This is a visual essay about the beginning of an ongoing project about women miners in Paonia, Colorado. When I started this project, I intended for it to be an investigative story about how a coal town was adjusting in the wake of climate change. I was quickly pulled into the intersectional narrative of women who worked in a male-dominated profession. As I interviewed several woman and photographed both them, and their environments, I felt more and more that I was only scratching the surface. Every time I left an interview, I had a million more questions, threads left hanging.
As I recollected all the photos and started writing, I realized that the story I had was more about an inner reckoning, the transition within myself as a storyteller as I witnessed and documented, for the first time, stories that shifted my perception of world. This being said, this first installment of "She Speaks Underground" is about how a space that was once very familiar in childhood metamorphosed as I revisited it as an adult. It is a collection of the things I saw and the moments that struck me as I confronted discord in my own heart and mind. in that vein , please hold space for me as you read this essay. it is truly in its nascent moments and has much more to come.
Paonia, Colorado is the town of my childhood summers. I grew up on the east coast, but my mom's family lived out west so every summer my mom, dad, brother and I would pile into our half-rusted ford explorer and make the three-day trek across the country on I-70 west. Those trips across the country, punctuated with nights in Super-8 motels and cosmic brownies, are some of the earliest fond memories I have. To me, the east was always so different from the west, and driving on 1-70 was akin to stepping through a wormhole to another dimension; water to sand, ivy to cactus, grass to scorched earth.
Once we hit Denver, we stayed overnight with my auntie Nikki, a coveted stop due to her infamous buttered popcorn and DVR full of movies. The next morning we drove for the final leg, crossing the rocky mountains. There's one part of the drive 45 minutes outside Paonia called McClure Pass, which connects the North Fork Valley to and Roaring Fork Valley. This includes a section of road clinging to the side of a steep mountainside. I held my breath every time, peering over the edge, knowing that as we ascended this pass we were on the cusp of summer.
I remember those summers much like any child remembers a place that that is familiar but not home: cherished, transient. Days passed quickly, my cousins and I gorging ourselves on cherries from the orchard; red juice staining on our soft chins, stealing away into town for ice cream cones, late-night four-wheeler rides back by the river, rock-hunting for black agate with my grandmother in the adobes. Half days, adventures silhouetted in childlike fluorescence.
As a child, I had no understanding what it meant to call Paonia a "coal town". I later discovered Paonia was officially settled in 1902, after the forced removal of Ute Indians from the area. The discovery of coal seams in the Rocky Mountains (in the mid 20th century) shifted the economic signature of the town from agriculture and livestock to mining.
I knew my family worked in the mines, but to the extent that they went underground for work, and came home with black hands, faces shaded with a feeling unknown to me. My great grandfather died in a mine collapse, and I felt my grandmother's sorrow without truly knowing it, in the way you feel sad about your favorite character in the book you're reading losing a loved one; sadness rooted in otherness. I swallowed everything whole, too enamored with the next adventure to chew slowly, consider the heavier textures.
My uncle used to make us buttermilk pancakes, drive us to the pool, show us how to make animal sculptures out of river rocks, read scripture on Sunday mornings. Then monday came around and he was gone, in the mountain. My uncle, equally unyielding in his love for his family as the strength he called upon each day to enter the mine. So I was cemented, stuck in a love for a town and a people I had only just begun to know.
So, up until the past few years, my understanding of Paonia was based purely in a summertime rhapsody, familiar vibrations of campfire conversation and insects buzzing in the cherry trees. As I grew up and returned less frequently, I felt the melody fade.
I wrote a short story my freshman year of high school about a girl who lived in Paonia, and the story followed her as she absorbed the sadness of the town and became disenchanted with her family. She snuck cigarettes in the orchard, took late night drives in the desert, windows down, screaming into the blackness. At that point, I had not been to Paonia in many years, and felt its oppressive absence in my heart.
When I finally returned a year after writing that story, I was lost. My home was convoluted, I lost my way by the riverbank, forgot the name of the waitress at the diner I loved; time dragged on. Being there was a chore, family bickering lingered in my ears, I dreamed of visiting other towns, new hikes and new people. I felt bored, fantasies of adventure cheapened to a laundry list of summer "obligations".
