In J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” Khazad-dûm is an ancient dwarven stronghold used to mine Mithril: a precious metal renowned for its strength and beauty. Unfortunately, the dwarves dug too greedily, and from the depths of Moria rose the Balrog.
What awaits the villages of Eastern Oregon when they dig too deep? When all that remains are concrete bunkers, with their incessant technological whir and perpetual illumination? When all the treasure to be found sits beneath the talons of the Dragon in Seattle?
Let’s leave the Shire and find out.
The first smell to hit you will be the camphor and terpenoids of sagebrush. Perhaps you will be lucky enough to experience its intense fragrance after rainfall.
Next, and if your immune system can handle it, you’ll smell the Russian olives. Though not in bloom until August, their sweet scent is unmistakable, their khaki-green leaves a juxtaposition upon a brown horizon.
Perhaps in the distance, you’ll catch a whiff of a body of water. A pond that has long gone eutrophic. At its bottom, an organic alchemy you can practically feel smush between your toes. It is home to a dizzying assemblage of life.
Above you are stars. Millions of them. Constellations that bear little resemblance to their namesake burst out of the sky’s inky fabric. They pulsate so vibrantly it becomes easy to forget the objects that tether us to life back home. Somewhere, the Milky Way greets you shyly like an old friend. Its gossamer belt of color still shimmers faintly in Eastern Oregon.
The click and flit of bats. The chirrup of the katydids. A silence and darkness not often found elsewhere. But the village leaders tell us this land is cheap and worthless. Crops can’t be grown here. After all, it’s just sagebrush. What better use for it than to tear it away. To build a monument to man’s ever-decreasing attention span.
They begin to rip the earth apart.
Suddenly, a behemoth erupts from the ground like the cataclysmic lava flows that once carved this land. Hard and angular, bending the earth to its will. Its teeth bared and gnashing. Its black spikes, an armor around its stony perimeter. Its electric buzz is wholly unlike the hoot of a burrowing owl.
The monster comes under the guise of a gift. But its perfume is too strong, its smile too saccharine, and beneath it lingers something rotten. It is not like the sage, which offers us the gift of stars and sweetness. With hands outstretched, the inhuman monster offers the parched desert dwellers a long drink of water.
Some of the local village leaders drink heartily from those gnarled, cupped palms, their tongues lapping up the cool water greedily.
“I am smart,” they think. “I have water to drink while others go thirsty.” And so the village leaders let the monster smash his way through a land that offers up other gifts. Gifts of mutuality. One by one, other monsters take root, like the noxious thistle, choking out the stars with their eternal illumination.
Soon the stars recede from their velvety home in the night sky. Dust rolls across the land, choking out the sun. Homes become inundated with the perpetual, electric din of the monster and all its progeny dredging up water from their poisoned wells.
But someday, the wells will run dry. The monsters will no longer have any cool water to offer the insatiable village leaders. Their tongues will cease lapping. Unlike the Balrog, who sits and waits, these monsters will uproot themselves in search of other village leaders to beguile.
In the end, the monsters will run out of room in Northeast Oregon. Their life source becomes cheaper elsewhere and eventually, they have to pay taxes. Above all else, the monsters loathe paying taxes.
The village leaders try to figure out what to do with the exoskeletons left behind by the monsters. But they are too vast. Within, the defunct internal organs begin to collect dust. Absent from this silence is the sound of wind rustling through the sage. In its stead, the sterile silence of absolute nothingness.