This was Frodo and Sam’s own country, and they found out now that they cared about it more than any other place in the world.
The Return of the King, J.R.R Tolkien
It’s dark as I lie in my bunk bed, straining my ears for a faint tapping sound coming from beneath our house at Edgeworth in Lake Macquarie. Everyone else is sound asleep, but I can’t sleep because I’m scared of what is lurking in the shadows of my room. I’m sure I just saw something move in the partly opened wardrobe, and any second I expect a monster to jump out and devour me. To distract myself I think about the men toiling in the coal mines underneath our street. My mother told me when I couldn’t get to sleep that I should listen carefully and I might be able to hear them down there. The miners, I imagine, look like the dwarfs from Snow White, whistling merrily as they work, with long white beards and tools slung jauntily over their shoulders.
To me they are almost mythical creatures, and I’m desperate for some evidence they actually exist, but try as I might I hear nothing except my father’s snoring. My mother mutters “shut up, John,” a dog barks in the distance and my sister stirs in the bunk below, then there is silence. It doesn’t matter, though. It is enough to know that even when I close my eyes and fall into the abyss they will still be there, working hard to extract the coal to chase the darkness away. Human progress, it seems, knows no bounds when the blackest recesses of the earth, where the scariest monsters lurk, have been penetrated by the beacon of light on the miners’ hats. It’s not until much later that I discover that human progress isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and monsters don’t always hide in the shadows.
The mine that extends under the home where my parents still live is part of the Glencore Colliery at West Wallsend. Coal has been mined in the area since 1888 and underground mining has taken place since 1969. When my parents brought their block of land in 1971 they were told they couldn’t build a brick home due to subsidence issues. This may seem unusual but the reality is that most of Newcastle is under mined, including the CBD, apart from the railway corridor. Mining takes place so deep underground that it would be impossible to hear miner’s working down there, but I have never forgotten my mother’s words.
The Glencore Colliery is located in the Sugarloaf State Conservation Area, which was created in 2007 and covers 3937 hectares. Conservation areas have been created by the state government ostensibly to “protect and conserve significant or representative ecosystems, landforms, natural phenomena or places of cultural significance.” 1There are 219 species that live in the area, including 16 that are endangered. Longwall mining is currently conducted under 23 per cent of the conservation area, 2 making a mockery of the notion of conservation and betraying the governments true commitment to environmental protection.
A major portion of the reserve is taken up by Mount Sugarloaf, a 412m range with two huge television antennas perched on its pinnacle. I was fascinated by these antennas as a child and I used to imagine scaling their ladders and vanishing into another world just like Jack in Jack and the Beanstalk. The antennas back then looked like giant robots that might come to life one day and trample everything in their path. They were further examples of the dizzying reaches of technology, just like Skylab, the American space station that came crashing back down to earth in WA in 1979, and the massive computer at my father’s work that took up an entire room. Only the bushfires that occasionally ripped over the mountain in fiery red lines like lava from a volcano hinted that there are forces beyond human control.
Because it was so close to our home Mount Sugarloaf lookout was a popular destination for family picnics and lazy Sunday drives during my childhood. I remember my ears popping in the car as we rose towards the clouds and my sisters and I strained to catch glimpses of the world we knew receding between the trees. I can understand why the mountain was important in the Dreamtime stories of the Awakabal tribes that lived in the area because it is truly a special place. From the top of the mountain you can see as far as the ocean and the twinkling blue waters of Lake Macquarie. It is a lovely view but it is marred by the ugly, gaping scar where the Pasminco zinc and lead smelter once stood.
The smelter, where my father worked for years, was until recently, a dominant feature of the landscape, sending its plumes of smoke high into the air and dispersing its pollution far and wide. It coated the surrounding houses with lead dust, causing lead levels in people’s blood to soar and children were banned from living in the immediate streets around the smelter. It remains one of Australia’s most disgraceful cases of industrial pollution, and I still recall the strange smell my Dad used to bring home on his clothes every day.
