Dispatches from Thacker Pass – The Song of The Meadowlark.

Image, Max Wilbert

It is dawn at Thacker Pass. The sun rises over the Santa Rosa Mountains, and light spears through the blue-green leaves of the sagebrush that spreads out in all directions. 

A herd of mule deer orbits our camp. Each evening, they meander westwards along the south-facing hillside of the Montana Mountains, browsing and grazing on the way to their evening beds. And every morning, they come out of the canyon and make their way back east, to a small canyon where they will wait out the sun.

This morning, the deer are joyful. The younger individuals run back and forth, pronking at top speed. Half the herd—the elders, I assume—graze placidly while the youngsters tear across the hillside, first one direction, then another, spinning and leaping, chasing each other. There is no predator in sight and nothing has spooked them.  They are simply happy, enjoying the springtime. They have made it through the hard hungry winter. The grass is green again. The temperatures are comfortable. The sun is shining, they are with their loved ones, and the does are pregnant. Another generation stirs at Thacker Pass.

The meadowlarks are singing. They flit from sagebrush to sagebrush, varying their songs, speaking to each other and to us. Their dawn chorus awakens me every morning. A new day is born. A new spring. New nests to build, and young to raise.

The first time I heard a meadowlark singing, I fell in love. No human voice can match their whistles and warbles, their trills and scales. They are songbirds. Their world revolves around music. Foraging, mating, travel, nest-building, all accompanied by song.

Thacker Pass has its own rhythms. The cycle of morning and night: birdsong and deer moving across hillside. The cycle of weather patterns: sagebrush drinking in ephemeral rain and snow, yellow flowers emerging from soil beneath sheltering stones. The cycle of seasons: the slow grind of winter, the long sigh of spring, the stuffy stillness of summer, the building anticipation of fall. The cycle of deep time; creeks carving their way through stone, plants migrating across land. This is the pulse of life itself.

For thousands of years, people have been part of these rhythms of this place, which is called Peehee-mm-huh, “Rotten Moon,” in the Paiute language. An elder named Eddie Smart who grew up on the Fort McDermitt Reservation tells us stories of the history of Peehee-mm-huh. Of the seasonal rounds. Digging wild onion and wild potato in the spring. Hunting deer in the summer. Gathering firewood and medicine in the fall. And hunkering down in the winter, like everyone else, to wait for the sun to return. Different from other creatures, but not separate. Part of the whole.

I wish I were here to simply enjoy the beauty of this place; to watch the deer at play and the taste of fresh trout seasoned with wild onion. But that’s not why I am here. I am here, camped on this mountainside, as I have been off and on for nearly three months, because this entire place—the pronking deer, the singing meadowlarks, their nests among the sagebrush, the yellow flowers under the boulders, the Paiute medicines, the yellow morning light on fresh spring sage, the green grass of spring emerging from the soil, all of them—are under threat. 

A Canadian mining company called Lithium Americas plans to turn this place into a vast open-pit lithium mine and chemical processing facility. Where once was a wild expanse of habit alive with birdsong, they plan to did a two-square mile pit 400-feet deep into the hillside. Where rabbits run and coyotes howl, they plan to bulldoze and build a sulfuric acid plant. Where now we hear the wind and the see the herd of deer, they plan heavy trucks at all hours. What was once wild, destroyed. Explosives. Bulldozers. Poisoned water. Strip mining and infrastructure, new power lines and toxic tailings waste. Razor-wire fences and 24-hour spotlights. 

What kind of sick mind can imagine destroying this dance? Not just taking one deer’s life to feed your family, but laying waste to an entire mountainside? 

Jack D. Forbes, a Renape-Lenape scholar and native community organizer, says that the mindset behind the industrial destruction that threatens Thacker Pass is not simple greed. He uses the term “wetiko disease” to describe a person who is “mentally ill or insane, the carrier of a terribly contagious psychological disease” based on an endless drive to consume. This mindset is not rare in our culture. Forbes writes that “wetiko behavior and wetiko goals are regarded as the very fabric of European evolution,” and drove European colonization which spread the wetiko mindset worldwide. He contrasts this with “sanity or healthy normality,” which “involves a respect for other forms of life and other individuals.” 

I know of no better way to describe what threatens this place, and by extension, our entire world: people driven mad by an ideology of consumption and progress, and an economy and political system that rewards them. Why else would you destroy the planet?

Tears have been coming easily lately. I’ll be walking along, or reading, or having a conversation, and suddenly I’m crying. My heart lurches in my chest. I start to tremble. It’s because of this place. It’s because I am in love with Thacker Pass, with Peehee-mm-huh, with the deer and the antelope and the meadowlarks and the golden eagles and the pair of red-tailed hawks nesting on the cliff behind camp. And I don’t know if I can stop the destruction.

Fighting a project like this is not easy. It’s exhausting. I miss my fiancée. I miss my home. I am tired from day after day of organizing, writing, photography, interviews, strategizing, planning. I haven’t been clean in a week. But I keep going, because that is what you do when you’re in love. You don’t abandon your loved ones.

I am asking you to become the person that Thacker Pass needs, the person that the world needs: the warrior-poet, the water protector, the inspiring leader.

There is a hard thing about falling in love. Once it happens, you are accountable to your beloved. You are responsible. Love has a way of helping us to surpass ourselves, to learn and grow and become better people. And so I’m here at Thacker Pass. I need your help. This place needs your help. We can’t do this alone. This is an invitation to those of you who are sitting on the sidelines. Come to Thacker Pass. Join us. Be a voice and body and mind standing against the destruction. Not just for a day. Commit to this fight (and the next, and the next). 

Stand with me at Thacker Pass, with meadowlark song and the sweet scent of sage in the air, beneath the circling Golden Eagles. Stand up and say: “No. You will not destroy this place.”

If you are interested in joining us, visit our website to learn more about getting involved. And speak out on this issue. We can’t save the planet by destroying it. Transitioning away from fossil fuels and fixing humanity’s broken relationship with the planet will require a more critical approach.


Max Wilbert is an organizer, writer, and wilderness guide. He has been part of grassroots political work for nearly 20 years. His second book, Bright Green Lies: How The Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It, co-authored with Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith, has recently been released.


The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Our newsroom remains entirely independent of our opinion page. Published opinions further public conversation to fulfill our civic responsibility to challenge authority, act independently of corporate or political influence, and invite dissent.