As I entered my early twenties, the sharp edge of teenage angst faded and my ambivalence crew into curiosity. I felt that the discord between pretension and reality was caused by being more present in the lives of my family members, seeing their hardships in a new light, appreciating the political and social context of their lives. As I pursued a major in Geology, my family stayed close in my mind, their stories in my ear, often in disagreement not with what I was learning, but the way I was learning it. "We are here too", I heard as I sat in environmental ethics class, learning about the evils of an oil-based economy.
I thought of them more frequently, my grandmother transcending her identity as a mother of 5 and excellent cook, to a woman who lost her own father in a mine collapse, who found strength in service to others, who fielded the disputes in her family with love first. My cousins from Paonia had their own renaissances, finding unique paths that inevitably pulled them from home and into a bigger and more complicated world.
It was my uncle, the coal miner, who held the majority of my curiosity. It felt odd to think about his work, because I felt so immersed the world of climate change mitigation, anti-oil, and green energy that the concept of coal mining itself felt villainous. The summer of 2016, I spent the entire summer in Paonia, helping as an orchard hand and farm associate. During this time, I spoke with my uncle at length about his work, and in front of me materialized the connections between his work, his family life, his perceptions, and his political opinions. I developed a deep appreciation for his work and his efforts over the years, and for the mine that allowed him to build a life for his children. His motivations, frustrations, and fears - all bound by a desire to create happiness and stability for his children. So by virtue of an abiding belief that all seasons of life are sacred, how could he be wrong? How could anyone from Paonia be wrong?
So as this man, and my family, fell into deeper alignment in my mind's eye - so did the town as a whole.
I felt, for the first time, in disagreement with the way I had been raised, the things I had learned in school, and the foundational perspectives I had grown into. I questioned how my peers at college could ignore what I felt to be the reality of people's lived experiences, sacrificing their humanity for scientific prowess and peace of mind. Looking back, I understand the omission of these conversations. I was a studying geology, not sociology, and the trend of climate change perspectives felt stacked on the wrong side, politically, at least. Overlooking the way mines were a foundational part of many people's lives and their closure would be devastating made sense in some way. Sometimes you can't hold the whole world at the same time. Personal sacrifice for greater good?
As a granddaughter, niece, cousin, and daughter witnessing the devastation of a shifting economy and the displaced judgement of "rural America", I was pulled back to Paonia, dissatisfied with the generalizations of sacrifice. "There is more here, " I affirmed.
In the winter of 2018, I flew to Paonia on a small grant provided by my college. The intention was document life in a place that had been profoundly impacted by the mine closures and massive layoffs in 2006-2007. I knew I wanted to interview coal miners, and gain a sense for not only what it was like working in the mine, but how life has changed since the closures. I was drawn to human experience - a metric I rarely got to use in school, as a geologist in training. I had already reached out to the local news before arriving, and the receptionist ended up connecting me with a friend of hers. The only miner she could think of who might be willing to talk to me. Her name was Mary.
Mary and I had the chance to speak on the phone in the weeks before I left for Colorado, and I remember our conversation lucidly. When the line connected, we greeted eachother, and I thanked her for agreeing to speak. The first thing she said to me was "who are you writing this piece for", followed by "what are you trying to say". I explained that I had family from the area, and spent my childhood summers in Paonia. I also explained that I had no agenda, and only wanted to hear what her experience in the mines had been like. If anything, my agenda was hers: her politic, her social perceptions, her point of view. Her tone relaxed, and we ended up on the phone for some time, and she told me about her farm and her animals. She also told me we would have to meet in town before she showed me her home, because she wanted a better sense of my energy.
I have a separate photo essay on Mary. My time spent with her was transformative in its own right. Please observe that visual essay to understand more about her, and how my time with her changed the tone of this project.
I arrived in Paonia and moved into my Uncle's home. He had recently remarried and built a new house on our family ranch. I spent the first few days seeing family and adjusting to the altitude. Wherever I travel, I run. Running helps me feel grounded in unfamiliar places, reminds me that no matter where I am, I'm tied to something good. My runs became easier within the first week, every day of breath pulling deeper and deeper in my chest, the unique chemistry of Paonia air becoming familiar once again. I run on the ditch bank, a trail following a creek on a small mountain rising above the town. When I run there, I can see the whole town.
