A Story About a Boy Whose Dad is a Coal Miner Deep Down Under the Sea

“We know so little of the worlds beneath our feet,” writes Robert Macfarlane in “Underland”, where he visits many underlands, also a potash mine under the North Sea. In a book for kids “Town is by the Sea” a boy awaits for his dad to return from a dark coal mine deep under the North Atlantic Ocean. Boy spends his day swinging, playing, running errands, visiting a cemetery by the sea and looking out to sea, waiting.

“Town is by the Sea” by Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith, 2017. Photo by Beach Books.

Author Joanne Schwartz notes that “Town is by the Sea” is a dedication to lives lived in the mining towns of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, Canada. Even in the 1950s, around the time when this story takes place, young men still carried on the traditions of their fathers and grandfathers and continued the work in the “dangerous and dark reality underground”.

In the book, large spreads with a black world of a coal mine contrast with brightly lit daily life in a town by the glittering sea. It is almost impossible to imagine someone digging deep down under it, but not for the boy. Light emanates from the fabulous illustrations by Sydney Smith. Look!

“First thing I see when I look
out the window …
is the sea.”
“And I know my father is already deep down
under that sea, digging for coal.”
“It’s so sunny today,
The sea is sparkling.”
“Deep down under the sea is
where my father digs for coal.”
“At nighttime, it goes like this…
As I fall asleep I can hear the whooshing back
and forth of the waves. I think about the sea,
and I think about my father.”

“I think about the bright days of summer,” boy tells in the final pages of the book, “and the dark tunnels underground. One day, it will be my turn. I’m a miner’s son. In my town, that’s the way it goes.”

Thank you, Ilze, for donating this beautiful book to the library.

You can borrow “Town is by the Sea” by Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith for your kid and Robert Macfarlane’s “Underland” for yourself or maybe the other way round.

Black Dunes and Starless Rivers in Robert Macfarlane’s “Underland”

In his brilliant book “Underland: A Deep Time Journey” Robert Macfarlane travels deep down. “We know so little of the worlds beneath our feet.” Going low is a counter-intuitive action, author agrees, “running against the grain of sense and the gradient of spirit.” Underlands are dark and claustrophobic, hard to reach and dangerous. It is a challenge to return back safe, to see butterflies and sun again.

Robert Macfarlane worked on the book for almost a decade. Language flows, uplifts, stories frighten to the bone.

Author leads a reader into the tunnel labyrinths under the streets of Paris, takes to a laboratory of dark matter particles half a mile under the North Sea. He explores wonderlands (or w-underlands?) under forest, under rock and blue glaciers of Greenland. He even suggests to dive into the underland of language. “Words are worldmakers and language is one of the great geological forces of the Anthropocene.”

In Italy author searches for a starless river, which has remained almost unmapped to this day. A river that flows under the ground before it empties out into the Adriatic Sea.

“Underland: A Deep Time Journey” by Robert Macfarlane is published in paperback on August 27, 2020. Photo by Beach Books. Borrow the book from the Sea Library.

“Starless rivers run through the classical culture, and they are the rivers of the dead. The Lethe, the Styx, the Phlegethon, the Cocytus and the Aecheron flow from the upper world into the underland – and all five converge in a welter of water at the dark heart of Hades.”

Robert Macfarlane “Underland”

The reason that classical literature run with underground rivers, author explains, is geological: “so much of the landscape in which that literature was lived and written is karstic in nature.” Karst is a topography formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone, dolomite, and gypsum. It is characterized by underground drainage systems with sinkholes and caves. “Karst is vastly rich in underlands,” Macfarlane writes, “and it is also a terrain where water refuses to obey its usual courses of action.” Rivers disappear and reappear, lakes vanish, sinkholes “pock karst landscapes like gaping mouths”.

“Below the surface – if karst can be said to have surface – aquifers fill and empty over centuries, there are labyrinths through which water circulates over millennia, there are caverns big as stadia, and there are buried rivers with cataracts, rapids and slow pools.”

Robert Macfarlane “Underland”

One such starless river is Timavo, sometimes also called as River of the Night. It starts as river Reka on the border of Slovenia and Croatia, flows in loops above the ground, until at the village of Škocjan it disappears in a canyon. Reka-Timavo runs beneath the ground for around twenty-two miles or thirty-five kilometres. Although systematic exploration of the river’s hidden part continues for more than two centuries, and for last thirty years with an advanced diving equipment, only around 15 percent of the underground flow has been mapped.

Robert Macfarlane travels to il Carso in Italy and descends under it (through something like a shower cubicle in an old hut) to see the starless river flowing inky in the dark. Deep down and far away from blue sky he finds himself surrounded by an otherworldly landscape of black dunes.

“We are terranauts and we have dropped through the roof of this chamber onto another planet – dropped into an underland desert of fine-grained black-gold sand. I shake my head in wonder and fear. Sergio stands quietly beside me. He has seen this place do this to people before.”

A bit further away there’s the river itself. With strange white beings swimming in it and a sound like no other.

“The sound of the starless river is like none I have ever heard. It has volume. Its volume has hollowness. Each sound has its echo, and each echo its interior.”

