Column by Douglas Herman.
Exclusive to STR
Metal, heavy metal is much in the news these days. While heavy radioactive metals are melting down in Japan, the twin precious metals of gold and silver are melting upwards. We are always surrounded by precious metal. It is inside us. Sometimes we sacrifice our more precious mettle inside of us to sweat and sacrifice and finally extract the less valuable gold and silver metal outside us. "Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; Little we see in nature is ours." So wrote a man named Wordsworth and he surely knew what words were worth. Precious mettle, rarely radioactive.
I pass precious metal everyday on my walks. Most I pick it up. Aluminum cans, recyclable, required some person to sacrifice a portion of their life to extract that metal from the ground. I pick them up and save them; they're like free money. And curiously, aluminum serves us far better than gold in our everyday life. But since these discarded cans are considered "trash" by trashy people, lacking in precious mettle, they toss them on the ground.
One day, in the not-too-distant future, ALL landfills will be mined for precious metals. I know for a fact the smallish Kodiak Island landfill contains tens of thousands of dollars worth of easily extracted aluminum, brass, copper, zinc, stainless steel and probably silver and gold. One day this landfill, like thousands of others like it, will be a valuable resource, once we change our way of thinking.
All metals are precious, requiring considerable time and toil to extract. Like the best elements of people, most of their value is overlooked and tossed away casually. Funny, but it has taken me more than 60 years to understand these simple truths. Precious mettle and precious metal share similar qualities that most treasure seekers finally see.
Gold will get you killed or make you rich. Mostly gold will make you wiser on the way to getting you killed or getting you rich. In his youth, Mark Twain learned that digging dirt, looking for gold in Aurora Nevada, was much harder work than digging for the right noun or verb. Writing colorful stories paid better than pick and shovel work. Young Sam Clemens, the future Mark Twain, got his writing career started in Aurora by striking a rich vein of nouns and verbs rather than elusive gold nuggets.
America had a golden past once. And a silvery past too. Every ghost town in the American West was once either a gold or silver boom town. Because, once upon a time, all the paper money in America was proudly backed with either gold or silver, and sometimes both. But history, especially the history of empires in decline, are anathema to gold and silver as money. Precious metal is an impertinence, a "barbarous relic" in the memorable words of former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. And so empires decline, but gold and silver, as does all precious metal, retains its wealth.
We were on a road trip, not to Aurora Nevada but instead to the Vulture Mine, just north of Phoenix, Arizona. The Vulture Mine  ghost town consists of several large old industrial buildings and the ruins of numerous others. More than $200 million in gold was wrenched from the hard rocks of the mine. Eighty years after the discovery in 1863, the Vulture mine closed in 1942, by orders of the US government. Seems gold was less of a strategic mineral than brass and lead at the time.
From the Vulture rose the Phoenix, said a local historian we met there. The boom town of Vulture required supplies shipped from the smaller supply hub of Phoenix. Thus from the Vulture rose the Phoenix.
We stood staring at the remains of the assay office, a two story stone building nearing collapse. According to popular legend, the stone used in the building still contains several million dollars in unrefined gold. I picked up a chunk but didn't see any indication of wealth, only a sort of ghostly nostalgia.
Behind the building stood the ruins of the mine supervisor's little office. Shading the walls stood a smallish tree, a hanging tree according to legend. Hard to imagine that 18 men were hung from this little tree for "high-grading," or pilfering gold from the mine walls. Frontier justice. High grading seems like a far lesser offense than any crime committed by the Masterminds of Wall Street and their willing, wealthy accomplices in D.C. who have high-graded billions from poorer Americans. But then again Joseph Stiglitz said throwing a few Wall Street bankers in jail would serve as a lesson for the rest. "Somebody is caught for a minor drug offense they are sent to prison for a very long time," said Stiglitz. "And yet, these so-called white-collar crimes, which are not victimless, almost none of these guys, almost none of them, go to prison." Maybe a hanging tree wouldn't be such a bad idea, for the crime of epic high-grading, I mean.
Have you ever looked at, really looked at, most silver coins? Here are five different ones, both modern and antique. The front carries an engraving of some stylized feminine Liberty, while the back has some sort of eagle with outspread wings. Look at Liberty on silver coinage. Is silver, or all precious metal for that matter, trying to tell us something we forget from time to time? Maybe Thomas Jefferson said it best: "Paper is poverty--It is only the ghost of money and not money itself." Maybe that is why we see Liberty on our silver coins, especially the older ones.
Speaking of silver, recently the feds tried and convicted an eccentric engraver and silverbug named Bernard von Nuthaus of counterfeiting his own version of the US dollar. STR readers may remember Bernard from my earlier column about the Liberty Dollar. In 2007 I met the man personally and paid $10 for some of his silver coins now valued at $40-50. Meanwhile, in four short years the US paper dollar has lost a sizable chunk of its purchasing power while the alleged counterfeit coins have appreciated by a factor of four or more. The US Attorney in the case, Anne Tompkins, perhaps with an eye towards her future as a US presidential candidate, said: "While these forms of anti-government activities do not involve violence, they are every bit as insidious and represent a clear and present danger to the economic stability of this country....Attempts to undermine the legitimate currency of this country are simply a unique form of domestic terrorism.”
Poor Anne Tompkins appears to know little of the US Constitution, that "No State shall ... coin Money; ... make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts." Otherwise Anne can hardly sit in judgment of others for having the audacity of making coins of gold and silver while a PRIVATE construct called the Federal Reserve, which is neither Federal nor does it reserve, passes off fiat currency as highly valuable while printing millions more each day. But since Congress seems to have abdicated its duty regarding precious metal, "To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof," then private American citizens may take up that right, correct?
At the time of this writing, gold approaches $1,500 per ounce. Gold Rush Alaska, a so-called Reality television show on the Discovery Channel, featured a handful of middle-aged fellows attempted to pry gold out of a stream bed in Alaska. Mostly they failed. They spent far more money than they found in gold. But the TV money was extremely profitable. Some say each episode was equivalent to finding 200 ounces of gold PER WEEK. But that part of the story  was rarely told.
Mining the American public is a rich mother lode, which Mark Twain realized more than a century ago in Aurora, Nevada. We want to work hard and strike it rich, but most gold miners died poor. Some died in desperate straits AFTER they struck it rich. Henry Wickenburg and Wiliam Bodie both come to mind.
A couple months ago, a friend joined me as we sought gold in central Arizona. The aptly named Rich Hill, near the ghost towns of Weaver and Stanton, once boasted fist-sized nuggets and modern prospectors armed with metal detectors still find prizes there. Often the lure of gold, The Search, exceeds the individual need to find it. We panned buckets of gold-laden dirt that weekend, dirt that sparkles with flour gold but we still haven't refined the black sand and separated the gold. We seek precious metal, trying to grasp which mettle will serve us best over time.