ABOUT “FIRE UNDERGROUND”
Every generation confronts the task of choosing its past. Inheritances are chosen as much as they are passed on. The past depends less on “what happened then” than on the desires and discontents of the present. Strivings and failures shape the stories we tell. What we recall has as much to do with the terrible things we hope to avoid as with the good life for which we yearn. But when does one decide to stop looking to the past and instead conceive of a new order? When is it time to dream of another country or to embrace other strangers as allies or to make an opening, an overture, where there is none?
SAIDIYA HARTMAN, Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route
Fire Underground is a speculative fantasy which reimagines and reinterprets the history of coal mining in the eastern United States. It is set in a fantastical version of Appalachia, and is inspired in part by the West Virginia Mine Wars, the Homestead Steel Strike, the Whiskey Rebellion, the early history of paleontology, and Appalachian folk music and culture.
I began thinking about coal after visiting Centralia, PA in the summer of 2017, roughly 4 hours east from where I live in Pittsburgh. Centralia was a coal town which was slowly destroyed after a seam of coal caught fire below the town. This fire is still burning today, nearly 50 years later.
During the presidential election of 2016, coal miners from some of the poorest places in the country entered public consciousness as avatars of an imagined white working class. They appeared on television news channels to confront candidates, pose for photo ops, and talk about the future of their industry, their homes, and their families. They were regarded by pundits variously as hardworking, heroic, backwards, lost, or even dangerous.
As I wandered around Centralia, I found myself wondering how anyone could identify so powerfully with a job that so obviously endangers their home, their families, their own bodies, not to mention the earth’s ecosystems and climate. I also wondered at the ease with which some could vilify people who live in such places, for whom a job in fossil fuels was not only the best paying job, but maybe the only decent job available. It was hard to reconcile the apocalyptic ruin of Centralia with the idea that reinvestment in fossil fuels is necessary to save the “lost tribe” of white Americans in Appalachia. Above all, I wondered where this mythology of coal had come from.
An elf made out of coal, featured in an early version of the film
An early inspiration for the project was a short story written by Robert Horne and published by Charles Dickens called “The True Story of a Coal Fire”. In the style of other Dickensian fiction, a ghostly “elfin” creature made of burning coals climbs out of a fireplace and takes a young man called Flashley on a transhistorical journey from the carboniferous swamps of the distant past, to the coal mines where miners die regularly from asphyxiation, cave-ins, and pit explosions, to the factories where the coal is converted into motive power. Through his journey, and through witnessing the geological and biopolitical transformations of coal, Flashley is himself transformed, from a petulant child into an upright citizen who understands and respects his own place within history and society. The story inscribes all of natural history with the idea that western civilization is entitled to the decaying biomatter underground, to the blood of the people who dig it out, that all of this represents a kind of noble sacrifice ordained by God. A cycle of life, death, decay, and sacrifice are rendered natural and necessary to (western, white) civilization. In my piece, a character based on early American naturalist and portrait artist Charles Wilson Peale (a bizarre character in his own right) delivers a lecture which features a lengthy quote from Horne’s story:
'The scene amidst which you stand,' said the Elfin with his echo-like voice, and without moving from his seat beneath the tree, 'is the stupendous vegetation of the elder world. The trunks and stems of the antediluvian earth erect their columns, and shoot up their spires towards the clouds; their dull, coarse foliage overhangs the swamps, and they drink in, at every pore, the floating steam impregnated with the nutriment of prodigies. No animal life do you behold, for none is of this date, nor could it live amidst these potent vapours which feed the vegetation. And yet these vast trees and plants, this richly poisoned atmosphere, this absence of all animal life of man, and beast, and bird, and creeping thing, is all arranged in due order of progression, that man may hereafter live, not merely a savage life, but one civilised and refined, with the sense of a soul within, with a sense of God in the world, and over it, and all around it, whereof comes man's hope of a future life beyond his presence here. Thus upward, and thus onward ever.
If we were to actually undergo the kind of journey described in “The True Story Of A Coal Fire,” we would come to very different conclusions than its hero. The coal fire in the hearth would become a sort of prism, which reveals the linkages between white supremacy, capitalism, extractive colonialism, and anthropogenic climate change.
At the center of the popular fascination with coal were stories and images about history, industry, and labor, stripped of historical and political content. Often, these stories were offered as a cynical counternarrative to the struggles of black, brown, and indigenous peoples, meant to disclaim even the possibility of white privilege. They were a strategic erasure of the ongoing supremacy of a particular kind of whiteness under capitalism; an attempt to re-center white men as the proper subjects of American history. Perhaps most importantly to my work, these narratives often bury the rich legacy of radical resistance to oppressive forces in this country’s history, and replace it with stories about individual grit, sacrifice, and heroic entrepreneurship.
The stories we tell about who we are and where we come from matter. Black anticolonial thinker Sylvia Wynter writes that origin stories, like the biblical account of the creation of “Man” (in God’s image), or the darwinian account of Man’s evolution (a perpetual culling of the maladapted, a violent struggle for supremacy), function as the “descriptive statements” of a civilization. As Kathryn Yusoff puts it, these kind of origin myths “configure and prefigure the possibility of narratives of the present,” and offer “an account of agency” or a historical “trajectory of power.”
This project has been an attempt to embrace magic, myth, and worldbuilding as critical tools, to create a fantasy which recovers and celebrates histories of solidarity and resistance in the United States. I hoped to invest in the mythology of the place that I live in, and to celebrate its idiosyncrasies, history, and rich folk culture.
The project features a paleozoic coal forest deep underground, which is slowly returning to life. The forest is a kind of purgatory, but also a repository of the myths and dreams of the people living above. Many of the films characters wind up here when they die, and must survive in its depths. In stories like the Heart of Darkness, or the film Deliverance, a quest into a dark forest often reveals a predilection to violence that is supposedly inherent in nature and thus in man. I’ve tried to render the past as a space for possibility, for transformation, and for a kind of communion. It is filled with danger, but also with openings into the warm light at the center of the world.
This project was greatly inspired and informed by:
Elizabeth Catte, What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia
Steven Stoll, Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia
Barbara Freese, Coal: A Human History
Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital
Sylvia Wynter & Katherine McKittrick, Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human As Praxis
Kathryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None
John Sayles, Matewan
The West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, Matewan, WV