Robert Macfarlane “Underland”

Chapter ends with author going for a swim at dusk close to Duino Castle near Trieste where the Timavo reaches its final stage and flows out into the Adriatic Sea.

“Lucian and I wade out and launch ourselves in. Salt in the mouth, the sea soft and warm to the touch. I turn shore-parallel and stroke north towards a rocky headland. The moon is a silver tunnel mouth.

Then I am startled to feel, writhing around my legs, the cold currents of another kind of water. It is the blye fingers of the starless river, born as a snow on the Snežnik, plunging underground to crash through its dark chambers and black rapids, and then at last surging out here to surface under the moon.”

Robert Macfarlane “Underland”

“Underland” is “a story of journeys into darkness, and of descents made in search for knowledge.” Robert Macfarlane suggests the paradoxical “that darkness might be a medium of vision, and that descent may be a movement towards revelations.”

Macfarlane’s masterpiece guides you how to see in the dark and how to dive into the chambers of deep time. It is crucial to adjust our eyes to a time that flows in epochs not hours or days. When we manage to do that, “the world becomes eerily various and vibrant again. Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountain’s ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless Earth.”

Author quotes immunologist Jonas Salk, asking what Anthropocene, an age when Earth is shaped by human action, asks of us: “Are we good ancestors?”

The Sea from Here: Interview with Artist David Cass

“Cass has been in thrall to the wonder and beauty of the sea for as long as he can remember and since he has looked with an artist’s eye – to enhance, edit and interpret – he has been struck by the conundrum of the horizon.”

Guy Peploe, Managing Director at The Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh

Edinburgh born contemporary artist David Cass creates artworks from found and recycled materials. He paints the sea on tiny matchboxes and large vintage advertisements for motor oil. Right now David Cass is working on two new projects, in both of which anyone from anywhere can participate: Where Once the Waters will form a large-scale artwork set to be exhibited at the 2022 Venice Art Biennale, while The Sea from Here will take the form of both a physical and virtual exhibition next year.

Sea Library contacted David to know more about his relationship with the sea and how to participate in the mentioned projects. His catalogue-book Rising Horizon, published last year, is available to borrow in the Sea Library.

Artworks made from found objects by David Cass
Artworks made from found objects by David Cass

What does the sea mean to you?

This is a question with many answers, which I suppose depend on which day you ask me. I love the image of the sea; but I’ve never lived at the coast and I rarely paint sea from life. So, maybe my seascapes would be better described as abstract paintings. Each has come from imagination, created in central Edinburgh or London. 

Often, I use a painted horizon-line to represent a scale: gradually ascending to reflect our escalating global average temperature or the rising of sea levels. Other times, I approach the process of patiently layering waves onto wood or metal as something grounding; some meditative relief during anxious periods.

"100 Percent" by David Cass
“100 Percent” by David Cass

Why are you mesmerized by a horizon line?

I read recently in photographer David Loftus’ memoir Diary of a Lone Twin part of a line by Rossiter W. Raymond: “…a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.” This speaks to me, though of course the context of the words is very different. Our collective imagination and infinite combined creativity can be put to use to meet all the issues of the day – to reach far beyond that horizon – should we choose. And there are many issues to be tackled.

I feel such despondency at times, at how little true progress has been made in solving the various causes of climate change. Money must be invested in research, in carbon reduction, in a rapid movement toward sustainable business practices. Otherwise, our horizon will – quite literally – rise. Warming seas around the world will erode coastlines and flood low-lying locations.

So, a horizon is a mark to aim for; but it can also become a threat.

Sometimes when I’m near water I can switch off and appreciate the beauty of it all, and in much of my painting I hope to convey this feeling. But at other times, I can’t help but fear the ocean’s power, and regret the damage we’ve done.

Artwork made from found objects by David Cass
Artwork made from found objects by David Cass

You’ve explored the Great Floods in history – including that which assailed Florence in 1966. What can we learn?

In a magazine article published during the aftermath of Florence’s Great Flood (1966), a line read “Nature will cooperate with man, if man learns to cooperate with Nature.” This statement in its original context referenced the mismanaging of dams in the valley upstream of Florence – a complicated and political hot-topic (it’s been suggested that river management in this region of Italy is still flawed). But the same sentence is relevant today.

Historically, Florence has suffered a major flood once a century. As documented in the press “the situation has actually got worse than in 1966” according to Raffaello Nardi, who heads up a special commission responsible for safeguarding the Arno river basin. This potential risk prompts concern, in part, because of the importance of Florence: what it means to the world of art and culture.

The irreplaceable items, objects, artefacts and architectural features its galleries, museums, churches and even its basements contain. Not to mention the intangible: the belief that Florence is a mecca of the art world. Cimabue’s Crucifix lost over 70 percent of its paint in 1966. Donatello’s Penitent Mary Magdalene was stained with thick brown oil. Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise lost half of their golden panels. Twenty-seven thousand square feet of frescoes in Florence’s central churches and museums were almost completely destroyed.

