My Nana’s dad, Grandad Tom, was a miner in Maesteg, in the Valleys, Wales. My Grandma’s dad a miner in Mexborough, Up North, as we say, in a funny Northern accent. I can mimic a Yorkshire accent without mocking because I had one so broad that when I was seven and moved to London I had to change schools within two weeks because my teacher couldn’t understand the long, cheerful vowels of my Yorkshirish.
My mum grew up in the Valleys, along the road from the mine Grandad Tom tunnelled into. But her dad, my bottomlessly jolly Grandad Derrick, wasn’t a miner but a minister to the miners, a chaplain. My mum’s family lived and worked in the village below Aberfan at the time of the huge slip that poured slurry into the school, unspeakable tragedy.
My mum and Aunty and Uncle went to another school, but the sorrow soaked into their lives, seeped through the Valleys. My Grandad stayed up for three days and three nights, laying out the bodies in the church hall. 116 children and 28 adults.
My parents became ministers and years after Aberfan, found themselves embedded in the mining communities closer to my other Great, Great Grandad. My sister and I were toddlers during the Miner’s Strikes, our nursery rhymes were chants about putting Maggie Thatcher in the bin.
So it is that for much of my life, the word “miner” has felt like mine; part of my heritage, my family, the people I stand with. And yet, this week, when I took my daughters for a foraging walk in town (we’d heard there were whole hedges of enormous, juicy feijoas and great trees scattering walnuts) my youngest clung to my legs and wouldn’t walk. She was afraid. “The miners are gonna grab me, take me away.” The walk was around the rim of Waihi’s Martha Mine, the fruit trees are those left over from the backyards of the houses demolished as a small mountain was scooped away into a huge gaping hole.
“Miner’s aren’t bad people, my love. They can be nice! Like my two great, great Grandads and my old next door neighbours. The companies they work for tend to not be very nice…”
It’s a subtlety lost. The anti-mining protests and the slogan-writing sessions we’ve been involved with have left their mark. In trying to help my family understand why I cared so much, I’d once described mining as modern day privateering, pillaging for gold. My daughters were left with sense that miners had hooks and fiercesome facial hair. And that they wanted to kidnap young children whilst they were busy licking feijoa from their fingers.
You see, we live now in New Zealand, at the base of a mountain, Mount Karangahake, the northern peak of a blanket of mountains, the brood of ancient volcanic release.
When you climb it, 5 hours there and back from our gate, Tim and I did it to celebrate ten years of marriage, you have to stick to the path in case you fall down a mining shaft. The whole thing is like honeycomb, riddled with tunnels from which some made a fortune back in the 1880s.
This holey mountain is not mine in the way that it is anothers, a more indigenous people’s. But I belong to it as I belong to every part of the earth. Something of its dirt is in my bones, these days it is stirring from a lifelong dormancy.
At one recent protest to protect Mount Karangahake from the fate of Mount Waihihi a representative of the local Iwi spoke of how his ancestors would be down at the river, the Ohinemuri, swimming, washing and fishing, and a bell would ring and they’d all climb out. With a huge gush the miners would empty their tunnels into the river and the water would turn black with mercury and cyanide and they’d wait until it seemed clear enough before carrying on with the day to day tasks their village had been going about for a thousand years.
(Even today, one of our neighbours tells us that one of the ponds up there can’t be fished because the water is still so toxic.)
He spoke with anger that a mountain so honoured, and these days so officially part of conservation land, has been handed over again to goldspinners. He reminded us that the Martha Mine was also once a sacred mount, source of life for Maori. And now it is a gash that makes your jaw drop when you view it on Google Maps.
(A government website describes Waihi in 1884, just before the first mine was established as “a bare knoll with a nearby hotel.” The government, since forever, forsaking the truth of a place.)
Tim’s great, great, great, great Grandad and his brother were some of the first to discover gold in these hills. Sons of Mere Tipona, Maori boys in Victorian waistcoats, reaping in colonial ways.
But perhaps it wasn’t such brazen desecration back then. Or perhaps it is simply that the ends justify the means. Loving hearts, destructive hands. Then and now.
I’ve been at an anti-mining strategy meeting where another young Maori man has clenched his fists and spoken of the betrayal of elite Maori who gave permission to the government to sell the mountain’s innards all over again.
It is hard to believe there can be anything left, but we’ve seen the massive graceless drilling machines that they’ve just rolled up the Gorge and we’ve read the District Council’s approval for the mining company’s traffic management plan. They mean business.
Of course there are Maori for the mining. For Maori, it is people that trump all else, and they’ve been hammered with the vision of more jobs – if mining means their people can make ends meet than of course they must welcome it.
And then there are Maori who see that no one can thrive when the land under your feet is being torn apart. The local iwi vow to stand by the mountain.
The whole town is divided down these lines.
One half hoping beyond hope that the slit spewing into the river, the sink holes in the netball courts, the cracks in the pavement, the noon explosions, the collapsed houses, the open sore, the weekly evacuation siren tests, that it will be worth it for their families, in the long run. That they will get a taste of the wealth. This in a region where joblessness hovers as tangibly as the North Winds it is named for, where literally as I type here in the library a couple next to me discuss the redundancy package the supermarket has just offered them.
The other half believing that, even in this landscape, they can protect what has been entrusted to them.
As I stood on the rim of the Martha Mine, one tiny daughter still clutching my skirt to her face, fear set in her bones, the other daughter biting the tops off the feijoas and sucking out the middle, I felt myself a kind of leaden terror.
At 5am that morning, seven hours before, there had been a slip – two million tonnes of rock roared down the northern side of the open pit. Chunks as big as houses, obliterating the pathways carved into the sides, upon which we’ve previously watched small trucks glide along.
A laminated sign had been pinned to the fence “this slip was not unexpected” – their monitoring supposed to assuage a sense of wrongness.
The week it becomes clear that mining in the area will continue with fervour, that drills will burrow unabashedly into one of New Zealand’ most important ecological corridors, the earth heaves and a quarter of the local pit collapses.
Maori folklore depicts the mountains here as warriors, fighting for kingdoms and creating rivers from their restlessness.
That morning a warrior, body broken, spits in anger.
The spill can’t go far, only back into its wrathful, dying mouth.
We climbed into the car, drove back to Mount Karangahake, a few miles along the Ohinemuri, the girls with a small pile of feijoas on their laps.
No walnuts though. They were black on the outside and black on the inside. When you squeezed them between the heels of your palms they exploded into a cloud of black dust.
I am thankful to the Craftivist Collective for providing a way to take action on an issue that can be done in the slowness of my life, that can sit amongst the song of the trees. This cross stitch is on the path up the mountain and I hope it makes people wonder – could they possibly be gold mining this conservation land?