A Legacy of Copper
“What would you like to have from this house when I move?” my mother asked every time I visited her in Maine. For a decade, I hardly liked to answer. Even if she meant downsizing more than dying, it seemed sort of greedy and grabby to put dibs on her possessions. But eventually, I mentioned that I’d prize the legacy of copper tins.
The set of three copper canisters with oval brass labels had occupied a place in our family kitchen for years. Perhaps not as long as I can remember, but certainly since my high school days. I have no clear recollection of when they appeared in our home, and even Mom seemed a little vague about where they’d come from when I asked. But they followed her on at least three moves, along with their neatly folded aluminum foil “coasters.”
But contrary to their designations, they never contained “Flour,” “Sugar,” or “Tea.” And don’t most canister sets consist of four pieces? I wondered if “Coffee” was orphaned and wandering the world somewhere.
At any rate, after I repeatedly named only the tins visit after visit, my mom gave me my inheritance long before leaving her home. I brought my legacy of copper back to Chile and added the canister set to my tin collection in this land of copper mines and mountains.
Job 37:22 tells us, “Out of the north comes golden splendor.” That’s so true of Chile’s north, where mining flourishes, if hardly anything else does. While the early conquistadores craved only gold, and nineteenth-century tycoons rushed for silver near Copiapó, Chile’s history eventually became framed by the nitrate boom of 1873-1914, the period nicknamed the Saltpeter Republic.
But then copper power emerged on the landscape around 1930, and we haven’t looked back. This nation’s as blessed as the Israelites with their Promised Land: “For the Lord your God is bringing you to a good land…a land where you will eat food without scarcity, in which you will not lack anything; a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper” (Dt. 8:7-8).
Chile has a legacy of copper. In fact, copper’s almost as common as dirt. It’s found in the ground and excavated from the earth, after all. Not everyone, of course, has gold-plated bathroom fixtures or a silver tea service in their cupboard. BUT you can bet that nearly everyone here, from the dome to the dregs of society, wears copper and/or uses it in their homes.
Besides the pipes and wires hidden in the walls, you’ll find copper pots and pans, copper plates and plaques and utensils. Copper lamps, copper handrails, copper jewelry and socks.
Socks? Yeah, I’ll get to that.
In Destiny at Dolphin Bay, copper appears in the handsome hammered chimney hood in the Serranos’ living room. In a humble home, how did they acquire such a huge item of burnished metal? The question never occurs to Melissa Travis as she roasts chestnuts—the color of copper—at that blazing hearth.
Old as the Hills
In the culture of ancient Egypt, copper represented eternal life. While it’s certainly not eternal, copper is one of the oldest elements known to civilization and was the first worked by human hands. Our modern word evolved from the Latin cuprum, meaning “from the island of Cyprus,” where the industrious Romans got their main supply.
With Chile’s legacy of cobre, today the country produces about 1/3 of the world’s copper. In 2019, Chile mined 5.6 million tons of ore, more than twice its nearest competitor (Peru).
Most copper is extracted from large open-pit mines such as Chuquicamata—Chuqui, for short—located near Calama in the Atacama Desert and owned by the Chilean state, and Escondida, in the Chilean north as well. Codelco (the state corporation) also owns El Teniente near Rancagua, the world’s largest underground mine.
While mining frequently imperils life and health (remember the famous accident and rescue in 2010?), copper itself boasts a long history of making the world better, more functional, and more beautiful.
So… what’s so great about copper?
To start with, its earthy-yet-elegant orange-red color when pure. Other than gold, it’s the only metal with a natural color. The rest are plain gray or silver.
Atoms of gold, silver, and copper all contain mobile electrons which strongly reflect light and lend these metals their unique sheen. All can be beaten into paper-thin sheets and buffed to a high shine. But let’s face it, though gold is the value standard, it lies mostly out of our everyday budgets. Besides, splurging on an excess of gold leans toward tacky—even garish.
Copper’s another matter. So it’s not gold. It’s not even silver. Our legacy of copper gives no Midas touch. It doesn’t glow with the splendor of Solomon, but this ruddy metal does have the vibrant versatility of a David.
Copper possesses an extremely high (second only to silver) electrical and thermal conductivity, so it’s used in countess modern applications from big industry to your backyard: Electronics, plumbing, machinery. Whether utilized in building materials such as roofing or leisure items such as outdoor furniture or garden decorations, over time copper oxidizes to form a green patina called verdigris. As, for example, on the Statue of Liberty.
Unlike the rust on iron, copper’s patina layer actually helps to keep the metal itself from degrading. I just learned that fact this week and somehow sense a major lesson here. No matter how stained and unsightly the surface of my life appears, the patina of faith and maturity conceals the precious metal beneath. Experience tells me that disaster cannot sully the substance of the depths. What looks ugly may be God’s cover of protection.
