I’ve been thinking about this prompt all week but nothing emerged until I read Hamish Gunn’s brilliant haibun A Northern Town. My haibun is directly inspired by his.
I have not lived in a northern coal town but I have lived in a southern one. For nearly a decade I lived within sight of the huge brown coal open cut mines that generate the electricity for the state of Victoria, Australia – an area known by all who lived there as The Valley.
For most of that time I lived in a rental house high on a hill. From my bedroom I could see two power stations. From the crest of the hill I could see the third. Much of the art and writing I did at the time reflected the environment around me:-
(from 2007) The land opposite falls away sharply. Houses straggle down the hillside to dark trees that line the creek. Beyond them the plain stretches out grey under an overcast sky. On the horizon the cooling towers of the power plant rear up a shade lighter than the surrounding earth. They appear to be part of the earth – to have grown out of it – a strange hybrid creature – part machine, part geological.
There is a beauty to the voluptuous curves of the towers and the swirling, broiling masses of steam that billow up to merge with the clouds but it is a beauty that takes its roots in ugliness, a beauty that disturbs.
Behind the towers, the tall chimneys of the coal burning part of the operation release a stream of dark smoke that spreads out and stains the sky.
One of the power stations in The Valley is so old and decrepit Greenpeace has been advocating its closure for years. Last summer when wild fires raged through the surrounding grasslands the coal in the open cut mine caught fire. It burned for a month. People in the nearby town became ill as thick brown smoke sat in a pall over their homes. The State Government did little to help but did a fine job of spreading misinformation through the media.
This blatant disregard of the people who live in The Valley is typical. The place is a dumping ground where State run welfare agencies send the mentally ill, refugees and people just released from prison. They quickly find their place among the alcoholics, the misfits, the long term unemployed, the sick and the down and out. Those of aboriginal descent either join the drinkers round the railway station or find solace and inspiration among the artists who are attracted the strange, hard core beauty/ugliness that lies at the heart of The Valley.