Reportage

From dwarves to giants

A SUMMER EVENING on the veranda of the old Minmi pub, a cooling uphill breeze, the beers cold and poured with the perfect head by publican Bill. It's the early 1970s and I am here as half of a ‘blow-in' couple, residents of only five years' standing in this ex-coalmining village: two hundred people, one pub, one post office, no shop.

Pete stops by our table, fresh schooner of Old in hand and fresh news to tell.

‘Well, looks like me truckin' days are nearly over. Bob just told me he's got me in at his pit. I'll be laughin' all the way to the bank, with the money them miners get!'

‘But Pete, won't you mind being underground for hours and hours?' I ask, shuddering at the prospect.

He plonks himself down on the chair opposite me and takes a long pull on his beer. I bet he's thinking, Bloody woman, always askin' stuff out loud that's best left in ya head, but Pete's a kind-hearted bloke; he knows that if I haven't got all the rules of village behaviour right yet, I am trying.

‘Ter be honest, I dunno, but I reckon if other blokes can put up with it, I can.'

Pete's been doing the interstate Brisbane run for years, flying past mountains and moors, forests and farms, under sun and rain; now there would be only tunnels and artificial lights, deep underground. While the men talked wages and loadings and perks to scam, I tried to imagine Pete as a miner, working where fairytale dwarves, not men, belonged. It wasn't easy, as I'd hardly ever seen Pete wearing anything other than thongs and faded navy singlet and stubbies, and he couldn't wear those down the mine.

I knew miners had hot showers at the pits these days, but still my mind's eye insisted on the blackened face, neck and hands of ‘The Collier', on the contrasting paleness of his naked torso above the dangling braces and sooty trousers as he washed himself in the tin dish in front of the fire. My collier was as out of date as the rest of DH Lawrence's world, yet as the nineteenth century rolled into the twentieth, when Minmi was in its coal heyday, its miners would have been very like him.

Old Charlie, the bar elder I had befriended despite my double handicap of sheila and newcomer, had told me his dad used to come home ‘lookin' like a blackfella, 'n' send me straight upter this very pub with the billy fer 'is beer, while 'e scrubbed up'.

Six days a week, from 6 am to 6 pm, the miners had worked at depths of a hundred feet, picking away at the coalface by candles or oil lamps, with inadequate air, and often in high temperatures. Ventilation had depended on draughts induced by furnaces at the top of the shafts, with boys as young as eight employed to sit in the dark for the twelve-hour shifts to operate the ventilation doors; for decades the miners had fought unsuccessfully for adequate ventilation. To make conditions more unpleasant, there was water in the Minmi workings.

They don't sound as claustrophobic as the mine in George Orwell's 1937 essay ‘Down the Mine', but would we know about that had not a literate and literary outsider bothered to go down and experience it for himself? ‘Most of the things one imagines in hell are there – heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air and, above all, unbearably cramped space.'

Those men had to stoop or crawl through miles of tunnels to reach the coalface, and then shovel the coal from a kneeling position! Orwell noted they were well-built, strong men – and short. Not enough dwarves about, for 1937 was also the year in which Tolkien published The Hobbit; dwarves would have been undergoing a resurgence in the popular imagination, where they were too busy having adventures to go mining – or not for coal, anyway.

 

NOBODY HAS LEFT us a graphic underground story of Minmi's miners.

Bill's pub was the sole survivor of a reputed fourteen watering holes – only about half of which would have been even half-reputable – which had eased the dusty throats and worried minds of the men living and working in what coal had made the third-largest town in the Hunter Valley by 1900, with five thousand residents.

His pub was all that kept the bonds of community from fraying apart, stretched as they were between the remaining scattered inhabitants. The pub and some of the houses lined the one tarred road that zipped through the village to the world beyond, and a single proper dirt road, once the main street, ran parallel along the ridge of the hill, with the two churches and our place – once the courthouse-jail-police station-residence – standing in grand brick isolation.

Most people lived down dirt tracks threading through the green tide of kikuyu grass that still vaguely delineated the paddocks and fences and chimney stumps it had swamped. These remaining miners' cottages were tiny weatherboard boxes: pitched tin roofs, front verandas, low back kitchen skillions, outdoor laundries and further outdoor dunnies. Of necessity, the latter were still in use. Those tracks had once been streets packed with rows of cottages, slowly cannibalised to keep the surviving buildings habitable.