Within the first three days, Mary and I planned to meet up. I only had two weeks in Paonia, so I wanted to make sure to meet as many people as I could. Mary and I met up and within the next few days, and soon after that, I was spending every other afternoon or morning at her place. We spoke at length about her life, and about her time in the mine.
Mary soon introduced me to two other women, Candace and Marlyn - friends and coworkers at the mine. Through my uncle and second cousins, both workers in the mine, I was introduced to three more women: Loretta, Jessie, and Kathy. I was so struck by Mary's testimony, and the ways in which I felt connected to her in stories of sexism, displaced judgment, and having to fend for herself, that I made the choice to narrow the scope of the project to women in mines, as I felt there was much deeper learning in these more specific, shared sentiments. Let me also clarify that being close with one woman (Mary), and being the niece of a respected miner opened doors, and in being honest about my work and up front about my curiosity, I ended up being able to speak with more women than I anticipated.
If I had infinite time and space, I would share every interview. I would explain how we met, the circumstances of our interview, and how it felt to hear each woman speak - because I feel that's how I could communicate the uniqueness of their perspectives, even being a part of such a small subgroup of people. Each woman I spoke to held different positions in the mine, worked there for a varying number of years, and had their own thoughts on how positive or negative their time was. I interviewed one woman who said she wouldn't step back into the mine if her life depended on it, and a woman who said she misses her work everyday. This is the breadth of opinions I'll attempt to distill in the following reflection.
What I will do is write about some of the stories shared with me, drawing out some the details that surprised me the most, or the moments that felt like they inverted the narrative I had in my head, the stories that left my mind shifting upon leaving. As I mentioned in the preamble to this essay, this is ongoing work, and the work, photo and otherwise, that is more investigative and explanatory in nature is ongoing is the next phase. The thoughts I reflect on here are founded in the ways my perceptions were changing when confronted with human-centered data. Again, keep this foundation in mind as you read, knowing it is an uncommon and extremely subjective form of reporting, in its primary breaths.
This being said, the only thought I held going in was to be fully prepared to be wrong, about anything, about everything.
What I learned very quickly is that coal mining is a male-dominated profession. At any one time, the ratio of men to women hovered around 100:1, that one often being an administrator or above-ground engineer. At the time I conducted my interviews, I was told there was only one or two women still working in the mine. Much like any other male-dominated profession, these discrepancies are rooted in history, habit, and expectation.
With coal mining, the physical and mental stress cannot be understated. The mental and physical fitness required to work underground and be operating heavy machinery is immense. Even though most modern coal mining is powered by machinery, and positions underground are engineering spots, the taxing nature of the work remains.
West Elk, the mine I interviewed women from, is a Longwall mine, meaning the coal seam is mined along a single exposed wall, up to 450 meters thick and sometimes up to 5 kilometers long. The coal is undercut along the width of the exposed face, with hydraulic jacks supporting the roof from caving in, and a machine called a shearer physically removing rock from the face. The coal is then taken to the surface along conveyer belts.
I noticed a common thread in our conversations: becoming "tougher", in language, physical strength, and mindset. I asked where the toughness came from, assuming the answer was necessity. I was told it transcended physical necessity, and for many women, it was about duty to family, livelihood, and well-being. I felt the emergence of an idea: "adapt to survive". Life may not always deal a fair hand, but there is an obligation to adapt in harsh circumstances. For one woman, it was in the way she spoke; for another, in her temperament; for another, in her day-to-day expectations.
The stakes in coal mining include your life, so even more notable than mining being a job demanding grit. is that it is a job demanding loyalty and companionship. I was struck hearing that the same man who makes a lewd joke at your expense would not hesitate to lay down his life for you. The same person who takes cheap shots at your appearance would shield you at the slightest hint of danger. Companionship is felt in relationships as well. One woman explained that every morning, as she watched her husband leave for work, she would stand in the driveway and wave until she knew that she was no longer visible in his rearview mirror. This ritual accounts for a harsh reality: she may never see him again. When I sat in a Mexican restaurant with two women and discussed their time in the mine, I could barely keep up with the ferocity of their banter, stories and memories flying around the table. Their connection, understood as forged in hardship, singed me.
