Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Willingly, below the earth

"Our blood has stained the coal
We tunneled deep inside the nation's soul..."*

I thought about the West Virginia miners driving home from work yesterday. I couldn't imagine that any would have survived by then, so many hours in dangerous air. How could they survive the carbon monoxide when each only had one hour of clean air in reserve?

And yet, at midnight, a bout of insomnia keeping me awake, I heard the news - only one was dead. The others had survived! How miraculous! How gracious the higher powers that had spared this community so much grief. I went to sleep amazed.

And I woke to the cruel news.

How sad. How bitter. What unbelievable torture for those families. For that entire community. How could those who knew not come forward earlier, if just to say, "Look - we're getting mixed signals. We're not sure what's going on. Let's hold off on the celebration." A moment of truth could have stopped so much anguish, which is now doubled, at the very least.

Mothers and daughters and wives. Brothers and fathers and sons. People of humble means and strong family traditions. People who know the risks of this way of life. But people who are still rocked and devastated when the earth swallows their loved ones, spitting out hollow shells. We take them for granted. We don't think much about coal mining towns. We don't think much about the families who work the mines generation after generation. We don't think much about the injuries and the diseases and the poverty. Except when something really bad happens and Fox News is there!

And yet, they feed our need for power and light and heat. And put their lives on the line to do it.

And we take them for granted.

Pray for them tonight. Think a good thought for the men who go deep in the dirty earth and breath poison for our needs and to feed their families.

"We walk through ancient forest lands
And light a thousand cities with our hands..."*

A few years ago, I traveled to Vladivostok, a sad city in Russia's Far East. It is a shabby place now - a decayed port city not far from Russia's borders with both China and North Korea. When I flew in, there was a cholera outbreak in the city. It was also, as my host told me at the airport, traffic safety week. He proudly told me only 9 children had been stuck by cars during traffic safety week so far. Terrifying.

As we left the airport, far from the central city, we drove at a snail's pace. All the cars barely moved along the road. When I asked why we were driving so slowly, my host quietly said, "There has been a mine collapse. Many miners are trapped. The mine is below us here. We don't want to cause additional collapses and kill the miners... or ourselves..."

I sat in my hotel room that night, heating bottled Japanese spring water in a hot pot to make tea and soup and brush my teeth. (I held my breath when I showered, to avoid getting any local water in my mouth.) I wondered if the miners knew about the cholera outbreak. I wondered if they were worried about their children getting sick or dying while they themselves waited for near certain death far below the tarnished landscape of Vladivostok.

In the end, some of the miners perished. Some were saved. On the local news, I saw rescuers filling big glasses of water from a large basin and handing them to the miners to drink as they exited the mine. Dirty faces and weary eyes blinking into the sunlight, they slugged down the diseased water. I wondered if they knew the water might make them ill. But these men had just come from the edge of death, nearly consumed by dark, deep hell. Coal is mined with water, poisoned with the same dust that poisons their lungs. Why should drinking water frighten them?

The next day, the news reported that the survivors had reported for work at another mine, carving out both power for the fading city of Vladivostok and a meager existence for their families.

"We work the black seam together..."*

Pray for them, indeed, who go willingly below the earth so we might have light and heat and all the luxuries of this good life. They deserve that from us.

*Sting, "We Work The Black Seam" from Dream of the Blue Turtles


Spencer said...

A Sting fan?

Without what these men do can you imagine the stranglehold the oil companies would have on us?

Merujo said...

Old school Sting - before he became "car commercial Sting." Love him.

And amen to what you said, Spencer. These guys kill themselves for us. And next week, no one will be thinking about them again. Until the next disaster...