All the old bustle of butcher and baker and candlestick maker – well, shoemaker, at least – of grocer and haberdasher, and even jeweller, was long stilled. The last general store had collapsed by the main road, left as it fell in its final sideways slump, faded blue Bushells Tea sign askew, for all to witness that it had died on the job.

Only the village post office remained unaccountably open. I stepped back in time when I entered to check for our mail, since the post office slumbered on in a building as imposing as our courthouse. In the 1890s, the easily worked red cedar Toona australis was still plentiful. As in other boom towns of the time, the government builders had used it lavishly here, on ceilings and partitions and the broad counters of single cedar slabs, their red gold disguised under the dark varnish of the past.

Being a teacher, I always went after school, so the western sun would be pouring in through the big semi-circular leadlight window opposite the counter. It turned the official notices yellow, curling them like scrolls around their drawing pins, then jumped the counter to highlight the emptiness of the dusty pigeonholes before striking a gleam off the black marble fireplace in the office behind – like a flash of the grand old days, I used to think.

I'd blended pub lore with what I'd read about those days. The town had flourished after J & A Brown bought the mine from John Eales in 1859, who had built it and the rail line to Hexham. The Browns' new large engineering, smith's and carpenter's workshops, coke ovens and quarry attracted workers to what was considered an isolated place, with the offer of cottages for rent at a shilling per week or land on which to build their own cottages, but without tenure. It was a private town, and hundreds of families were turned out of their homes in the strikes of 1860 and 1895, when the miners refused a pay reduction.

For as the coal prices dropped, so did the miners' hewing rates – and they were paid only for what they cut, which in turn happened only when the company had an order to fill, so they could go for weeks without any income.

Even the other employers, the shopkeepers, were company tenants; every family depended on the mine. When the company declared ‘Close the pit!' in 1925, it meant ‘Wither and die!' to the town. It is said to have been a punishment to the miners who had insisted on quitting work to attend a fellow miner's funeral, following refusal of their official request to do so. A good story for the bitter unemployed to pass on – but though productive Minmi had long been a troubled mine, with legal disputes, a flooding, deals back and forth, the miners owed wages and, once out of work, on charity for eighteen months.

The coal barons had always called the shots, above and below ground; they abandoned both mine and town, but refused to sell anything. Families moved away as soon as their men found employment. Only the unsuccessful few had stayed on as squatters in the cottages, ­free of rent only because they were forgotten. These dwellings were shored up and tacked on to and passed down to descendants, some of whom worked in other Hunter pits. By the 1970s the world mostly passed the village by, though sometimes I spotted small groups of earnest elderly ladies arriving in Mini-Minors to inspect what headstones in the cemetery were visible under the encroaching blackberries.

Whenever I could, I explored past the realm of kikuyu into the surrounding regrowth bush of spotted gums, ironbarks and wattles. The ghosts of the old town stretched far beyond the present one, hiding behind a solitary intact chimney, small piles of crumbling pinkish bricks or a few staggering runs of grey picket fence bearded with lichen. Tin bathtubs, buckets or cooking pots lay rusting into filigree beneath bushes of telltale foreign bright green. As I foraged among the ruins, collecting small bottles and broken willow plate, the bush was peopled with my imaginings of the past lives here, both the living and the dying dictated by coal, with the swift blow of the crash reminiscent – for fanciful me – of Pompeii or Atlantis.

I found the railway line which had taken the coal to Newcastle, and ventured a little way into the mouth of its dark and dripping long brick tunnel under the hill; I was shown broad pit entrances gaping in a hillside, where it was said pit ponies still lived, coming out to graze only at night because their eyes could not stand the sunlight; I saw, rusting red against the sky, soaring iron dinosaurs straddling stands of gums. The Browns had been famous for their machinery.

Wherever I walked, I was always aware of the parallel world beneath, the honeycomb maze of mine tunnels that ran from coast to country, as I had seen from the mines survey map when we bought the property here. Nowhere was really safe in the valley, but nobody seemed to bother about it – even though, sometimes, when the underworld reached up too far, backyards disappeared and cottages tipped on alarming angles.

The pub folk reckoned the bush round the village could not be sold because it was too undermined, too dangerous, so trail bikes scored it with tracks and the mines cut pit props from its young trees.

Then a revival of sorts occurred and the underground awoke, with a new mine going in just over our hill. Large coal trucks now frequently and noisily ground up the hill and round our corner, keeping the house coated with pale dust. An ex-mining village was quaint; a current one was not.

