Thursday, December 29, 2005

Coal Trained

Slightly overworked the very week, between Christmas and New Year’s, when it’s time to take a break; filling in, our friend L.D. Amabed Jr., from his Life on 200 Words a Day column at the Notebooks’ home site:

Visiting a coal mine some years ago I was handed a “coal products tree,” one of those industry promotions that show how coal’s derivatives branch into innumerable benefits. The drawing is of a stately tree, many limbed and with tiny tags for leaves. Each tag is coal’s photosynthesis of an everyday product: From coal, you get jasmine oil, perfume, “airplane dope” (not the hashish kind but the lacquer), almond flavor, tobacco seasoning, sugar substitute, rubber stamp ink, blue dyes, malachite green, food preservatives, radio parts, “indelible pencils,” artificial silks, wall paper color, soda water, baking powder, blue gas, and so on down a leafy list of ordinary wonders. Even if instinct suggests that some of these benefits are exaggerated, they impress. But coal is always countering its begrimed reputation with almond-flavored uppers. In a child’s hands the drawing is designed to stoke lifelong affection for the stuff. It shouldn’t be so difficult when coal’s automatic association with trains and trains’ automatic association with romance should automatically give coal the inside track to most hearts, the way radioactive fuel rods or oil sloshing in supertankers never could. So why coal’s persistent foulness when clean air acts have replaced Dickens's gardgrind skies and coal fields quit inspiring wars? Appalachia’s mongered landscape of lopped off mountains, buried streams, poisoned ponds, damned up hollows and damning inhabitants suggest an answer. Rape is less evocative than the foggy whistle of a coal train.