Two women recalled the day shift in winter. One of them called it the death shift. This is a shift that no longer exists as it was deemed too strenuous. Miners would go underground in morning darkness, and not re-emerge until evening, again in darkness. These shifts would last two to four weeks before changing, meaning there were men and woman who would not see the light of day for weeks. No sunlight, for weeks. I couldn't fathom the toll that takes on a person. There is cruelty in lack of sunlight. However, there is also cruelty in lack of choice, cruelty in sacrifice that involves your life, and cruelty in a livelihood founded on necessity.
I felt daily revitalization on my runs along the ditch bank, my face bathed in morning sun. A small portion of my day, which felt essential. Sunlight is akin to life, growth, nutrients, respite - it is the driving force of photosynthesis, a process of energy conversion that fuels life on earth. So whatever angle you take, science, metaphor, reality, there is cruelty in lack of sunlight. However, there is also cruelty in a world that funnels people into a vilified profession, there is cruelty in lack of choice, in sacrifice that involves your life, in a livelihood founded on necessity...a catch 22, perhaps.
This shift is perhaps one of the most demanding work situations that has ever existed, and in many ways is an allegory for the industry as a whole.
When I went into the mine, I was not scared. I had been briefed by the supervisor on safety precautions, and been prepared for the worst case scenario: a cave-in. I was not scared because these things were out of my control, and I felt that at some point, you yield to the reality of what might happen, and carry on anyway. I put on the coveralls, the glasses, the headlamp, and the heavy-duty boots. I had been told that I could not bring my camera with me for two reasons. The first was safety, as coal mining releases methane into the atmosphere, so any sort of electrical charge can be dangerous. The second was privacy. West Elk mine is the biggest coal mine in Colorado and as of May 2020, is under scrutiny for illegal methane emissions. For this reason, Arch Coal, the parent company, restricts media access. I was only able to secure a tour because I have family in the mine; outsiders are generally restricted.
Leaving the outside world, going from bright whites to deep blacks was not a feeling I was used to. The mine supervisor and I entered through a semi-circle shaped entrance in the mountain, just tall enough for a pickup truck. I was struck most forcefully by the darkness. On our way in, we passed through an air pressure adjustment chamber, which is akin to the ones you see in movies when astronauts re-enter the spaceship from outside: big metal doors on either side, huge noises, dead silence. As we passed through this chamber, I truly felt the otherworldliness of what was happening. We drove deeper into the mine, and I grew more impressed at the supervisor’s sense-of-place. He took every turn, T-junction, and tunnel without a map or GPS. That form of familiarity was foreign to me, the kind when you know something so deeply you can navigate it blind. When the mountain creaked and groaned around us, he chuckled. It was odd to be driving with someone so secure in every turn we took, when for me it, it was disconcerting.
The walls were white, covered in limestone dust. Limestone dust is a flame retardant, so this is a measure taken to damper any sort of sparking. By coating the walls with it, the likelihood of machines bumping and producing sparks is lower, therefore the methane in the air is less likely to ignite. I wish I had been able to photograph the bone white walls, electrified in the truck headlights against the deep blackness of the tunnel. I had never seen anything like it.
I was shown the emergency elevator, which takes miners up to the surface quickly in case of injury, the emergency shelter, which provides air, food, and other supplies in case of a collapse, the lunch break area, and eventually, the longwall. I will never forget seeing the emergency shelter, which looked like a large yellow coffin. Such an odd visual, that a life-sustaining mechanism felt symbolic of death.
I was shown the emergency elevator (which takes miners up to the surface quickly in case of injury), the emergency shelter (which provides air, food, and other supplies for miners in case of a collapse), the lunch break area, and eventually, the longwall. I will never forget seeing the emergency shelter, which looked like a large yellow coffin. Such an odd visual, that a life-sustaining mechanism felt symbolic of death.