We bought a bush property in the upper Hunter as a weekend retreat; talked about moving there one day, of building a cabin. The people at the pub thought we'd be mad to leave just as the village looked like picking up at last. Local aldermen were promising that soon there would be houses all the way from the nearest town, seven miles off through the bush, to our village, which would then be a suburb of Newcastle. Under that threat, in 1978 we decided to sell up.

A pit prop contractor had half a load of props that the mines had rejected as too short: ‘Anyone wanta buy 'em cheap?' While we had plenty of trees on our new property, we preferred not to fell them, so we took him up on it; the slim but strong round posts would make good supports and railings for a cabin veranda.

Thirty years later those pit prop posts still stand, grey and lichened with age, framing landscapes of tall trees backed by the dense green convolutions of the ridges and gullies of the World Heritage Wilderness Area. I like this link to my past, but have been told that bringing them here was like ‘cartin' coals to Newcastle'. I like this linking image too.

THE COAL IS catching up. There are now eighteen coalmines close, too close, to my nearest town, seventy kilometres away. Over the past fifteen years, whenever I have left my bright sunlit mountain I have driven down into an increasingly milky-brown layer that fills the broad valley and blurs or even obliterates the edging mountains, as the dust from the open-cut mines blends with the coal-fired power stations' output. What was once like the Rhine, green pastures and vineyards and clear country skies, has become a clone of the old industrial Ruhr. The air in the adjoining shires of Singleton and Muswellbrook carries one of the highest concentrations of fine dust particulates in Australia: 50,000 tonnes. My grandchildren live near Singleton; they breathe that air.

‘Why do you all put up with it?' I asked a shopkeeper. ‘You hardly ever see blue sky or sun until this smog lifts around eleven – if at all – and you can't see the stars at night for the lights of the mines!'

‘To be honest, I've forgotten what it was like before,' he replied, ‘and when you're in it you don't know any better; it's just seen as the weather. I reckon if everyone else in town can stand it, I can. Well, it's Progress, isn't it?'

Men – and women – earn good money in these mines. This is called the ‘golden handcuff', for the wages tie them to twelve-hour shifts where they rarely see their families and are too tired to function properly when they do. Involvement in community, social and sports events is fractured, and so are families, as wives discover that being able to afford the biggest plasma-screen TV doesn't compensate for bringing up a baby on their own.

I see the workers off-shift, on pub veranda smoke zones or in the shopping centres, in their scuffed steel-toed boots and grimy blue-and-orange work shirts and trousers, banded with silver reflective strips. All who go on site from the support industries dress like this, not just the miners, so the uniforms dominate, as do the grey-spattered double-cab white utes, with their safety flags a-flying, somehow defiantly gay, if grubby, in the car parks and streets. It feels like a coal company town, just as Minmi was – except the ownership is corporate and multiple, an industry takeover, with no single owner to beseech or blame.

These once-rural towns now run on 24-hour mine time; dogs bark and babies cry as lights go on and utes start up in the early morning dark. The highway takeaway joints open then, too, to feed breakfast steak sandwiches and hamburgers and coffee and Coke to the long line of commuters from lower down the valley, where there are no mines, where the air is cleaner and a house won't be unsaleable when the mines pull the pin on towns that depend too heavily on coal.

When I look at the mindlessly unsustainable housing estates creeping further across the hills around Singleton and Muswellbrook, I see the old maps of Minmi and the density and spread of that town in its coal days. Will my grandchildren be wandering around the skeletal perimeters of their town in fifty years' time, marvelling that it was ever so big, and what will be the archaeological finds then? Rusting air-conditioners?

Rents have soared as transient workers compete for them; homelessness is a growing problem, as is the divide between the haves on inflated mine wages and the have-nots on normal wages or pensions. Mines are moving to contract labour, so job security for miners is no greater than in the Minmi days – nor is housing security, with high mortgages dependent on those high wages.

Townspeople mutter to each other and shake their heads about the dust; they agree the mines should be made to clean up their act or replaced with cleaner industries, and that the power of mining is out of control. Such talk is mainly in private: handcuffed directly or indirectly to coal, it's easier to ignore the downside and head for the shopping centres.