So easy to see, so easy to say. So hard to trust.
“Just because there’s tarnish on the copper doesn’t mean there’s not a shine beneath.” –Lawrence Yep
Over 400 copper alloys exist. Brass is made of copper and zinc. Bronze is copper most often mixed with tin and usually harder. You could think of both of these as basically copper with the heat turned down. Isn’t it interesting to note that products manufactured of bronze make the list of “very costly articles” mentioned in the lament for Babylon, the end times’ world marketplace? (Rev. 18:12)
The addition of a percentage of copper makes silver “sterling” and gold “rose” or “pink.” And copper is commonly encountered in the salt compounds sometimes ground into painters’ pigments or set as semi-precious stones: azurite, malachite, turquoise.
Copper is miraculously biostatic, meaning bacteria will not grow on it. So its antifouling and antimicrobial properties make it a natural antibacterial agent. (The copper socks come in here!) It’s used to paint and even line ship parts to discourage the spread of barnacles and resist corrosion. I’ve always admired the bronze trim on ships. Apparently, it’s not all for looks.
Copper’s installed in health care and other public facilities, and in Santiago’s subway transit systems and airport immigrations booths—our lucky legacy of copper in Chile. Worldwide it’s found in fungicides, wood preservatives, and nautical instruments.
While it may be deadly to microbes, copper contributes vitally to human health as a trace dietary mineral. And although evidence is scanty, since you can’t absorb copper through the skin, folk medicine holds copper bracelets as an effective cure for arthritis and a host of other maladies.
In mollusks and some crustaceans, copper carries the oxygen in the blood pigment hemocyanin (blue) rather than the iron-complexed hemoglobin of vertebrates. Clams really do have blue blood—a legacy of copper.
Riches Within Reach
Copper and its alloys signified treasure and wealth in Bible times. God chose bronze as one of the three precious metals used for decoration in the wilderness tabernacle (Ex. 25:3) and later in the temple at Jerusalem. Those same three metals pop up often as prizes today. Think the Olympics.
“Through love, scraps of copper are turned to gold.” –Rumi
Still, articles made of copper abound, then and now. Even the widow whom Jesus praised for giving “all that she had to live on” put “two small copper coins” (mites) into the offering (Lk. 21:1-3). Modern pennies consist of zinc coated with copper, and 75% of the American nickel is copper (not nickel). The Canadian loonie (dollar coin) is formed of bronzed-plated nickel.
Copper gets along so well with everyone, it seems. It’s soft, malleable, and ductile, so easily works into an amazing variety of products as big as a boat or as tiny as a pair of earrings. It goes into jewelry, jelly molds, and jar lids. Hair-wear, tableware, and even the miniature tea set I have to keep rubbing the patina off—a gift from friends, another legacy of copper.
Rocks to Riches
Have you ever heard the fable about the guy who was instructed to pick up as many pebbles as he desired while walking along a country path? He ended the journey both happy and sad. Happy because the stones had transformed into jewels. And sad because he hadn’t gathered more.
That tale reminds me of the legacy of our cherished memories and mementos. Every day we collect ordinary moments and store them away in the treasure chest of our hearts, a deposit of the gems of our daily disappearing past.
I’m happy and sad at the same time. Happy for every jewel of joy. Delighted to discover the most precious gifts of life hidden—sometimes buried—in the hills of toil and trivia.
And I’m a little disappointed because I didn’t enjoy the journey more. I should have paid more attention to every minute, savored even the trifles, and strung them onto a necklace like pearls. Or copper nuggets.
The fable of the pebbles also represents our hopes and connection to future generations. I’m determined to add a little—even just a little—to my family legacy each day. Our story with God never really ends.
So I bought a couple of copper tins the other day…
They cost a buck and a half apiece here in the Copper Republic. ? They’re square, not round canisters, but one is labeled “Coffee,” so it feels like I’ve matched the set. Until my mom and I walk the golden streets together, I’ll treasure that legacy of copper.
Because out of the copper hills, God promises His redeemed: “Instead of bronze I will bring gold, And instead of iron I will bring silver, And instead of wood, bronze And instead of stones, iron. And I will make peace your administrators and righteousness your overseers” (Is. 60:17). Wouldn’t that be wonderful this week?
Out of our leaden horizons, God creates each sunset’s copper glory.
I’m amazed at how your mind works to make the connections that they do. It’s a gift. Thank you for sharing that gift and making us a little richer because of it.
Thanks to you too! It has to do with being interested in so many things. And maybe a little attention deficit, heheh!
Another great read, Diane. I have copper hanging in my house. It’s a valuable treasure to me because it takes me back to my beloved Chile.
So glad you enjoyed, Joy, and thanks for sharing. In just a few more years, I’m sure my copper items will do just that for me too–remind me of my home in Chile!