The Future of the Past: the Carboniferous & Ecological Poetics

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“The earth under our feet—We are not asked to begin nowhere.”—George Oppen


In one of the beginnings, below the fluff and leaf-encrusted surface of a wide, shallow body of water, microscopic spores swirl with bat-winged algae. A cloudy soup of exertions and excretions, the sea drizzles its grit into rich mud.

Trilobites are dying off. (Miles Davis could have been quoting nature when he said, “I listen to what I can leave out.”) Brachiopods, mollusks, and corals cluster in wide, shallow seas riven by sharks. Thick fish with lungs and lobes are giving way to a new species, the lung reconfigured as a swim bladder. Like surreal, underwater candelabra, crinoids effloresce; on long branching stems they stretch up toward the waves, each arm filtering small animals and plants into the calyx where a mouth is hidden.

Aquatic insects begin leaping from the water to escape fish. In some, the gill plates take on the quality of wings. (Donde una puerta cierra, otra se abre, Cervantes writes: where one door closes, another opens). The Carboniferous gives rise to six-winged insects. They need compound eyes for navigation. There are bugs that would look ordinary to us and there are giants, huge mayflies and predatory dragonflies with thirty-inch wingspans. They hover over bouquet-size spiders and a sort of millipede that grows five feet long.

Because there are no flowers, the insects are plant suckers and spore-feeders; they eat seeds still unprotected by fruit and they eat each other. They live in burrow holes and on the forest floor and they colonize tree crowns. They jump, crawl, and soar into and out of the canopy.

Below, in the umbratile interval between one step and another, a tetrapod resembling a large newt freezes and blinks into the sound of the world, the chirp and whirr of insects and the high frequency mutter of its own species. Fronds brush fronds in a light breeze. (And what, eons later, does the Kreutzer Sonata, which Tolstoy deems dangerous for its capacity to arouse erotic feelings, what does that music have over this sound?) The animal blinks again, its hydraulic limbs holding it above smudged tracks that mark where others of its kind mated, their mouths popping, cheek muscles bulging. Five tumescent digits on each foot channel ground vibrations into neural impulses. It takes stock and goes on. (“I am still alive then. That may come in useful,” Beckett’s Molloy quips).

The air is rich with the smell of chlorophyll; oxygen levels are spiked. There are no flowers, no pollens, no vivid plant colors. There are no grasses, but vegetation is beginning to climb slopes, reducing run-off and erosion. The first mosses have appeared.

Conifers and tree ferns fifty feet high tower over swamps of horsetails. Because temperature and humidity hold steady, the trees rise so quickly they lack clear growth rings. Ferns luxuriate across wetlands: Dragonfly Seed ferns, rhizomatic ferns, ferns spoked like the dorsal fin of a swordfish, each loosing into the air millions of spores coated with oil and chlorophyll. Every plant on earth releasing oxygen, but taking carbon with it to its grave.

In the Carboniferous, the graves are considerable. At the end of their life cycles, plants topple into the water and mud and loam. They accumulate so quickly, they don’t have time to decay. Branches, seeds, leaves and debris fall into pools already thick with aquatic plants and algal blooms. The buried mass goes brown and peaty under an ever-increasing load.

Beneath hundreds of thousands of meters of overlying rot, the peat beds contract like a frog’s iris into thin, horizontal lines. Water, oxygen, and hydrogen are pressed out. The organics harden into lignite. While the swampy basin continues to subside, heat and intensifying pressure metamorphose the lignite into soft coal. (Inger Christensen writes, “the darkness is white, but not/white like the white that existed/when . . . trees existed”.) Spheroidal masses of minerals like calcite and fool’s gold bind and clot in the seams.

(The Romans pass along a word, conticinium, for the nighttime hour when the world goes quiet. The Carboniferous collapses into a night that goes quiet for 300 million years. When we pick up a piece of coal, it is the fossil residue of photosynthesis, a condensation of Paleozoic sunlight that we hold in our hands.)

As soon as humans enter the picture, the story speeds up. Four thousand years ago, the Welch ignite funeral pyres with coal. In 1673, two Frenchmen document coal beds in Illinois. But not until the 19th century industrial revolution is coal assiduously mined. Shafts are drilled into coal seams; rooms, pillared with timber, are excavated. In dusty lamplight, miners break down the coal-face with a hand auger, a pickaxe, and blasting powder. In every cubic meter of air they breathe, four to eight billion dust particles circulate. Once a day, the fire boss comes through with a safety light and checks for gas.

From before the Civil War to the mid-20th century, men separate coal from shale and rock binder, and they shovel the coal into loading cars by hand. Billions of tons are heaved and cleared from mines by human muscle. Chinese workers arrive in the U.S. and help lay rails for coal-fired locomotives. Jimmy Rogers records “The Singing Brake Man”.

At full throttle, technologies advance: undercutting machines, roof bolting, ventilation, mechanized loading, conveyor systems, strip mining, and then, about three decades ago, mountain top removal mining. In West Virginia alone, more than 350,000 acres of forested mountains are lopped off and 1,200 miles of streams are buried. The overburden or leftover rock fills adjacent valleys. One of the byproducts of excavation is slurry, a pool of chemical waste and toxic metals. Post-excavation byproducts like ash and poisonous gases are released in the next phase: the burning of coal in power plants.

Because most coal contains pyrite, ferrous sulfide, combustion releases sulfur gas. Sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, and mercury, all toxic, plume into the air. And so, of course, does carbon dioxide. Isotopic fingerprinting of carbon in the atmosphere links it directly to the burning of fossil fuels. Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel, producing twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas. CO2 in the air, its density increasing 200 times faster than ever before, captures reflected heat and holds it to the face of the planet like a pillow. Meanwhile, some of the sulfur dioxide precipitates out of the skies as acid rain; the mercury finds its way to the ocean.

By the end of the 21st century, a mere three hundred years after coal was first intensively mined, a vast amount of the carbon that accumulated underground for over three hundred million years will have been released into the atmosphere. The relation between those two sets of numbers, three hundred and three hundred million, represents six orders of magnitude.

In the United States, power consumption from coal will probably rise 1.9 percent per year through 2030, faster than energy consumption from petroleum and natural gas combined. There are over 400 coal-fired plants in the United States and at least 114 more plants under construction. In China, where more than 6,000 men died in mines in 2004, where coal seams in the north hiss in unstoppable fires started by small-scale mining operators, and where the deserts are yawning wider at an alarming rate, coal is powering unprecedented industrialization. Some scientists estimate that coal will provide half the world’s energy by the year 2100. A hundred years after that, all the exploitable reserves of coal in the earth with be exhausted.


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A poem, even excavated from its context and the time of its writing, is a curiously renewable form of energy. It’s hard to be sure whether it is from the future or the past that the poet Henry Vaughan writes: “They are all gone into the world of light/ And I alone sit ling’ring here.”