Stories from the coal face

I married into a mining family. My father in Law was the banksman,  whose primary role was to ensure that activity at the top of the shaft (e.g. getting men in and out of cages) was done safely, at the Vane Tempest pit in Seaham Harbour. Coal mining was a major reason for the success, development and culture of the North East of England.

My uncle Alan used to bring me the fossils of huge horse-tail plants, found at the coal face, which I kept in a special box that I made in woodwork and still treasure. I went on to study Geology at Sunderland Polytechnic as half of my degree. I remember one evening I attended an evening lecture by a senior manager of the Coal Board who politely greeted us all with “Good evening Gentlemen”, paused then added “and lady” as he nodded towards me with my waist length hair.

I don’t know whether I wasn’t listening but until this week I never knew that the Carboniferous Geological Period actually means “coal-bearing” and derives from the Latin words carbo (coal) and ferre (to carry)”

More importantly I also didn’t realise why coal is only found in this Carboniferous layer and even with perfect conditions doesn’t form today. During this period, in the lowland swamps of what is now North America and Europe, bark evolved with a high lignin content. Because there were no animals and decomposing bacteria or funghi that could digest lignin, large quantities of dead wood built up where it fell. Over time this was buried and turned to coal.

Those early plants made extensive use of lignin. They had bark to wood ratios of 8 to 1, and even as high as 20 to 1. This compares to modern values less than 1 to 4. This bark, which must have been used as support as well as protection, probably had 38% to 58% lignin. Lignin is insoluble, too large to pass through cell walls, too heterogeneous for specific enzymes, and toxic, so that few organisms other than Basidiomycetesfungi can degrade it.

I now learn from the Stephanie Roberts paper ‘Thank Fungus for that‘  that there are two important forms of fungi involved:

Brown rot fungi breakdown cellulose. Brown rot fungi are so-called because the lignin remains intact so the wood keeps its brown colour. The enzymes released by brown rot fungi break the cellulose chains into single molecules of glucose sugar that can be re-used by the fungus. Lignin is the other strong polymer. It is the second most abundant natural polymer on Earth after cellulose. Fungi that break down lignin are called white rot fungi;

[found via the British Mycological Society and their excellent FungiForSchools website ]

At my Dad’s funeral, the minister told me of one of his family members who had been a supervisor of an underground mining team and that he would set them up for the day at the coal face, then leave them to get on with it. Asked why he left them, he admitted that the H&S rules stated that no miner should dig ahead of the pit props, but this greatly inhibited the amount of coal that could be extracted. So without supervision, the miners could take this risk personally and dig on ahead.

It is perhaps ironic that knowledge captured about the mining experiences back in 1894   tells how:

In wet mines, gruesome fungi grow upon the wooden props that support that uncertain looking ceiling. The walls are dripping and dank. Upon them, too, frequently grows a mosslike fungus, white as a druid’s beard, that thrives in these deep dens, but shrivels and dies at contact with the sunlight.

Fascinating knowledge, not widely known, (in fact to me they were all ‘unknown unknowns’) that help make sense of our world Are there important lessons to be learned here about emergence, s-curves, knowledge, working together, risk, (staggered) co-evolution? What do you get from this?


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