From the Library Company of Philadelphia, T. Woodworth trade card ca. 1880.
Certain terrestrial materials resonate more intensely in the environment than others. They populate our myths, our histories and our imaginations - mountains, glaciers, standing stones, bodies of water, trees, coal and gold, to name some. They spark wonder, awe, fright, or reverence. They move us with their beauty. Their arc of existence through millennia, eras and epochs, is humbling.
Both glacial ice and coal are super-charged with significance, especially in the way they have been drawn together through human activity over the past 300 years.
Coal’s carbon goes airborne when burned, in CO2 and soot, aka black carbon. Both materials interact with the glacier. Soot on ice darkens the planet and carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere, both contribute to creating a warmer planet where glaciers cannot exist. These material interactions imbue coal and ice with existential meaning.
A glacier on the horizon appears mysterious, ancient, fearsome, beautiful. A powerful object in its sheer materiality, glacier’s presence in the landscape commands attention and respect. She carries stories and stones from the past, gives place to memory and ritual, carves valleys and spews catastrophic floods. The glacier’s form chronicles geological cycles of creation and disintegration, and embodies the passage of time. Until very recently, the word glacier signified slow, imperceptible movement and eternal cold. Now glaciers rampage.
Through melt-water and icebergs, the glacier announces its dissolution, and points to an iceless future.
By creating melt-water and icebergs, the glacier announces its dissolution.
A drawing from Iceland. Jokulhlaup, 2016. Graphite, 25” x 38”
Much will be lost. Trapped inside the hexagonal matrix of the ice crystal, materials like wind-blown ash and dust from the geologic past travel forward in time. Greenland’s glaciers catalogue 123,000 years of Earth’s history - a frozen glimpse of the mid-Cenozoic era. To breathe in a glacier’s vapor is to absorb the off-gassing of geologic time, as minute bubbles of ancient atmosphere fizz and pop into the 21st century.
Compared to coal, glaciers are newborn material. In the making for 300,000,000 years, a lump of coal physically connects us with the remains of organic matter from the Paleozoic era. Like the glacier that effervesces ancient atmosphere when exposed to air, the coal bed off-gasses the byproducts of its transformation. These gasses, carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO), methane (CH4), aka damps, suffocate or poison lungful bodies, or kill by violent blast.
Coal is as dark as the glacier is light.
From peaty origins, coal slowly refines itself into lignite, then sub-bituminous coal, to bituminous and finally anthracite and graphite.
Graphene with room and pillar mines. 2019 carbon black, graphite, stencil, rubber stamp. 19” x 25”
94% carbon, anthracite is a rare and beautiful material - a dark mirror, dense, glassy, hexagonal and ordered. When nothing else is left but pure carbon, the once waterlogged remains of organic life is called graphite. At the molecular level, graphite is composed of slippery stacks of a two-dimensional nano material called graphene. Only one atom thick, the hexagonal mesh is invisible to the human eye, but through an electron microscope its materiality, brilliance, symmetry and scale strike awe. Equally astounding are fullerenes and buckminsterfullerenes, two related nano materials.
To stand inside a tunneled-out out coal vein in the anthracite fields of Pennsylvania is to witness coal-human entanglement first-hand.
Page from “Coal and other four letter words.” 2019, artist book, graphite and carbon black, hand stenciled, 6.5” x 13”. The stenciled shape is a room-and-pillar mine layout.
Coal is in us and of us.
We are peat, we are coal.
A piece from Ireland: Peat poem “IAMALLBOG”, 2018, hand stenciled carbon black acrylic, 25” x 19” The stenciled shapes are industrially produced peat briquettes, a fossil fuel.
Tunnels blasted through solid rock to reach veins of softer coal. Silica dust and powdered carbon settled deep inside miners’ lungs. The deep mine is an anti-human realm of silence, darkness, water and time. Over centuries, coal mining families sacrificed health and well-being. Hundreds of thousands of coal miners were exploited and maimed or killed. Yet the concept of workers’ rights and workers’ unions sprang up from their struggles. And still we dig.
Certain materials possess a kind of charisma that sparkles in the gap between self and other, human and non-human, animate and inanimate. Our curiosity lights up and causes us to stop, to observe, to learn, and the conceptual bubble that stands between self and nature grows porous and flexible. When we investigate with wonder, patience and humility, we connect with other materials, things and beings of the world.
Coal, glaciers and humans all move through time on vastly different cycles of generation and disintegration, and intersect, miraculously, in the here-and-now.
Thinking through coal and ice, and other Earth materials, helps us re-calibrate our own sense of belonging within the vast planetary system of which we are a part, and on which everything depends.
From the Library Company of Philadelphia, detail from “Map of the Mine Hill and Schuylkill Haven Rail Road and Branches”, Philadelphia, 1861.
Andrea Krupp, October, 2019.