface mines can be left as scars of an industrial past, or they provide a place for the design liminal landscapes beyond aesthetic and practical function, and beyond the human-nature divide.


  1. Great Mining. “Strip Mining.” Accessed November 16, 2018.
  2. Berger, Alan. 2002. Reclaiming the American West. 1st ed. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.

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