In 1991 the company lobbied the government for exemption from the Sex Discrimination Act so that lead levels in its workers’ blood would be allowed to “exceed the level at which foetal damage occurs in pregnant women.”3 The application was denied but it shows very clearly the companies disregard for its workers. I’ll never forget the stinking, stagnant pools of water near the smelter, or the creek down the bottom of our street that we avoided as kids because it was filled with sludge. An old lady told us that when she was young the creek had been crystal clear and people had fished and swam in it. The smelter closed in 2003, not because of the damage it was inflicting on people’s health and the environment, but because it was no longer economically viable. The land where it stood is now a barren wasteland, and a stark reminder of the legacy of environmental neglect.
There are fewer houses to be seen on the other side of Mount Sugarloaf and more open green and gold fields, dotted with trees. It’s a God’s eye view of the world, and for a young child it was as wonderful as any place could be. Even the name of the mountain was magical, and what made it even more wonderful were the stories my parents told about the day it had snowed there in 1974. There were cars lined up all the way down the mountain, they said, and kids had had snow fights and built snow men. We sometimes slid down the grassy slope on cardboard on sunny days, and photos from this time show all of us smiling and red cheeked, with the view stretching out behind us.
Later when I got my licence I drove up the mountain regularly, and gazed down upon a world which was so rich with possibilities. I had only one dark memory of Mount Sugarloaf until recently, and I can’t help thinking about even now when I visit, after all these years. A young man who lived in the next street over from my parents murdered his girlfriend and then drove up the mountain and crashed his car, killing himself. It was a terrible, senseless tragedy and a reminder that even the most peaceful of places can be marred by ugliness and destruction.
I currently live many hours away from Newcastle and only get to visit my family a few times a year. It was during my most recent visit that I learned about the damage to the Sugarloaf Reserve caused by longwall mining. As I read the Newcastle Herald at my parents’ dining room table I only had to raise my eyes to see the mountain in the distance. It looked as untouched and enchanting as ever in the deepening twilight. I was overcome with burning fury as I read about the neglect and sheer contempt which has caused massive, irreversible damage from subsidence. Cliff faces have collapsed, huge cracks have opened up in the earth, and all the trees in one large area have died. Even a waterway has been filled with grout, and I imagine the anguished tears of the mountain have been frozen there in time.
The extent of the damage was uncovered by Fairfax Media reporters who visited the site to witness it for themselves. The Newcastle Herald’s photographer, Darren Pateman, wrote: “On the journey towards Mount Sugarloaf I had no idea what to expect.” 4 What they found was concrete being pumped out to fill the myriad cracks opening up in the ground. As they followed the cracks they “slowly they became bigger. Crevices sliced through what used to be a waterfall, cutting off big slabs so any water trickling down led into dark depths….. they have tried to fill in many of the holes, but some of them are just too deep.” 5
Pateman’s horror is palpable: “Seeing the creek bed had shocked us but it paled into insignificance when we followed more trails of destruction further south and over a hill. I don't really have words to describe what we stumbled upon. The land had just given way, it was a massive chasm, like a construction site, like a bulldozer had driven through it. The sight blew us away and the amount of destruction was astonishing. It was quite eerie, imagining how the earth would have trembled and groaned when it collapsed. Once again the cracks disappeared off the edge of a cliff and continued, we could only guess how much further they travelled.” 6
Through my own tears I was reminded, as I read this, of The Scouring of the Shire, a chapter in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In this chapter the Hobbits return to their beloved Shire to find it has been terribly disfigured: “It was one of the saddest hours in their lives. The great chimney rose up before them; and as they drew near the old village across the Water, through the rows of new mean houses along each side of the road, they saw the new mill in all its frowning and dirty ugliness: a great brick building straddling the stream, which it fouled with a steaming and stinking outflow. All along the Bywater road every tree had been felled.” 7
Tolkien, of all people, would understand my anger and heartbreak over what has happened to the sacred land of my childhood. He had a deep and abiding love of nature which was expressed in his books. His views were shaped by the effects of industrialisation that he witnessed on the English countryside, and he was greatly alienated by the ugliness of the modern world with its "mass-production robot factories and the roar of self-obstructive mechanical traffic.” 8 Tolkien has been dismissed by some as a Luddite and a hopeless romantic because he longed for an “oasis of sanity in a sea of unreason.”9 I think he just wanted to live in a world where nature and “progress” are not seen as mutually exclusive. We’ve been conditioned to believe that such a world is an impossible dream. Instead rampant, irresponsible development and endless new mining ventures are portrayed as inevitable. Economic disaster is wielded over the heads over those who dare to question the continuing reliance on fossil fuels.
