surface effects

The landscape of Appalachian Ohio is laden with vital traces of a past of resource extraction and accompanying infrastructure and urbanism. Mine entries punctuate hillsides, rail lines trail into the dirt, a brick foundation of a miner’s home stands alone in a sea of dry leaves. Less durable but nevertheless material, acid mine drainage turns waterways brilliant colors, hills have “slips,” surface smoke betrays a late nineteenth century miners’ strike, and people work hard researching and presenting the region’s history. I use the term vital traces to describe these material forms and social processes. Both reflect a process of transduction as they bring the past into the present, one form of energy transformed into another. The notion of vitality animates matter, while conceiving of human engagements with the past as traces draws out modulating dynamics between people and objects over time. Considering how physical and social dynamics are both effects of or engagements with material processes begun under specific historical conditions by human action points to the deep imbrication of the human and material world. Hence “vital traces” suggests how even as matter often seems to have a life of its own, history is always coming through things. This is true in this place in particular perhaps. Resource extraction left dormant a hundred years ago turns streams orange. A nineteenth century labor struggle continues to fester in a coal fire.

Underground spaces reveal something particularly telling about a human-material relationship. Whereas palimpsests in the built environment provide a visible entry into former spaces and dynamics, the invisibility of that which is underground serves as a powerful locus for imagining a past that is no longer apparent on the surface. The underground conjures a past, bringing it into being as an imagined presence. While that which is underground creates a myriad of vital traces, only the trace “talks,” the object itself remaining silent in its invisibility.

My account stays close to the ground, attuned to modalities of relationships between people and material cohering in and through events, stories, places and objects. In the region, stories circle back around to names, events, rumors, and, especially, place – over there, so and so’s house, at the top of Plummer Hill, at the bottom of Hill No. 3. Narratives merge past and present, as discussions of miners and labor organizers move seamlessly into conversations about a family who lives in the next town and how to involve the youth in historical investigation. Accounts of news articles about mine disasters or brick making locate those events in a landscape of hills and towns, the latter of which may or may not still be there. Places ground a rambling and circular logic of storytelling. Connections and displacements bring together present and past, one place invoking another: a cemetery and a company town, its inhabitants and labor history, a mine map and traces of a tipple, observation of acid mine drainage and discussion of the moral responsibility of long gone mining companies.


At the Little Cities of Black Diamonds Brick Festival, a geologist from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) eagerly shows off a large, four foot by four foot map, describing the work he and his colleagues do: how they scan the maps in parts and tile them together in Photoshop because their scanner is not large enough to scan an entire map, how they put them online where they are available for public perusal, and how they might print the scanned maps, like the one he is holding today. Later, the geologist shows me one of the original maps, with paper the deep hue of a blueprint. Eight feet by eight feet, its edges fall off the table. He had wondered how these were printed, and had discovered the answer while watching Pawn Stars, one of many television shows focused on how people organize their lives around objects. He brings out a velum map, an opaque material made, he says, of animal skin.

The ODNR is running a campaign to collect underground mine maps. On a flyer, the text “WANTED BY THE OHIO DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES, UNDERGROUND MINE MAPS” frames a historic photo of a miner working. His half kneeling stance betrays the height of the mine ceiling and the physical conditions of labor. Images of mine maps inside the flyer are accompanied with a photo of a brick house with cracks in its wall and another of a sinkhole in someone’s front yard caused by subsidence. The need for the maps is justified with present effects, in particular the risk of subsidence, or mine collapse. The project, it turns out, is driven by the state mine insurance fund. Yet a concern with surface effects belies the deep and apparent interest and pleasure in the maps themselves, as indicated by the intensity of the efforts surrounding them: the campaign for their collection; the work to scan them; the flyer, saturated with images of mine maps; the way the geologist holds up and displays the map, as well as his interest in finding information that might provide a richer understanding of the engineers who mapped them.

Immense effort goes into this project, which aims to better forecast financial and ecological risk with quantifiable spatial information, to pin down the unknown and uncertain with scientific knowledge in the form of horizontal and vertical spatial information. Summer interns rescan some of the five thousand maps held by the ODNR. Sitting in front of computers, some use GIS to layer them into property maps while others add height dimensions to the underground cavities and coal deposits. Surface and underground are melded graphically, making it possible to “see” the mine tunnels running under recently built subdivisions. Mine company records are gleaned to calculate how much coal might remain in the abandoned mines, the original amount a geological fact. An uncertain, phantasmagoric future in which the ground might literally fall out from under our feet is made durable through this work.


A faculty member at a local university gleans the ODNR website, downloading abandoned mine maps. After printing them, he keeps the maps folded, tucked into plastic sleeves in a three ring binder with accompanying historic news articles about the mines. He marks the mine openings with a yellow highlighter or arrow stickers and sets out to find them. He photographs the multi-colored water coming out of the abandoned mines and takes students and colleagues members on tours. Pointing to a brilliant blue-green patch of color, he says, “This is an acid loving algae that comes out of a former mine. The acidity is around 3 or 3.5 pH. Iron grows red-brown bacteria.” Exclaiming both “how awful” and “how beautiful,” he explains that he takes photographs that capture the aesthetics of the colors and sediment layers.

