Tale #1: I’m a teenager in Pendleton, Oregon, land of wheat–as far away from coal country as you can get. I turn on the 45 RPM and sing along with Tennessee Ernie Ford:
Some people say a man is made outta mud
A poor man’s made outta muscle and blood
Muscle and blood and skin and bones
A mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong
You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store
I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal
And the straw boss said “Well, a-bless my soul”
I snapped my fingers and sang the words, but so blissful in my ignorance.
Tale #2: Sister Helena Brand, SNJM, taught me literature in 1965 and introduced me to Emile Zola’s Germinal. I lived inside that book with Etienne and Catherine, immersed in the brutal injustices, unbearable poverty, and vivid passions, but most of all, the black, suffocating life underground.
Tale #3: Forty years later, a miner guided us through the Cape Breton Museum, into the cage, and down into the mine. He spoke of his years underground. He showed us a tiny greenhouse measuring three feet by three feet where the men had installed a light and enclosed a flowering plant. “We wanted a reminder of something living, growing green in all this black dust.”
Tale #4: In Sault Ste-Marie we knocked at the door of a bed-and-breakfast and the man who answered the door stood no taller than 4 feet ten–the tiniest man I had ever seen. Over tea he spoke of years spent in Britain’s coal mines and of the inexplicable poverty that kept him small. “I never tasted milk until the age of twelve.”
Tale # 5: The pit ponies, beloved animals of the miners, hauled heavy carts of coal eight hours a day. Born and bred in the shaft mines, stabled underground, the ponies came to the surface only during the colliery’s annual holiday. I wondered, How would you ever get them back underground after they breathed in clean air and felt grass under their feet?
Tale #6: I keep alive the vision of Gerard Manley Hopkins:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.