In this essay on writing, mines, the president and the power of storytelling, Bellwether and Silver Nautilus award-winning author Gayle Brandeis uses a brief history of her life in mines to shine a light through the current administration’s coal miner narrative.
“Donald J. Trump made coal a centerpiece of his campaign, holding rousing rallies with miners in hard hats, who he said had been neglected under eight years of the Obama administration.”—from “A Bleak Outlook for Trump’s Promises to Coal Miners” by Clifford Krauss and Michael Corkery, New York Times, Nov. 19, 2016
Museum of Science and Industry, “Coal Mine” exhibit, Chicago, 1975
My first mine was the replica of a real one, the walls a plaster cast from a shuttered mine in Southern Illinois. The 1933 designers did whatever they could to make the museum exhibit feel authentic—the drop in temperature, the damp, mineral scent. They even hired retired miners to run all the equipment, a practice that continued into the ‘70s, when I was a girl.
The elevator that led down to the exhibit was called a “man cage,” and it did feel like a space for men, my girl body engaged in thrilling, terrifying trespass. The man cage dropped and dropped—600 feet, the tour guide told us, although later I learned it was only about a floor and a half; there was an unspoken sense of risk in this endeavor, a sense that things could cave in. Every time, the tour guide turned off the elevator light so we could experience the darkness of a real mine. Every time, I screamed.
Only a miner
“Only a miner. C’mon fellas, you split it up.”—President Trump, handing the pen he used during the signing ceremony for an executive order turning back EPA regulations to the miners standing behind him. It’s unclear how he expected them to divide the pen amongst themselves, just as it’s unclear how he expects to bring back their unsustainable jobs.
Salzbergwerk Dürrnberg, Hallein, Austria, 1982
To enter the salt mine, you don a white jumpsuit and straddle a long wooden slide. My family tucked against one another at the top, my sister’s back against my chest, mine against my mom’s, hers against my dad’s. We whooshed, screaming with joy, down wood polished by so many jumpsuit-clad bottoms into the cool belly of the mountain.
I was 13; my dad had turned a business trip to Europe into a five-week family vacation. I was as excited to visit the salt mine as I was to visit the Coliseum in Rome. Maybe even more so. One of my favorite treats was licking my palm, shaking salt all over it, then licking it off. I wondered if I could lick the walls.
It turned out I didn’t have to; salt was so heavy in the air, it coated my mouth with each delicious inhale. A small open train carried us through salt-crusted tunnels—we straddled it the way we straddled the slide, pressed belly to back. This train wasn’t called a “man trip” like the train in the coal mine exhibit in Chicago, a name I had misheard as “man trap” for many years. Man cage. Man trip. The coal mine was clearly a space for men, but the salt mine didn’t feel as manly, somehow; it was more womblike, friendly, its body briny as flesh.
I didn’t think about the work in this mine being grueling. It seemed like fun. Who else got to slide into their job? I thought of the dwarves in Snow White, whistling while they worked. I thought about riding the little mine cart through the Snow White attraction in Disneyland, entering a fake mine that sparkled with large, glowing gems. I was in a real mine now, but a real mine turned tourist attraction, filled with laughing people. As much a simulacrum as Disneyland, miners still more mythic than real.
Physical Demands include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Employee is required to crawl, kneel, bend and reach with hands and arms above their shoulders
- Must be able to lift and carry repetitively up to 75 lbs.
- Physically capable of repetitive movements like standing, shoveling and performing other types of physical work for extended periods of time.—GeoTemps Job Detail, Category: Mining/Environmental/Geoscience
Aside from motherhood, I’ve only had two jobs that required physical labor. In the first, I had to wipe bottoms and change sanitary napkins when I worked at a home for developmentally disabled adults, and occasionally wrestle one particular resident to the ground and sit on him if he threw a violent fit. This was a protocol I found deeply uncomfortable and verging on erotic, me straddling an out-of-control man. I also once took a college job doing gym maintenance, thinking it would help me deepen the movement studies I was obsessed with at the time, and got fired because I was more interested in dancing with my mops than using them to clean.
