from Cap Coch
What a miner knows is in the air around him.
Its movement. Its fresh or stale. And in the rock
which creaks and settles overhead, which cracks
and falls from the coal face at the miner’s feet.
Where water runs, or not. Sounds, smells.
The flare of a lantern. Methane, invisible,
leaking from who knows where. Water that’s flooded
another working, dammed for decades, pressing
behind the coal face. You need to be able to read
the interruptions underground. An ancient
river bed where the accumulated
peat once washed out to sea. A fault in the rock
from a prehistoric earthquake. Always beyond
the barren rock the coal keeps going. One
old man will tell a grandchild about the darkness,
when he was twelve years old: your lamp goes out
and you can’t see your own hand. And how when you cut
under the coal face it comes away clean, sometimes,
smooth as a mirror, and on that shiny surface
a fern, each frond clear as the day it fell,
gleams in the light of your lamp, almost like new.
Where’s everybody gone? On the stony track
with unpredictable breezes swirling around
the minibus, we perch in our badly fitting
bright yellow safety helmets high
above the black chasm of the mine.
Impossible depth, impossible distances,
not a human being in sight. On the far side,
kilometres away, clanking and clumsy
as some ancient monster struggling onto land,
one big machine prods at the side of the pit.
Coal dust hovers around it. If that gets close,
the guide tells us, we’re out of here. You wouldn’t
want that in your face. Fields run to the edge
of the open cut: a miniature tree clings on
to its final months of life. There’s just one bloke
sitting in the cab down there in air-conditioned
comfort. Pretty much soundproof. That thing cuts
more coal in a day than a thousand men. The breeze
picks up. The cloud of coal dust eddies, rises,
begins to move towards us. Helmets off,
we scramble for seats. The bus grinds into gear.
Photos in collage from: CSIRO CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0) via Wikimedia Commons