Thursday, June 28, 2012

Denniston Moss

Denniston lichens and mosses
The day after our tour of Stockton Mine, Robin and I visited the next plateau south: Denniston. The rich seams of Denniston coal were extensively and famously pit-mined for nearly a century. Denniston's mining history has been romantically immortalised in a couple of popular novels which in turn support some excellent visitor resources on the Plateau.

Top of the Incline (once touted as the 8th wonder of the world!) at Denniston
I like looking at bits of rusty old mining kit as much as the next girl but I really wanted to get a feel for the natural landscape that is (probably) soon going to be open cast mined like Stockton.  The landscape is very similar to what Stockton would have been like before Solid Energy started blasting the surface away. I also really wanted to meet one of the famous snails. 

Looking South from Stockton onto Denniston Plateau

The Arctic has polar bears. The Sumatran rainforest has orangutans.  Every endangered ecosystem needs at least one charismatic megafauna to rally support for habitat conservation. The Buller coal plateau (which includes Stockton and Denniston Plateaux) is an endangered ecosystem so harsh that the most charismatic megafauna it can offer is a giant carnivorous land snail that sucks up live worms like spaghetti.  Unfortunately, as defenders of the plateau have found, snails have a repuation that make most people consider them a slightly ludicrous animal to bother saving.  It's difficult, even for a lifelong greenie like myself, to not secretly snigger just a little about saving snails.

Powelliphanta patrickensis (photo from Forest and Bird)

Of course its not just unique and remarkable snails that are at risk, but an entire unique and remarkable ecosystem (of which snails are a near-top-level predator, much like the polar bear in the Arctic, but infinitely less cuddly-looking). Denniston Plateau's environment is based on a layer of concrete-like sandstone with almost no soil; 6m p/a rainfall with no drainage, at a high altitude between mountains and sea, blasted almost year round with icy Southern winds. 

Typical Denniston landscape- exposed rock with a few short tough plants clinging to tiny nooks and hollows

The tallest trees grow to about knee height in most places.  Most of the animal life is invertebrate, with a few rare birds and lizards who survive there because it is too harsh an environment for the kind of pests that have demolished most of the rest of NZ's native animals. 

My favourite Denniston plant

I didn't see any snails. Or other insects, though I turned over a few rocks looking. No birds, no lizards, nothing but the most enchanting clumps of moss and lichen. We did meet lots of mining vehicles thundering along the narrow twisty gravel roads to and on the Plateau. Bathurst (the company granted consent to open cut on Denniston Plateau) is already open cut mining out the back at Cascade Mine, accessed across Denniston.  

Reminds me of the saucer gardens I used to make when I was a child
This environment is so fragile, so tenuously maintained on the hard sandstone cap that lies above the coal, that I just can't see how Bathurst  can possibly pretend they will be able to restore it after mining.  Like Solid Energy's efforts at Stockton Mine, they may go to a great deal of trouble to make sure the landscape looks green and tidy, (which is admittedly an improvement on pre-RMA mining companies leaving a big toxic mess as at Tui). I mean, look at these pictures.  The ecosystem that is there now is unique to the sandstone cap and can't be replicated on top of blasted rubble with manufactured soil, grass seed and native plantings.  It may very well be a parkland afterwards, but it won't be much like it is now.

Charismatic microflora.  Could a Save the Moss campaign work? It is kind of cuddly looking. 

Coal mining in the bad old days was difficult, dirty and dangerous. Miners died underground in explosions, fires, collapses and gassy pockets. They died overground in machinery failures. If they survived the immediate dangers many still died young of black lung from inhaling coal dust.

Denniston Miners (photos from the interpretive boards on site)

Today coal mining continues to be difficult, dirty and dangerous.  I'm still stitching my memorials to the men who died at Pike River few miles from Denniston not even two years ago.

New Zealand Coal Mining Disasters remembered at Denniston

An open cut mine in a regulated industry is undoubtably less dangerous for workers who spend most of their days inside the comfortable cabs of heavy machinery. But the dangers to the environment from coal mining are both localised and global, immediate and long term. Blasting a landscape, filling the air with dust and acidifying streams are bad enough but burning coal into greenhouse gases is inherently dirty. Clean coal is a dirty lie.  The only clean coal is in the hole.

The difficulty is overcoming the greed of coal mining directors and shareholders who deny that climate change is their problem (yet Colorado burns up as I write this).  The difficulty lies in changing a whole global economic system entirely based on digging up sequestered carbon and releasing it into the atmosphere.

"As new processes evolve, future generations might wonder why their ancestors wastefully burnt so much of this rare and precious fossil fuel."

Friday, June 22, 2012

Open Cut (warning, lots of photos of mining)

BEFORE: Stockton Plateau, looking towards Happy Valley aka Cyprus Extension, not yet open cut but riddled with undergound mine shafts)  See all the blue tarns? The sandstone is a waterproof seal and the rainfall 6m p/a so most of the water just sits on the surface in big puddles making a unique ecosystem.
Ever since I found out that Solid Energy sponsors (almost free) tours of its open cut coal mine at Stockton I've wanted to go visit.  Yes, there are plenty of coal mines (at Huntly) close to where I live but they don't offer 5-6 hour guided tours with an ex-miner-guide mostly paid for by the company!  Mines are such dangerous (not to mention controversial) places  (like this local one closed today due to methane build up) and very few allow the public inside.  I spend way too much time searching the internet looking for mine tours, so I know this for sure.

DURING: An open cut mine is visually confusing because its really just a big mucky mess in a constant state of flux. 