In 2018, the Louvre museum in Paris was on high alert, after the previous year rooms housing Arts of Islam and From the Mediterranean Orient to Roman Times were flooded, and a set of works by Nicolas Poussin and Jean-François de Troy damaged. The Louvre wasn’t the only Parisian cultural institution to take on water that year: the National Library of France suffered damages to its collection too; and the Musée Girodet, 80 miles south of Paris, suffered a “cultural catastrophe”.

We know now that so-called “hundred year” weather events are becoming so common that the metric is useless as a baseline for an extreme event. So, in tandem with reducing our environmental impact we must also safeguard.

Artwork made from found objects by David Cass
Artwork made from found objects by David Cass

How do you choose on what surfaces to paint the seascapes on?

I tend to look for ordinary, everyday items. Objects we can all relate to. Of course, the item must have a flat plane to paint upon, but it also has to be something that’s clearly lived a life already.

Robert Macfarlane speaks of something he calls Trace Fossils: “the marks that the dead and the missed leave behind. Handwriting on an envelope; the wear on a wooden step left by footfall; the memory of a familiar gesture by someone gone, repeated so often it has worn its own groove in both air and mind…”

The objects I gather to paint upon are Trace Fossils too, then – etched with evidence of life and time. I paint on wooden doors, scored and scratched; on drawers and table-tops, discoloured and worn by daily use. I paint on ancient letters and postcards, written and sent and received and kept.

So, I suppose my completed paintings become a collaboration across time, carrying the marks of many hands. So much has come before. So much exists out there. So much will outlive us. Nothing in life can truly be considered blank, my artwork aims to reflect this.

In a few cases, I’ve aimed to combine my climate concerns with my desire to use found substrates. For my Rising Horizon project, I sourced surfaces made from waste plastics or metals – including vintage advertisements for motor oil, a key cause of global-warming.

"Rising Horizon" by David Cass. Photo by Beach Books
“Rising Horizon” by David Cass. Photo by Beach Books

Can you tell me more about your new projects The Sea from Here and Where Once the Waters and how everyone can participate?

I really want for my artwork to be inclusive. I want to offer entry points – to let others be involved – especially in projects concerning climate change. Working together is important.

I currently have two projects that anyone can be involved in: the first is called The Sea from Here, the second is Where Once the Waters. The two are connected, in that they both aim to offer us personalised pieces of information relating to our changing seas, but the outcome of each will be different.

I can’t give too much away about Where Once the Waters other than that you can take part by submitting your data here. I’ll use the data you enter to calculate the level of sea-rise (at your closest coast) since your birth. The “readings” will form a large-scale artwork set to be exhibited at the 2022 Venice Art Biennale.

I can, however, say a little bit more about The Sea from Here, which will take the form of both a physical and virtual exhibition next year. Send me a photo (or, up to three) of your local sea here and I’ll present them as part of the exhibition. I’ll select a few of the photos (there’s been almost 200 photos submitted so far) and pair them with data specific to the seas in question.

Once you’ve submitted your photo(s) by following the steps on the webpage, please do also consider sharing your photo on Instagram using the hashtag #theseafromhere so we can get as many involved as possible.

Book cover by David Cass for Mark Haddon's novel "The Porpoise", published in 2019 by Chatto Windus
Book cover by David Cass & Suzanne Dean for Mark Haddon’s novel “The Porpoise”, published in 2019 by Chatto Windus

What sea-books or artworks have inspired you?

So many artists and authors come to mind. You introduced me to David Gange’s The Frayed Atlantic Edge which I’ve just devoured. “If timelessness exists anywhere on Earth”, Gange writes, “it is not in sight of the sea.”

But if I had to pick one sea-book it’d be Mark Haddon’s The Porpoise. Maybe I’m biased, because I worked on the covers of the hardback version of this book, or maybe it makes perfect sense (maybe this is why the publisher picked me to work on the project). Escapism is sometimes necessary, and I’ve returned to this soaring epic in the last months of lockdown as some adventure-driven relief from the anxiety of the current situation.

This is a deeply affecting and beautifully-written tale about a family – a woman, a man and a child – apparently lost to one another, who must journey through an unstable world, across oceans and across centuries, to find a place they can call home.

And if I had to pick one artist it’d be William Kentridge, who creates artworks with and upon a vast range of objects. In my view the most exceptional of his artworks is the mural Triumphs & Laments, located along the banks of the Tiber in Rome, illustrating scenes of the current migrant crisis but also of Rome’s classical history. In this mural, Kentridge has created something temporal, drawn by erasure (by jet-washing upon a pollution blackened wall), forming a mammoth picture that will, in time, fade back into the wall…

David Cass
Portrait photo of David Cass


Autumn Sea Books 2019

Dozen reasons to read in Autumn in the Sea Library. Books of September, October, November by twelve wonderful writers. Read more about each book here.

Jūras bibliotēka piedāvā duci iemeslu, lai rudenī lasītu! Divpadsmit brīnišķīgu autoru grāmatas, kuras klajā nāk septembrī, oktobrī un novembrī. Vairāk par katru vari izlasīt šeit.