In public forums the audiences contain a majority of retirees, with more bald pates and grey hair than at any lawn bowls function. We grandparents are deeply concerned about the future of those we will leave behind, and no one can sack us. At a recent meeting on air quality – or the lack of it – a rare younger man in his mine work clothes stood up and said that he had foolishly believed all the initial assurances by the mines that ‘strict environmental guidelines' would be adhered to, that there would be no negative effects.

In one recent ‘Hunter Valley Mining Industry' info-ad insert in a local paper, amid all the trumpet blowing I managed to find two tiny articles with hints about adverse effects, together totalling about a quarter of a page out of twenty-four pages: one on the recently announced air-quality monitoring network, omitting that it's long overdue, compromised and inadequate; and the other on local demands – denied – for a study into the health impacts of the dust particulates they inhale daily. This coverage is unusual, as environmental matters are generally restricted to a slim self-congratulatory piece about tree plantings.

Our disillusioned young miner now has mountains of dumped dirt looming over his village of Camberwell, some only several hundred metres away from homes. There are six mines close by, four of which have lodged applications to expand – and are expected to be approved. Yet the water in the village house tanks already contains nearly twenty times more lead than the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines consider safe; the levels of arsenic, mercury, nickel and zinc also exceed those guidelines. With the dust and constant lights and noise of trucks and machines, and the blasting, as a tenable habitation Camberwell is the walking wounded, a village dying on its feet.

The miner might have a job, but he fears for the health and future of his children, and he has learned that the mining companies agree to any condition and hold to none, with impunity; he no longer believes anything the companies or governments say.

People talk about the increasing asthma, the year-round ‘hay fever', the heart attacks and strokes, the long-term effects on the brain and genetics from heavy metals, the cancer and motor-neurone disease clusters, and the depression, which the visiting coal pollution expert Dr Dick van Steenis considers may well be caused by the chemicals in our toxic air.

Beyond the physical, Glenn Albrecht – then of Newcastle University, now a professor of sustainability at Murdoch University and writer at healthearth.blogspot.com – coined a term, ‘solastalgia', for the psychological damage he was observing: ‘the pain or sickness caused by the loss or lack of solace and the sense of desolation connected to the present state of one's home and territory. It is the "lived experience" of negative environmental change. It is the homesickness you have when you are still at home. It is that feeling you have when your sense of place is under attack.'

Prosperity? Progress? Not for the people who live where a mine wants to be. When one threatens, locals' only choice is to sell to the coal company; no one else will buy, and if they happen to live just outside the designated affected area – a highly arbitrary line that must assume a permanent absence of wind – they don't even have that.

They wonder when Australia became the sort of country where one person, the Planning Minister, can ignore all protective legislation to fast-track a project for the sake of corporate profit. They no longer think they're lucky to live in a coal-rich region, not now that all sense of fair play and proportion in land and water use is so evidently as much a thing of the past as the horse and plough. If their families have been here for generations, staying may be untenable, but going is unthinkable, out of loyalty to old memories. They need the memories, because the landscape is unrecognisable.

At last they have twigged that it is the big boys like BHP Billiton, Xstrata, Centennial, Peabody, Felix Resources – now Yanzhou – who are the lucky ones with the ear of the decision-maker. They don't believe the government will say no to a resources project, no matter what or whom it destroys; the processes to approval are judged to be shams, the outcome inevitable. ‘Money talks, and those guys have billions. So what's the point of objecting?'

 

FURTHER WEST, JUST north of Mudgee, is the new intensive area of coal devastation, with the expansion of the once-solitary Ulan mine, the nearby newish Wilpinjong mine and the multiple-mine complex at Moolarben. At Cobbora and Laheys Creek, near Dunedoo, $17 million has been spent in land buy-ups by the state-owned Macquarie Generation before any coal exploration licences have been issued, so confident is the company of getting mines approved where and when they want.

Most of this development is yet to come, and many in the Mudgee district have taken the bait: jobs and prosperity. Sadly, I see the region's future in the mid-upper Hunter's ruined present.

The majority of local people won't see the need to make a fuss until it's too late.

They'll listen when you say that already small schools near mines, like Wollar near Wilpinjong, have to be supplied with bottled water because the tank water now has such high concentrations of lead. They can see that's tacit government acknowledgment of a problem – but they can't quite believe the mines can be doing this when they have to meet all those ‘strict environmental guidelines'.

I could tell them that these get altered after approval, to suit the mine's economic needs, not the environment's, that Moolarben was up to the fifth modification of its consent conditions for Stage One. But they'd think I was just a cynical greenie trying to stop progress.

