Geologists Have an Incentive to be Naughty

coal black mesa mine
Lump o' coal, Black Mesa Mine, Arizona

I never understood why getting a lump of coal instead of presents should be considered a threat. I’m a coal miner’s daughter (yes, really. Okay, so he was an engineer at a coal mine, but it counts). The best thing my dad ever gave me, aside from the pony and the playhouse and the Breyer Horse stable that I adored for nearly a decade, was a lump of coal. I’d been after him about it for a long time. “Daddy, please bring me a lump of coal from the mine! Pleasepleaseplease I’ll be good!”

If I’d had a better grasp on reverse psychology, or my dad a somewhat better-developed sense of irony, I might have ended up with one earlier. Regardless, one day, he arrived home with an enormous black chunk of ancient swamp, and I cherished it until we lost it in a move.

I’ll never forget visiting Black Mesa once. I was very young, probably no older than 7 or 8, and we drove through a black canyon gashed by men’s machines in the thick seams of coal that made up the mesa. I don’t know what I’d expected, maybe a tunnel, like I’d seen in various pictures of mining operations. I stared, slack-jawed and thrilled beyond containment, at those shiny black walls towering above me. And then there was the fire, and the truck with a mounted hose spraying an enormous rooster tail of water on it. Fires sometimes started in the seams, my dad told my astonished young self. They’d burn for years. You couldn’t really fight them so much as contain their spread. They sometimes could manage it with water; sometimes, they’d have to bury it.

I’d never considered that there might be any such thing as a fire that burned year after year, that no number of firetrucks and firemen could defeat. And when I got my hands on that hard lump of coal, and realized this tough shiny stuff was what did the burning, I was amazed. It didn’t really sink in then, but it did later. These were rocks. Rocks that burn.

What moron decided this was a disincentive to naughtiness?

But kids seemed to take that threat seriously. They’d rather have the shiny toys than a shiny lump of coal. I don’t think they were future geologists, or there would have been a considerable uptick in the naughty quotient whenever that threat was made.

Angry parent: “If you don’t stop doing X bad thing, all Santa’s giving you is a lump of coal!”

Future geologist: “Awesome! Two, please!”

My original lump has been replaced by a smaller but no less cherished lump purchased from a wonderful little rock shop down in Cottonwood, AZ. And that little delight has been joined by several bits picked up during rambles along Coal Creek (aptly named), which was my first opportunity to pick up coal in the wild. I love this stuff.

coal creek
Coal in streambank at Coal Creek near Seattle, Washington

And why am I babbling about coal just now? Partly because I’ve been extremely lax in posting on geological topics lately. Mostly because one of my Twitter friends posted a link to this perfect gift for geologists: coal candy! Which you can make, at home, and use your rock hammer to break, and just seems like the perfect thing for geologists to make and/or receive. I saw that, and thought of Coal Creek and Black Mesa and Evelyn’s geophoto meme, and thus inspiration did strike.

But I’ve saved the best for last. It hasn’t much to do with coal, except it’s on Coal Creek, and it’s just the most awesome orange waterfall I’ve ever had the pleasure of getting up-close and personal with:

waterfall coal creek
Orange Waterfall on Coal Creek

That lovely orange hue is probably courtesy of chemotrophic bacteria, according to a commenter on the original adventure report. It certainly adds a little verve to the scene. And what’s even nicer is that you can get to it by following a stream bed filled with chunks of petrified wood and lots and lots of coal.

And if you’re very naughty, I may venture back out there and collect a lump or two just for you.

Geologists Have an Incentive to be Naughty

12 thoughts on “Geologists Have an Incentive to be Naughty

  1. 1

    So true. Especially since a lump of coal is bound to be full of cool plant fossils.

    I always thought generally that threatening a badly-behaved child with something that can be used to make a lot of mess had the prospect if being rather counterproductive…

  2. 2

    The orange color also probably implies one of the shales that bound the coal contains some iron. (Commonly found for example in Pennsylvanian in Ohio, where the shales contain the iron and in combination with the coal and limestone in the coal sequence provide everything you need to make iron before industrial scale iron and steel production came about)
    Recall that the coal shows sea level moving up and down as you move from deep water to a swamp and back. In the Black Mesa case it was cretaceous as the sea swept up and back over the western us.

  3. 3

    Re: Chris: “So true. Especially since a lump of coal is bound to be full of cool plant fossils.”

    Its like a present that you have to “unwrap”!!

  4. 5

    There’s a deli I used to eat at when I worked near it in my pre-geology days. It had an old-fashioned coal-burning stove and a bucket of real coal. It was all for show — nobody actually ever used the stove — but the whole concept of burning rocks fascinated me even then. Here in California one doesn’t often see coal.

  5. 6

    When I was 8, My German uncle worked in a coal mine there and sent me a tree trunk fossil in which you could still see colors of the vegetation. After 50 years, I still have that rock, along with many others from a mining career that has taken me around the world.

    Never know what you might ignite with a lump of coal….

  6. 7

    I like coal even though I was a hard rock geologist. Sure, give me lumps of coal. I could
    cook hot dogs and roast marshmallows after a good day’s ice fishing or cross country skiing.

  7. 9

    I grew up in Pittsburgh (bituminous coal), and it was quite common to find small pieces of coal when digging just about anywhere. A frequent rainy-day project was to make a “coal garden” with salt, ammonia and laundry blueing poured over a lump of coal in a dish. Once every winter, my dad would buy a bushel of coal so we could have a coal fire in the fireplace. It has a very distinctive (and nostalgia-inducing) smell. Now that I am in Wisconsin, I don’t get to smell it, even though the power plants all around are coal-fired.

  8. F

    I remember hearing the coal-in-yer-stocking meme as a wee child, and thinking how cool that would be. I was a bit of a rock hound. I never even saw a piece of coal until years later, despite the presence in area homes of coal chutes and slabs for long-gone coal-fired gravity furnaces, which might lead one to think there might be bits of coal still laying about in the ground from the days of yore along with all the other stony debris which had been transported by humans.

    I’ve still never found a piece of coal with a visible fossil impression or mineralized tissue in it.

    Coal seam fires are indeed horrible and fascinating, and there are way too many. The few which more or less began without human intervention are enough. There’s one in Oz which has been burning for an estimated 6ky.

  9. 11

    Hmmm, it occurs to me that I’ve never actually seen real live coal. Odd, the way a thing can be a staple of human civilization, yet still kind of obscure…

  10. 12

    Centralia in a very freaky place. I live about a hour from it. I grew up with unreclaimed coal strip mines, lots and lots and lots of vibrant orange creeks and the occasional deep mine that opened up and released millions of gallons of toxic water (also usually orange). More cool coal stuff:

    was here personally on a college geo field trip.

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