Now, the labor I do is emotional, mental, creative. This makes me “elite” in many eyes, including our president’s, even though my bank account is often overdrawn by the end of each month. I can definitely see ways in which I have been embarrassingly privileged in my life—I mean, I was dancing with a fucking mop when some people have to hold on to a mop for dear life. Some people have no choice but to put on a miner’s hat. I know I’m lucky to have an education, not to mention the fluke of geography and birth that gives me an abundance of choices. I know I’m lucky to only know mines as a tourist.
“The miners of West Virginia and Pennsylvania, which was so great to me last week, Ohio and all over are going to start to work again, believe me. They are going to be proud again to be miners.”—Donald Trump, during an April 2016 rally
Abandoned mine, San Bernardino Mountains, 1986
“I know a mine.” The resident director leaned against the doorway of my dorm room. “An abandoned mine up in the mountains.” He asked me and my roommate if we wanted to go up there with him, check it out, and because I wanted to be more adventurous in my life, I said yes.
I only had one warm coat, the only warm coat I had been able to find at the dinky mall in Redlands, CA, before I had taken a trip to the East Coast earlier that fall, a long, dark, gray coat made of a spongy, felted material, like the pelt of a skinned Muppet. It looked out of place in my closet full of hippie-chick peasant blouses and Indian-print wrap skirts, but I was glad to have it as we traveled the twisty mountain roads in the resident director’s pickup truck, our bodies jostling together on the bench seat as we broke through the inversion layer that spread a blanket of smog over the valley, up to the chill of higher altitudes.
It took a bit of trudging before we found the mine and all the DANGER and KEEP OUT signs around it. The shaft had either partially collapsed, or had always been a tight squeeze; we had to slide down the sloped entryway on our backs, the roof just a bit higher than our noses. I tried not to think about being buried alive—I knew many miners were; this felt coffin-like enough already. Eventually, we landed in a larger chamber, one where we could stand. The air was rank and stuffy, like a giant hamster cage, the ground mucky below our boots. I was grateful for the extra space, but still felt claustrophobic, the dark pressing in around me.
“What kind of mine is this?” I asked.
“Gold, I think,” the resident director said.
“Did they find any?” I asked.
He turned on a flashlight and shined it above us, as if to look for treasure. The roof of the mine was thick with bats, hundreds of bats hanging upside down above us. Some of them started to stir, to take to the air. We scrambled back up the narrow shaft, hands slipping on the slick ground, and broke back out into the air, gasping as if we had been underwater, my fancy coat ruined.
“A coal miner in West Virginia”
Coal miners are trotted out over and over again by our new administration. “When you start looking at places that we reduce spending, one of the questions we asked was can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs? The answer was no,” White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “We can ask them to pay for defense, and we will, but we can’t ask them to continue to pay for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.” As if coal miners don’t have children who want to watch “Wild Kratts” or “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.” As if coal miners care only about big, destructive machines.
My experience with mines is more symbolic than real, but so is the president’s. According to a Washington Post article, coal mines employ fewer people than Arby’s, fewer people than the retail shoe industry; bringing coal jobs back—which isn’t realistically going to happen, given our changing energy markets—wouldn’t increase the number of jobs available to U.S. workers in any significant way. Trump’s focus on miners feels no different from his pantomime of driving a big rig—it feels like his desire to reinforce tired stereotypes of masculinity, celebrate the (presumably white) “manly men” who he feels should still be our American ideal. A “man trip,” as it were.
Trump hasn’t always glorified miners. In a 1990 Playboy interview, he said “I like the challenge and tell the story of the coal miner’s son. The coal miner gets black lung disease, his son gets it, then his son. If I had been the son of a coal miner, I would have left the damn mines. But most people don’t have the imagination—or whatever—to leave their mine. They don’t have ‘it.’” Miners only developed “it” when they became politically expeditious for him.