 So I schemed and planned and persuaded my buddy Robin (who has visited Stockton before for her work and is the friend most tolerant of my current mine obsession) to take me there last week. The reason I really really wanted to see a mine with my own eyes is evident in these photos I took on the tour.  Photographs of mines are really difficult to make sense of (I've made these ones as big as I can to help you). The enormous scale, muddy colours and dusty atmosphere combine to make it very difficult to tell what is up or down, vertical or horizontal; just the kind of information I need to interpret or represent a mine in textile relief.  I hoped that the tour would give me, literally, a fresh insight into mining topography.

AFTER:  These stripes are the kind of repetitive pattern I was looking for.  Just to give you a sense of scale,  the little  square thing in the middle of the image is the top of the cab of a really big truck.
The greenish terraces at the top of the image have been revegetated. The greyish ones in the middle are being prepared for revegetation. The tan coloured lower middle and foreground are where sandstone is being dumped from new cuts elsewhere on the mine. When the big hole is filled to a reasonable slope, they'll prep the soil and transfer the vegetation from the next cut to be opened.
Oh, but that ridge on the skyline? that was once Mt Augustus and some 80metres higher than it is now.   
The emphasis of the tour was two-fold: looking at BIG diggers and other kit, which was what the two guys on the tour were there for; and showing off a cutting edge revegetation programme which is probably why Solid Energy sponsors our visit. "Look what extremes we go to to appease environmentalists! See how we tenderly cherish our rare snails! Isn't it pretty! Isn't it natural looking!"  

Stockpiles of coal at the top, muddy hole to be filled at the bottom, revegetation in the foreground

Yeah yeah, whatever, show me how you get the coal. I'm not very interested in the big machines (which are actually quite small compared to Australian mining kit I've seen) and I'm pretty cynical about the reveg. Show me how the mine works!

The colour scheme is coal black and sandstone white with a greenish backdrop of native vegetation. Oh, did I mention that Solid Energy, a state owned power company, is mining here adjacent to Department  of Conservation land (hence the close attention to revegetation and appeasing the public)
 Stockton was mined underground for nearly a century  before technology and economics made open cut a more profitable approach.  A thick seam of very high quality coal sits below about 20metres of concrete-hard sandstone on a high plateau swept by icy winds.  They fill the shafts of the old underground mine with sandy concrete then drill holes for explosives to break up the overburden.

20 metres of sandstone scaped away and now they are digging out a thick seam of rich black coal

Oh before they do that, they scoop up 15cm or so of what passes for top soil on the plateau with all the plants in situ and truck that over to a part of the site where all the coal is already extracted and the ground prepared.  Once that is out of the way, the overburden is scooped into trucks and trundled across the site to be dumped in a big hole.  When they get down to the coal they scoop that into trucks and dump onto stock piles. Depending on the quality of coal it might get washed and crushed  before being blended (and this is the bit that gets me) with lower quality coal so as to make the most possible money. Yes that's right, the high quality coal is too valuable to waste on today's low commodity prices, so they mix it up with rubbishy coal that is even more polluting.  Eventually the coal sails down the mountain in ariel wagons, is loaded onto trains bound for Lyttleton port and then onto ships, mostly to be burned in Indian steel works.

Hgh quality 'peacock coal', almost pure carbon. Way too special just to burn for electricity.  I no longer think of coal as dirty and bad for the environment. What we do with it, like profligate burning is dirty and bad but coal in the ground or a piece in your hand like this, is just beautiful.
In some ways I got what I wanted out of my Stockton experience. It was really interesting and educational and I feel much more confident about interpreting photographs of open cast mines.  On the other hand, I don't feel any more ready to make a mine out of blankets than I did before.  The reality is so much messier than I want my art to be.  The only strong visual patterns are the stockpiles and terraces at the end of the mining process, and the seams and faces of coal itself in the short time its exposed.

One last look down on the mine before we go...
I understand now that mining, at least at Stockton, is all about rapidly changing the landscape, so that it is different from week to week, even day to day. Our tour driver had to keep checking to see if a road she took last week was still there for us this week.  Any representation of an active mine would be outdated immediately and yet this challenge has opened a new direction for me.

I carried my new insights and memories like a glowing ember inside for the rest of my week on the West Coast.  By the time we drove back over snowy Arthur's Pass I was on fire with new ideas for making. Watch this space to see where this mining experience takes my art next, but first expect more posts with photos from other places we saw in the South Island.

Me and a really big truck

Friday, June 08, 2012

In the Window Gallery

Today is the start of my latest exhibition, Extraction on in the Window Gallery of Objectspace in Ponsonby Auckland.  The Window Gallery can be seen 24/7- peer through the glass at night or step inside during the day for a closer look.  

Seep I & II, Spill I  II and Slick I  II

Its a small gallery (though much bigger than the Sanderson window I just pulled Dispersant out of).  In it I'm showing six small framed embroideries about oil spills and two larger three dimensional works about mining. Laura Howard has written a lovely essay to accompany the show.

Opencast Australia, reworked for the wall
I've long aspired to show my work at Objectspace and so this is (yet another) dream come true. (So many of my dreams come true, its lucky I'm good at generating new dreams so I don't run out).  The extraordinarily sweet Laura did a beautiful job of curating and installing, with some help from me.  It was a bit of joke though because she has a broken foot and I was (am) still recovering from a debilitating illness. We were like two half-people trying to help each other put the work up and accommodate each other's limitations.

Seep I & II in their beautiful frames

If my regular readers think you recognise these works, you are right, nothing is brand new, though its all new to Auckland.  Objectspace is not a dealer gallery, but all the work is for sale, just contact me directly.  See for more details.

From the floor looking up, Spoil (foreground) and Opencast Auxtralia (background)