19-01-2022 image

sprouts from spoils

In the South Wales uplands, walking through grasslands filled with vividly green growth springing from a humid and rainful climate, rock-faces shaped by the winds and weather, and cairns from times long past. Making my way in between the mosaic habitats of heathlands filled with assortments of heather and crowberry. Passing through a woodland, then altering the route to avoid a bog filled with peatmoss. Weaving through the lush green fields only to stop dead in my tracks. In front lies a heap of allusions to our past and present relationship with the environment. In front, breaking the organic, rolling hills, stands a reaching, geometrically sharp, cone-shaped mound of coal-black soil.

Coal spoil near Neath Port Talbot, Wales. © Alan Hughes , 2015. cc-by-sa/2.0

It feels alien. It’s color announcing its strangeness, its slopes’ bare soil and uncanny straightness in such obvious contrast to the overgrowth around it. I have stumbled upon a coal spoil, one of many to be found in Wales, the UK, and around the world.

The presence of spoils and waste are inextricably linked to the life and landscapes of humankind. Most of us are used to the presence of waste in some form. What unites the diverse plethora of different types, shapes, and media of materials as waste seems to be it’s designation as the lost for want: something undesired by all, refuse destined to be sent somewhere out of sight. Sites which host our waste are full of things intimate to us, but often alien to the site’s locality. Soaking up the symbolisms attached to discarded materials from near and far, past and present, the places are shaped. By human hands. The tale of the coal spoil is one of technology and industrialisation, of power and empire, centres and peripheries. This spoil was created in the late 19th century and is made of materials excavated as part of the building and running of mines. Though the coal spoils found in South Wales are of varying age, most are from the coal boom of the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Their continued presence reveals century-old externalities of the early fossil economy. Coming into being as a side-effect of coal mining, this soil, dug up from below, was deemed useless and left near excavation points. Today, they are some of the most visible remains of the coal mining activities which transformed relationships on environmental, social, and political scales.

The coal spoil is a characteristic example of a landscape-turned-wasteland. The almost black, characteristic, cone-like heaps of soil removed during coal mining activities dot many parts of the British landscape. Their dark tone, in such visual tension with the green landscape, hint at the potency of human disturbance. To many, the coal black colour of the coal spoil symbolises the coming of waste at profoundly new levels of scale. The colour of the spoils harkens back to the toxic, victorian, industrial landscapes of the 19th century and has to some become an aesthetic marker of waste.

In a country like Britain, coal black has been a part of the landscape for centuries. Coal mining was tightly knit to the birth of industry and drove the development of empire for centuries. Going around the country today, the implications of this development are visible in abandoned mine shafts, ruins, and other remnants of activity haunting the landscape. Heaps of spoil higher than any anthill mark the landscape as touched — by human hands, by development. The result of this touch can be seen today as an unwilding. The existence of the black coal piles marks the landscape as disturbed, they locate the wasteland.

For many, the coal black soil of the spoils will be the darkest coloured soil they will ever see. It’s darkness and sheen making it feel more like galactic space dust than a local material and likely co-habitant of the green, rolling hills amongst which many spoils are found. A material symbolising the alienation industrialisation brought. A monument to the impossibility of transition. Showing how the very seeds of our current climate crisis are found in centuries old spoil mounds. We can choose to stick to this narrative. To see the waste mounds as emissaries of doom. Harbingers of an environmental crisis in which humans can only be the antagonist.

Yet, that would be like casting a troupe of actors only based on the stories we have heard about them. There is more to most things than what is passed along the viral channels of media networks. Acting on impulse and pre-conviction is not what will enable us to navigate unfolding, transforming worlds.

Perhaps it is okay to slow down, to try and sit with the spoil upon our encounter. Without giving in to first impressions. To stop treating it as a place from which to get away or hide from view, but as part of a larger ecology. What might happen if one were to sit with the spoil, not just once but time after time?

Perhaps it would enable us to cast other perspectives, to point, not towards destruction, but towards regeneration. Not in an attempt to reject the history of mining, industrialisation, or the fossil paradigm’s contribution to our current plight. Or to cast into doubt the absolute urgency of transition away from the fossil paradigm. Not to close our eyes to what we see now but to perceive something more.

There are entire worlds to be found on and in spoils which go unseen if we see the them as being only wastelands. Sitting with the spoil it becomes clear that spoils are anything but barren. The coal spoils of Wales, rather than supporting the story of landscapes as either wilderness or wasteland, might be the very phenomenon proving that natural abundance and disturbance can co-occur. It carries with it the potential to inspire us in this time of crisis by showing that flourishing worlds can rise out of disturbed landscapes touched by humans and that we, too, carry within us the potential for flourishing as part of, rather than apart from, natural ecologies.

What worlds might be seen when we sit with the coal spoil? Liam Olds, an entomologist who founded the Colliery Spoil Biodiversity Initiative, has been documenting how spoils in South Wales today act as refuge for wildlife. He shows how spoils are highly diverse landscapes home to vast flowering fields, meadows, marshland, young forest. The spoils are sites of natural abundance not because of the absence of humans, though that does have a noticeable effect, but due to the soil composition as well. The conic shape of the spoils give rise to kaleidoscopes of micro climates. The collage of overgrowth and uncovered soil creating conditions for select communities of insects to prosper. These kinds of stories bring into question some established narratives about what coal spoils are at their core. They probe reorientation as to what their futures might be. If coal spoils should not just be understood as wastelands, what could they be seen as?

There are plenty of examples of soil of this or a similar colour signifying regeneration. Coal-black soil has historically been created by communities all over the world by mixing charcoal with local soil to create resilient, rich soils. Like coal spoils, these soils are also among the darkest soils, but unlike coal spoils, these soils are known for their unique fertility, high levels of micro organic activity, and regenerative capacity. The charcoal contents of these soils are what breathe regenerative potentials into the soil . Like seeds, the charcoal pieces imbue the land.

One could also consider ash as a material whose colour is often associated with coal black. Burnt landscapes and ash come into existence through intense disruption. Burnt landscapes have in dominant western narratives historically been seen as a symbol of doom. Yet as soon as ash from forest fires settles, new life burst fourth from the ground. We can choose to try and expand the story of what coal spoils are. Expanding our perspectives on what coal spoils are is not just about nurturing a better understanding of these complicated entities. It is ultimately about acknowledging the presence of things in relationship to ecologies and resisting, however briefly, the temptation to divide and segment. Coal spoils have to exist as a means of acknowledging environmental ruin, but seeing them also as sites of hope and reclamation might just, in the faintest of ways, point towards the light. Towards faint potential for human and non-human co-presence and abundance. It requires little effort to buy into the predominant view of coilery spoils, the waste piles left behind by coal mining activities, as wastelands, manifestations of the darkest days of the earth, a symbol describing the dark pit of a predicament humanity finds itself in in the face of environmental ruin. But we don’t have to see only wastelands. In fact, our future might even depend on seeing something more.