Though the presence of water is noted on the maps, its circulatory nature gives it qualities not easily captured cartographically. Not only does it continue to move from groundwater aquifer to stream and to river, as a vital trace it collects history and transforms it into something destructive for wildlife and human life. Running through mines abandoned by coal companies that left the region a hundred years ago, water picks up metals and chemicals, turning streams orange. Children, it is said, draw pictures of streams and color the water orange. Older people say, “that’s just how it is.” Many work hard monitoring and cleaning this water. They collect samples in plastic bottles and measure water flow by listening to clicks sent from the bucket wheel at the bottom of the pygmy rod. We visit a doser that uses limestone to absorb the metals in the water running out of the mine. The success of this work is measured by the hue of the water and the presence of wildlife.

For the professor, the maps in themselves have a charge and significance that is at least equal to what they point to in the landscape. The locations we visit, mostly openings to mine shafts, are kinds of secret traces in the landscape that he has learned of and gained access to – in knowing of them, of their location, and developing the ability to recognize them – through the maps. We walk along rail tracks and end up in an open field, a creek to our left, hills all around. Photographs the professor found in local archives help us “see” what used to be in the area around us. “We’re standing on the spot of a tipple. Kids sorted coal.” We look at the wood, concrete, and metal remnants of the tipple, notice the train tracks in the creek. Not a scientist, his knowledge is colloquial, descriptive of the visual and sonic; “there’s a lot of orange stuff on the rocks.” Throwing a rock into the stream he says, “It makes a satisfying sound – phwump.” He brings out the maps, pointing out “where we are,” a highlighted bit of text designating a mine opening or section of a railroad track, things that are visible on the surface of the landscape. These are but miniscule features on a large map showing a maze of mine tunnels that run alongside each other in grids, coming off a main axis and connected to each other every few feet by passageways.

Maps mediate between the mines and present concerns, but in doing so they are also at once significant objects in themselves, with a rich social life and an animated charge. And though they point to some things in the landscape, actual (in the case of the rail tracks or mine shaft opening) or potential (in the case of the sinkhole or foundation cracks), what they map is not visible on the surface of the landscape. When we stand looking at the mineshaft that is pointed out on the map, we are looking at a map that shows something else entirely, which we can only imagine as being inside the hill in front of us.


In and around New Straitsville, Ohio, an underground coal fire burns. Untraceable, its location is apparent through its surface effects: smoke, heat that melts the snow, sometimes flames licking up from below. The fire escapes the map. To find it, one must ask area residents where it was last seen. When we ask about its current location, we are told, “Flames came up out of the ground at the last Moonshine Festival. That was fortuitous.”

Its life is sustained through stories about its past, which give presence to labor, inequality, and engineering. A source of income as a tourist destination during the Depression, it remains a local “event.” Assumed to be common knowledge, it often finds its way into stories that seem to be about other things. During a cemetery tour, the guide tells us about the unmarked and unrecorded grave of Albert Guest, who died in May of 1885. Suspected in a murder they could not prove, he was arrested for raping a woman in New Straitsville. Yet he was “drug off” by a mob from the jail because he knew who started the coal fires. Our guide says, “The fires are still burning today. Snow won’t stick – you can see steam coming out of the ground.” The fire serves as an emblematic trace of Guest’s body and its demise, as it was caught up in a series of material forms designed to ensure its impermanence. The men who took Guest from the jail were miners, which you could tell, we are told, because they dropped down, taking the position they used in the mines. Guest was shouting names and they hung him on a tree. “The branch is no longer there.” A news article from the time said he was buried in the “rockiest back part of the cemetery,” his grave shallow enough that he could be dug up by animals. His wife came to the cemetery the next day. Later she said he wasn’t a very good husband. The women on the tour laugh and say, “let him go.”

For more than a hundred years, the fire has motivated efforts to fix in place something mobile and ephemeral. In the 1930s a WPA project aimed to extinguish the fire. Workers removed all flammable material from mines (coal and wood), bored vertical holes through the hills, and dropped in bricks that were meant to block off oxygen. The technical design of this project is commemorated by two blueprints hanging in the New Straitsville Historical Society, on a wall featuring ephemera advertising the fire and photos of its effects on people and homes. Two deep aquamarine blueprints stand out amidst the black and white photographs. Their top half shows a zig-zag line, a bird’s eye view of latitudinal locations, the bottom a cross-sectional view of the hill with numbered drill holes, colored according to date filled. A pile of pick axes and drill bits provides a material record of the technology used to bore into the earth.

Recently, a historical marker commemorating the mine fire was installed at the bottom of Hill No. 3 (named, not following Hills No. 1 and 2, but after Mine No. 3). “The World’s Greatest Mine Fire,” it proclaims. It inscribes an official narrative, “During the 9-month Hocking Valley Coal Strike beginning June 1884, tensions between the Columbus & Hocking Coal and Iron Co. and striking miners led to violence and destruction. Starting October 11, 1884 unknown men pushed burning mine cars into six mines located around New Straitsville to protest being replaced by ‘scab’ workers.” The marker echoes the information presented in the historical society, relaying material effects of the fire, both acted on and enacted. Gases seeped into homes and schools, which were condemned and closed, residents and students relocated. Potatoes baked in the ground. People fried eggs over the fire as a highlight of tours in the 1920s. WPA workers replaced coal and wood with brick and clay. The federal government bought uninhabitable land and turned it into a national forest. The state moved a highway to more stable ground.

The fire is a still vital sign of the work and struggle of another moment. It devours the material that was the source of the struggle that caused it, transforming the seeming solidity of the ground beneath us into empty pockets into which the surface falls. Absent in its ephemeral elusiveness, it eludes place even as its movement inscribes the interconnectedness of the region, surface to underground, people to material, present to past. It will burn, residents say, “as long as there is oxygen.”




(Athens, Ohio, 2012)

another version of this piece will be published in O-Zone: An Ecology of Objects

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