Connecting the mining history of Genk with the alarm bells of the present day and the metaphor of breath

In the very beginning of our journey I wrote down in my notebook:

Mining felt to me like an act in which the character of our culture becomes visible. We are digging into the ground to take the treasures of the earth in order to fuel our short–term needs, our highly over–demanding lifestyles. And even though most coal mines closed and we rely on other energy sources today that are also based on deplorable resources. But as we can easily ignore the ringing alarm bell we go on because we enjoy travelling and we do not want to give up the big variety we have in our consumption choices. We are walking on this planet like everything belonged to us and was there to serve our needs.

But someone is losing. Somewhere, an alarm bell is ringing. Did we hear it? Was it just that we did not know how to switch it off? Wasn't it ringing louder and louder?

And now – do we hear it now? With our economy laid flat and us sitting in our houses – waiting? Reflecting? What happens afterwards? How will we decide to go on?

How deep does the mine go? – Coal dust and glue on paper

In the 1980s, the coal mine of Winterslag closed. Thousands of workers have been working there, hundreds of meters above the ground. L. is one of them. In a phone conversation he tells me: "Most workers were paid depending on the production. So, the more coal was mined, the higher the loan. We also had protective face masks but they were made from rubber which led to acne and skin eruption, so no one used them. Later on, we got the medical masks but they made breathing harder and decreased productivity." Today, he has 19% dust on his lungs which is a comparably small amount, he says. In 2014, he was diagnosed with lung cancer on the right side. A year later, he is operated on the left side as well.

Breath is one of the most fundamental functions of our human bodies. The first inhale happens in the moment we are born. The moment when we are released to the world and are becoming autonomous humans. It happens subconsciously most of the time but making yourself conscious of your breathing can make you aware of your own physicality and the present moment you are in. Breath only exists in the present. It is a natural rhythm and impulse. Breathing in, taking in, creating room and tension. Breathing out, releasing tension, letting go. Pause, silence, impulse for the next inhale. In this simple scheme, there is an important truth. A truth about the natural cycles which are the basis of our human physicality and our surroundings.

I have the feeling that we lost the sense of listening to natural rhythms.

The world we live in has developed into a culture of constant acceleration. We made enormous mobility, flexibility and an abundance of offers and opportunities our standard. And all this has a high prize. The corona crisis is an alarm bell that we cannot overhear. It screams at us that something is going wrong. That there are a lot of aspects in our thinking and acting that cannot be long–lasting. We take, take, take but never pause, never let go, wait and create space for something new to emerge.

When connecting this back to the mining industry which left its workers with lung diseases and breathing difficulties, the metaphor is complete. Not being able to breath anymore, to follow one's most natural impulse and to live with this constant restraint – this is the reality of the ex–miners. "I am glad that this stopped", L. tells me. Today, he lives with 32% of his lung's capacity.

In my short tale–like story, I am trying to formulate and illustrate the issue I see in the attitude we have towards the earth, in the misbalance of our demanding lifestyles. But I also see hope. And the chance to decide anew today. We have to connect back to ourselves. To our breath in this moment. It can be a reminder of who we are and where we can go.

Enjoy the read!