The raven and the coal mine

Whitehaven, Cumbria, September 2023

Helen Baczkowska

A solitary raven has flown over my tent every morning this week. Most days I have heard the prrr-ruk call before seeing the bird’s silhouette, with its fingered wings and wedge-shaped tail. Below the raven, my green tent nestles on waste ground between a housing estate and red-brown rocks that tumble down the sea. This week I am one of maybe two hundred environmental activists squatting land where England’s newest coal mine for decades is planned. A selection of banners, reading ‘leave it in the ground’ and ‘no new fossil fuels’, hang from the edges of our marquees, from the outdoor kitchen and the portable, composting toilets we have erected.

When I arrived, I was warned not to eat the blackberries that grow across the site. Underneath us are the foundations of a chemical works and years of landfill, covered over with concrete and topsoil. The brambles look innocent enough, scrambling across the broken tarmac and cement, but the plants can reach their roots deep down into whatever lies beneath us and draw up the long-buried toxins. Above ground, the tangled stems mingle with low bushes of goat willow, thistle-like flowers of knapweed, drifts of white yarrow, purple selfheal, zig-zag clover, feral sedums and garden mint that scents the air. A comma, orange wings against the green plants, is one of the last of this summer’s butterflies and searches for nectar among the flowers. Someone tells me there are adders here and at night I hear tawny owls calling across the derelict ground.

The land is supposed to be private, but the fencing has been ripped open or rusted into holes and the remains of gate hinges swing empty on their posts. In the evenings, local men and occasionally women walk their dogs among the bushes. Those who stop to chat are friendly, but say that the nearby town of Whitehaven needs the five hundred or so jobs that the coal mine will bring. On the main street there are boarded up shops and, mounted on a plinth like a memorial, an old wheel from the Haig colliery tower. When it closed in 1986, three and a half thousand jobs were shut down with it. I tell the men I understand and that I grew up in mining communities in the English Midlands. As we talk I remember how fifty or more riot vans at a time would line up on our village street on their way to the picket lines. The men of my mum’s family had been miners, I say, with blue-black grit engrained in the scars on their hands. Mum spoke of ancestors killed in underground fires and the dark coal dust her Grampa coughed up in his old age. During the Strike, boxes of food and children’s clothing would be piled on our kitchen floor on the way to the Miner’s Welfare. I left home a year later, returning to see poverty creeping into the villages and towns, shutting down the shops and changing the way people walked. Unemployment has a listless shuffle, mingled with a kicking rage. My conversations with the dog walkers end with agreements, usually as I bend to gently tug a dog’s soft ear – yes, there should have been investment into these communities decades ago and, yes again, the current government is a shambles. I am trying to build bridges with the community that we have set up camp in, so I don’t mention what I am thinking. In a time of rising temperatures and seas, with accelerating rates of extinction, our current worries might soon be completely eclipsed.

One afternoon there is a presentation about the proposed pit. The speakers are in a white marquee and we sit around them on the ground. There is a long discussion on how extracting this coal will ruin Britain’s commitments on carbon reduction and how the site will be fully automated, with no men underground, just machines, boring away beneath the sea bed. The world has moved on since the Haig pit was closed. The old days of the rattling winding gear and the pit-head camaraderie are just memories now and will never come back. When I left the marquee, a warm smell of spices drifted across the camp. The evening meal would be served soon and already people were gathering with bowls and spoons in their hands. I wandered off, looking across the low bushes, grassland and decaying tarmac towards the sea. In this moment, I felt a sudden sadness for this unkempt place, where the wildness is creeping in and local people walk. The speakers in the marquee had said that the toxic waste and soil below our feet would be excavated and taken somewhere (no one is sure where), to make room for the buildings, haulage roads and machines of the colliery. The willows, flowers and brambles would be rooted up, the bees and the butterflies, adders and tawny owls chased away by the noise and construction work, all inconsequential in the face of trade deals and global markets. It feels to me like a kind of madness has gripped those of my species who think that any of this makes sense.

Standing on the cliff above the sea, I watch the glinting wings of goldfinches and the dip and rise of the murmuration of starlings that gathers here at dusk. I have spent some of the last thirty years of my life blockading bulldozers and squatting houses or trees in the path of road building, quarries or airports. Yet I still have no real answers to the seemingly impossible balance between livelihoods, rising waters and temperatures, and the more than human lives of this Earth. Watching the settling birds, I give myself permission to admit this uncertainty and still be here, witnessing the land, speaking aloud the names of the knapweed and brambles, yarrow and comma, starlings and goldfinches. After three decades, acknowledging these lives sometimes feels like the only thing I know. As I turn and walk back towards the tents, the nearby street lights flick on in a long line. In an hour or so a full moon will rise, a fire will be lit in the heart of the camp and a night of songs and stories will begin. In the last moment before sunset, I hear again the deep, slow call of a raven.