Of course, there are real people, real communities, affected by the loss of mining jobs, but Trump’s depiction of miners is no less a fantasy than any metaphor I may use in my own work.
Ponderosa Saloon and Mine, Virginia City, NV, 2017
My husband’s cousin and his family came to visit us from Denmark, and we decided to visit Virginia City, a historic mining town about an hour from our home. The only mine open for tours in the winter is one you can access through the Ponderosa Saloon. When it was time for our tour, the guide opened a door a few feet away from the barstools that led directly into the Best and Belcher mine. A few decades ago, the owners of the saloon, a former bank, realized the shuttered mine was in the hill directly behind their 1864 building and dug a tunnel straight into the shaft. The guide led us inside the musty space and offered us hard hats to protect us from the low wooden beams.
This mine is a drift mine, he told us, meaning the tunnels horizontally follow the vein of ore. We drifted along behind him, past a display of rocks that glowed in neon colors when he turned off the lights, past a rusted mine cart in an alcove, to an area beneath a “raise”—a vertical shaft that reached to the surface, six stories up, and allowed ventilation.
He told us the miners didn’t know what they had found at first—they were looking for gold, but a heavy bluish clay kept clinging to all their equipment; eventually someone had it assayed and they discovered it was silver. They had unexpectedly tapped into the largest lode of silver in the country. My writer mind kicked in, as it does.
I’m certainly not the first writer to equate the creative process with mining—it is a bit of a cliche at this point, in fact—but that doesn’t make it any less true. As writers, we do dig inside ourselves. Sometimes, we find something sparkling there. Sometimes, we find heavy blue clay that holds something valuable inside if we work with it long enough. Sometimes, the process feels treacherous, like our own walls are going to cave in. Sometimes, we emerge gasping.
Coal miners are hallowed for their courage. Writing takes a different kind of chutzpah, but chutzpah is required, nonetheless.
I think back to the abandoned mine I entered in college. After we stumbled onto the dirt road, my fancy coat smeared with a pungent orange mix of mud and guano, a truck pulled up. A large bearded man stormed from the cab, brandishing a gun.
“Run!” the resident director yelled to me and my roommate. I didn’t think—I just took off. My legs were wobbly already from the bats, the claustrophobia; they barely held me up as I followed my roommate down the rutted dirt while the resident director stayed behind to deal with the gunman. My roommate and I ended up clinging to the side of the mountain on our bellies, bodies pressed to the slanted ground, hearts racing against pebbles and pine needles, until the resident director came to fetch us. He had given the guy, whose property we had trespassed upon, some weed to chill him out.
I had wanted an adventure, but this wasn’t what I had in mind. Sure, it had been exciting in a terrifying kind of way, but I was just following other people’s lead, following my resident director into the mine, following my roommate to safety. I knew I needed to find adventure that was coming from me, adventure that was truly mine. I realized I had it already: writing. Writing can be the most thrilling adventure of all, at least for this canary.
Our administration doesn’t value writing, does everything it can to discredit it—calling the press “the enemy of the people,” cutting arts and humanities funding. They want to be in charge of the narrative, to use their metaphors of noble, forgotten miners to control our national story. It’s up to those who do a different kind of mining to keep their story in check, to find metaphors that can resist and disrupt theirs. It’s time for us to dig deep.
Gayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne) and the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins)—which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement—Self Storage (Ballantine), Delta Girls (Ballantine), and My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt Books for Young Readers), which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a statewide read in Wisconsin. Two books are forthcoming in 2017, a memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide (Beacon Press), and a collection of poetry, The Selfless Bliss of the Body (Finishing Line Press). Her poetry, essays and short fiction have appeared in such places as The Rumpus, Salon and The San Francisco Chronicle, and have received many honors, including a Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Award and a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2016. She currently teaches for the low residency MFA programs at Sierra Nevada College and Antioch University, Los Angeles.
Image: “Creepy Coal Mine” by Kurtis Garbutt