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About Sunday afternoon boredom and a song about Mining

This time of year I think of times gone by, of people I know and used to know, of absent friends and family, and of the places where I lived long ago. It has something to do with the arrival of Winter and Christmas – in fact, of December as a whole. To me, this is the “long dark tea-time of the soul”, to use Douglas Adams’ phrase from his novel Life, the Universe and Everything. It describes the wretched boredom of the immortal being, “Wowbagger, the Infinitely Prolonged” – don’t you love that name?

★Wowbagger is immortal and so bored that he makes it his life’s work to insult every living being in the universe, in alphabetical order.

“Wowbagger, the Infinitely Prolonged” insulting “Arthur Dent” in Chapter 1 of Life, the Universe and Everything. (Drawing by user “zombie-pengwen” on DeviantArt)

“In the end, it was the Sunday afternoons he couldn’t cope with, and that terrible listlessness which starts to set in at about 2:55, when you know that you’ve had all the baths you can usefully have that day, that however hard you stare at any given paragraph in the papers you will never actually read it, or use the revolutionary new pruning technique it describes, and that as you stare at the clock the hands will move relentlessly on to four o’clock, and you will enter the long dark tea-time of the soul.”

Life, the Universe and Everything, by Douglas Adams

Well, every December feels to me like a prolonged long, dark tea-time of the soul. The year is basically over, and the calendar marches on relentlessly to January and another year filled with pressures, problems and worries. (Sorry, no Festive Spirit here.)

It is a time for introspection, and for remembering, and inevitably, for nostalgia.

Thinking back to working on a mine

This year, I was thinking of the days when I worked for a South African mining company, Gold Fields, in a nice, safe job at the training centre at Kloof Gold Mine on the West Rand. At the time I was married to a Rock Engineer (a.k.a. a Rock Mechanic), and because of that, I thought I had some idea what it meant when, as the lingo goes, there was a “bump” underground, and you felt the tremor through the floor of your office or house. The bump was the effect of a rock burst underground, and any rock burst is extremely hazardous.

Home, sweet home

And yet, as naïve as it seems now, I came to think of those bumps, and all the typical things happening on a huge, deep, hard-rock gold mine, as signs of home.

Home was a little house at the foot of No. 3 Shaft of what is now Sibanye-Kloof Gold Mine, in the mining village Glenharvie. It was then, and still is, one of the deepest mines in the world. We would stand outside and look up and see the huge headgear (or headframe) at the shaft, silhouetted against the sky.

When a bump happened, we would pause until it was over, and then take a guess at how much it was on the Richter Scale and where it had taken place. The seismicity was just a fact of life. The bumps never gave me sleepless nights, since I knew that the Engineers and Geologists would deal with them. (If you want to know what these terms mean, look at the end of this post.)

How do you write a song about mining?

So, when I was writing my album of year-end songs, I wanted to write something about mining, and bumps, and me. I call it The Trembling Ground, and here are the lyrics:

The man in the photo is my husband when he was a very young Geologist, doing his job underground.

I  feel the trembling of the earth,
I feel it through the floor,
when workers drill the longholes 
to blast gold-bearing ore.

The hanging wall is crumbling, 
and the earth is shifting 'round,
but I sleep soundly, like a child, 
above the trembling ground.

The tunnels underground are hot, 
three thousand metres deep.
The cages down are rockets, 
descending into heat.
The pressure keeps on building, 
till the spalling rocks resound.
But I sleep like my heart is pure, 
above the trembling ground.

I miss the days on the gold mines, 
where the headgears whine and creak,  
and the bumps go off all through the night, 
and rock me in my sleep.

Whining gears? Shifting rock masses?

The challenge was: how can I express these ideas in music? Which techniques and instruments can I use? It certainly isn’t a common subject, and it doesn’t fit a genre. If I had to come up with the name of a band that’s produced a song about mining, the only ones would be Midnight Oil (Blue Sky Mining, 1990, the title track Blue Sky Mine) and Paul Simon (Graceland, 1986, the tracks Gumboots and Under African Skies). But in both cases, the songs are indirectly about mining, and do not contain technical terms. Well, I gave it my best shot.

I’ll see how it finally turns out when the Sound Engineer sends the master back to me in January 2023, after December’s long dark tea-time of the soul.

Simple explanations of the terms used in the lyrics

  • Longholes: Typically seen in deep, hard-rock mining, underground longholes, also called boreholes and blastholes, exceed 10 ft (3.05 m) in depth and can require the use of two or more lengths of drill steel. or rods coupled together, to attain the desired depth of drilling into the rock face.
  • Gold-bearing ore: On Earth, gold is found in ores, often quartz, embedded in very small to microscopic particles.
  • Hanging wall: In Geology, this refers to the section of rock that extends above a diagonal fault line (the corresponding lower section being the footwall), and in Mining Engineering, it means the upper wall of the tunnel or stope, which hangs over the miners heads when they are working.
  • The earth is shifting around/the trembling ground: This refers to the movements of the Geological structures – the rocks – underground. Yes, the earth can and does move. The tunnels and openings made in mine workings release tremendous pressure in the rock, which can cause it to explode, or to trigger abrupt, violent movement in the surrounding geological structures. These events are called rock bursts. There are many mining-related seismic events, but only the tremors associated with damage to accessible mine workings are classified as rock bursts.
  • Hot/3,000 m deep: Gold occurs at great depths, requiring mining to be done at nearly 4,000 m (13,000 ft), making the mines to the south-west of Johannesburg, South Africa, such as Kloof Gold Mine, the deepest mines on earth. The deeper the mine, the hotter it gets underground.
  • Cages: The common term for the elevators or lifts used to move workers and materials to the underground work places.
  • Spalling rocks: Rock fragments, splinters or pieces, split off due to high stress in the rock, or the rock exploding.
  • Headgear: A tower, above an underground mine shaft, that houses the structural frame of the conveyors that hoist machinery, personnel, or materials up and down. In the old days the towers were wood or steel frames, these days they are solid concrete. They comprise a hoist, a cable, a winding wheel, and a hoist room over the mine shaft, as the main structures.

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