The catastrophe at Sugarloaf reserve is further evidence that governments cannot be relied upon to protect the environment. Companies like Glencore act with impunity because they know the consequences for their negligence will be minimal. Sugarloaf Action Group has accused the company of ‘‘sitting on its hands for nearly a year’’ over the matter. According to the group’s president Anne Andrews, “the mine appears to be a law unto itself and the government seems happy passing the buck from one department to the next so no one has to take responsibility. This is not good enough. How can we ever trust the government’s regulation of mining when this is allowed to happen and they choose to cover it up until they are caught out by the paper?” 10
Community outrage has forced the company to take some steps towards dealing with the issue at Sugarloaf reserve, but this is like putting a band aid on a life-threatening wound. It is far too little too late. Have any lessons been learned from this and other environmental disasters? Has longwall mining been banned under conservation areas? Will the government be more vigilant in protecting the land in the future, or will they always bow to pressure from industry? The fact that new “mega” mines are being approved in the face of overwhelming consensus from the scientific community on global warming suggests that nothing is going to change. Those with vested interests pour concrete into the channels of public debate by denying the existence of climate change while “once-in-a-lifetime disasters” and “record-breaking” weather events multiply with alarming frequency.
Shortly after learning about the damage to the conservation area I went for a drive to Mount Sugarloaf with my eight year old niece, Ella. As we ascended towards the sky I wondered what state the planet will be in when she and my other three nieces are grown up. The afternoon light filtering through the trees was gentle when we got to the top, and none of the devastation is apparent from the lookout. Unlike so much else in this rapidly changing world, the smoky BBQs and old wooden benches in the picnic area were exactly as I remember them. Apart from a couple of people taking photos with their iPhones, this place felt untouched by the technological revolution of the last few decades. If you try to forget the ugliness that lies so near, the mountain is somewhere you can still go to listen to birds sing and watch clouds drift by and hear yourself think. Up here it’s easy to feel that you are part of something bigger.
As I get older I’ve become much more conscious of how precious and fragile life is. This awareness only grows stronger as I watch my parents’ age. It won’t be too long until they sell their house and move into a retirement home, and a huge part of my childhood will be gone forever. I try to cherish every moment I have with them and appreciate the beauty in the world. The love I feel for family is inextricably tied up with my love of the sky and the trees and the earth beneath my feet. When I learn of the reckless, senseless destruction of the land it feels like a huge fissure has opened in my heart. Tolkien knew that protecting the environment is not just about romanticism or good sense. When we degrade nature we degrade our own souls and lose touch with what makes us human. The land is part of us, of our bodies our heritage, our memories, our lifeblood. How can we allow it to be treated with such contempt? Urgent action is needed now, not tomorrow or the next day.
I still think about climbing the antennas on top of the mountain and disappearing into the swirling clouds. Maybe there’s a saner, kinder world up there where stupidity and greed don’t rule. Down on earth the monsters I was so afraid of as a child no longer lurk in the dark. Now they are bold enough to show themselves in the light of day, and there don’t seem to be any heroes brave enough or strong enough to really take them on. I try to find comfort in Tolkien’s words which seem more relevant than ever, but they can do little to stem the wound in my heart:
The world is indeed full of peril and in it there are many dark places.
But still there is much that is fair. And though in all lands, love is now
mingled with grief, it still grows, perhaps, the greater.10
But still there is much that is fair. And though in all lands, love is now
mingled with grief, it still grows, perhaps, the greater.10