Whatever you may be doing as you read this, take a moment to focus on your breath - the simple act of breathing in fresh air and then exhaling. Then think for a moment of the all the people who work in conditions where clean air is nowhere to be found. Think especially of the miners working deep in the earth, extracting minerals which benefit us all.
I often wonder what compels people to choose work in such dire conditions. For many, it's the only work available. For others, it's just what they know. Here is a passage, quoted in a lovely essay by Colin Nicholson, from one of my very favorite writers, Alistair MacLeod of Cape Breton Island, Canada (whose books Island and No Great Mischief are simply wonderful). MacLeod's family emigrated from the Scottish highlands in the late 1700s and found work in the Canadian mines:
Once you start it takes a hold of you, once you drink underground water, you will always come back to drink some more. The water gets into your blood. It is in all of our blood. We have been working in the mines here since 1873.
Here he describes a young boy in his first working day underground:
And there was scarcely thirty-six inches of headroom where we sprawled, my father shovelling over his shoulder like the machine he had almost become while I tried to do what I was told and to be unafraid of the roof coming in or of the rats that brushed my face, or of the water that numbed my legs, my stomach, and my testicles or of the fact that at times I could not breathe because the powder-heavy air was so foul and had been breathed before.
I am haunted this morning by the thought of 25 miners in West Virginia, whose last breaths were taken 1000 feet below the earth's surface. For each, there was a first terrifying day in the mines, perhaps following their grandfathers, fathers or uncles into tunnels deep below the surface. Over time, the terror receded, followed by the grim routine of working in the dark and breathing powder-heavy air that had been breathed before.
In the coming weeks, there will be many questions about mine safety, company policies and procedures, and survival benefits for the families. But today, there is simply the hope that the bodies can be recovered and brought one last time to the earth's surface. In a concluding irony, the final resting place for these men will be far above the chambers where they worked and where they died.