I have been thinking a lot these days about something that happened long ago – so long ago that my memories may not reflect so much what actually happened, as what I remember about it. It is a story about how a lot of small things can come together to create something that can never be undone, so slowly that you don’t see what’s coming until it’s too late.
In many ways these days, I see it as a parable about what happens when old systems are coming to an end and something new may be trying to emerge. And how little we can see of that bigger picture even as we are in the middle of it.
Long ago, I lived in a small town that was riven by a horrendous mine strike. The mine had been around for years, on the edge of town, and its best days were long past. But it had been bought by a new owner, who evoked strong feelings whether you liked her or hated her. At least one person I knew fervently believed she was bringing good change to an old system; others I knew thought she was destroying their way of life. There didn’t seem to be any common ground, and I still remember seeing horrible hand-painted signs along the road as we drove past the mine on our way to our cabin that summer.
The strike dragged on, and we heard stories about kids fighting at school and about neighbours feuding. Like most people in town, I assumed that eventually things would get settled, and things would go back to normal at the mine. I didn’t realize how other changes in the town had set us on a different course.
The coffee shop at a local hotel, where everyone in town had gone for morning coffee for decades, closed down because the hotel owner was going to expand. So there was no longer any place where everyone gathered. Depending on what side you took on the strike, new gathering places were chosen, where people chewed their own version of the fat.
It had not been the only change. Where once businesses had all been clustered downtown, big box stores had been built in the suburbs as the town’s leaders looked to expand the town’s economy. That hurt the long-established downtown businesses whose donations had long supported so much community activity.
I didn’t grasp then how those things were changing the town from the place it had been when I first arrived. A place where you could hop in a taxi and the driver would ask ‘going home?’ and know where that was. A place where I heard the news at the coffee shop before I read it in the paper or heard it on the radio. A place where it was harder to judge others absolutely – because you knew that people whose views you disliked were also quietly raising money for things like youth sports.
As the strike dragged on, the mine brought in security, and as it must have been in those Welsh or Appalachian coal mines so long ago, tension heightened. It had already been tense when the mine hired people willing to cross the picket line because they needed to earn a living. Some of them were people we knew, because it was then such a small town.
And then there was the explosion. I still remember where I was when I heard about it. Just as I remember where I was when John F. Kennedy was assassinated and when the planes hit the towers in New York. For a small town like it was then, the explosion was just as shocking as those events that had a worldwide impact. Maybe even more.
Because even though I didn’t know most of the victims personally, I had seen some of them when I picked up my mail at the post office. I still remember the face of one of those men, even though I didn’t know him. So it felt personal, not far away.
It was not the first explosion at the mine. I remember being in magistrate’s court, when it was still above the post office, when a miner was assessed an impossible financial penalty for trying to blow up one of the mine’s shafts. But no one died in that earlier explosion – the harm was only to the mine itself.
I don’t remember now the details of how the strike came to an end, or how the contentious new owner gave up her quest to change its operations. It seems to me the investigation of what had happened took a long time, and that many were shocked to discover that a miner had been responsible.
I do remember that my neighbour, a friend until we had a bitter disagreement over the local figure skating club, apparently had a breakdown during the trial of the accused miner. (Only in writing this have I realized that our disagreement over the skating club must have seemed to him as a conflict between a woman who wanted to change the system and a system that seemed to him to be working perfectly well. I had morphed, in his mind, from someone who would be a great leader to someone who looked to him like a great destroyer.)
I am not sure the town as a whole ever really came to terms with the emotional impacts of the failing mine, the strike, the bombing, the deaths, and the trial. I suspect it remains the kind of deep traumatic injury that I read about in the stories about the early Appalachian coal mines or later UK coal strikes.
The mine doesn’t work any longer. But the detritus of its operations, the frozen arsenic deep underground – which looked beautiful, when the mine took several of us to see it after we wrote stories about it – remains. People fear that if it floods, it will pollute the local water.
And that, too, seems familiar. In the Appalachians, people are coping with pollution from now closed coal mines, while others are trying to rewild the land that was so destroyed as mountain tops were sheared off and the coal was mined.
I left that town a long time ago, but I have realized that the memories of that time haven’t left me. Just like the town, I am different now. But I can see echoes of that primal battle in so many places these days as once thriving industries falter their way to an eventual closing, sometimes leaving their workers out in the cold and the land and water damaged.
It reminds me of the low-level dread that seemed to hang over our small town that summer, as two differing perspectives on the way forward for a dying mine dug in for a fight over its future. We didn’t know then that it would be a fight to the death.
Would we have acted differently if we had known that? I am not sure. There is a parable that people often cite, about how if you put a frog in a pot of water and slowly heat it up, the frog won’t jump out – but if you try to put it into a pot of boiling water, it will. I don’t think we realized how the water in the pot was slowly coming to a boil around us.
But I do think that we all have a choice now when the picture is so much bigger. We can let the parties fight it out, from their differing points of view, as industries like coal and oil falter. Or we can be wiser, and recognize that for both sides, the stakes seem existential.
We can help these industries find new ways to carry on their business and help the people who worked in them find new ways to make a living – and this is happening, which is heartening – or we can wait for the inevitable explosion with all of its ensuing destruction of people and property. It is a choice – one we can make with conscious awareness, or one that happens because we don’t realize we are making a choice.