It'll take a while for them to see that the jobs are mostly not for 
locals, that unemployment is still high, that twelve– to fourteen-hour shifts are no fun anyway, that the money's not near enough for that nor the fact that shiftwork miners lose touch with their families, often lose them altogether.

They'll grumble if they have no water irrigation allotment in the drought or they're not allowed to wash the car on town water, yet a mine like Moolarben uses millions of litres a day to wash the coal.

They might care when the deservedly famous sandstone cliff face at The Drip in the Goulburn River gorge collapses, or their favourite swimming and picnic spots nearby are polluted with mine discharge.

They will care if Uncle Joe's farm, in the family for generations, has to pack it in because the creek's too polluted or saline for pastures or for stock, or disappears entirely when the long-wall mine goes under it. As the Bowman family had to when Bowmans Creek in the Hunter did.

Once upon a time I too believed that government was there for the good of the people. I abhorred politics, yet I was driven beyond minding my own business, writing and living sustainably in my solar-powered cabin, as I watched with disbelief while the excessive number and scale of open-cut coal mines devastated that part of the Hunter Valley.

In my naiveté, I wondered why the government was allowing it. They mustn't have realised the overall disaster they were creating as they approved each individual mine; someone should tell them it had gone way too far and had to stop. So, about eight years ago, not long after my first granddaughter was born, I began to do just that.

And as my file of patronising ministerial replies full of empty assurances grew, I realised the government didn't want to know about the effects of their resources policy – their ‘quarry vision', as Guy Pearse so aptly said – on places and people, that they operated in a paper world; and against all my innate faith in humanity, I began to accept that some of the most important pieces of paper in politics were not research documents but cheques.

The advertising supplement for the 2008 Singleton Mining and Industry Expo proclaimed: ‘Open-cut coalmining occupies much of the open space between Singleton and Muswellbrook.' These towns are about fifty kilometres apart, and the statement is correct, but it shocks me that the industry has no concept that this is not cause for pride but for shame, for admitting that the region has been so exploited by coalmining.

In old pre-mechanised days mining was a secret honeycombing, and men brought only the coal, not the entire underground, up to the light. Now even the underground mines are excessive, as long-wall continuous mining machines extract coal by cutting tunnels 250 to 300 metres wide, with the roof above collapsing into the void after the machine has moved on, frequently causing such surface subsidence that cliffs collapse and rocky riverbeds crack open and the water disappears or bubbles with noxious gases from below.

In the Hunter most mines are open-cut, each creating thousands of hectares of disturbance, with vast stepped holes, toxic lakes and mountains of grey chitter crawling with huge yellow dump trucks like Tonkas on steroids. Giant excavators scalp the valley of its biodiversity, turn it upside down and inside out to get the coal, spew up their leftovers as artificial hills when they have eaten their target prey, and move on to the next piece of pastoral innocence. Their underlings come behind and insult the great complexity of Nature by seeding grass and planting rows of trees of several species – see, it's as good as new! But they only bother where passers-by can see. The view from a plane tells the real story.

Coal-affected communities know that the so-called luck flows only one way: out of their region, and mostly out of the country. They'd like to see a fraction of those much-mooted royalties spent locally to help them survive now and into the future, to coal-proof them. Yet our governments give coal companies far more than the companies give back; the diesel rebate alone exceeds the royalties. This is the same federal rebate that farmers get for off-road vehicles, but their machinery is not giant-sized and does not run night and day, and I have yet to hear a farmer announce billions of dollars in annual profit.

Our resources boom no longer depends on picks and shovels and manpower, but on fossil fuels. Just one of those dump trucks uses more than 2,500 litres of diesel every twenty-four hours. I don't hear locals saying about the coal companies, as they do about farmers, ‘Ah well, poor buggers are doing it tough; they need all the help they can get.'

The joke is on the people of the Hunter, and eventually, on the governments who perpetuate it. The laughter is heard only in the boardrooms of those who benefit – and it's mostly far-off laughter, ever more so as China's interests here expand.

My whole family history since 1830 runs through the Hunter Valley; I belong here. But if the resources companies continue to run our governments' policies, I may have to give up on the Hunter, and find somewhere that is my kind of lucky: lucky enough to be left in its natural state, or with such low-scale, balanced development that humans – or even dwarves – can make a living, but with no possibility of billions for giants.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review