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Miners in the Earth

December 8, 2019

Image result for free downloadable images by artist josef herman

A Polish Jew who fled to Wales during WWII to escape persecution has much insight to offer on the plight of today’s American miners.

Ordinary Men

Josef Herman, a realist painter who lost his family to the Holocaust, embraced the coal mining community of Ystradgynlais (where he lived from 1944-1955) [1][2][3][4].  Herman’s works celebrate the miners – ordinary men who daily risked their lives to earn a meager living, in the process building a tight-knit community and a culture that is now lost.

A Connection to the Earth

Herman actually accompanied the miners down into the pit.  He spent hours in that dark, dirty, dank, and dangerous setting, sketching them by the light of a miner’s lamp.  Herman recorded the miners’ camaraderie and courage, their connection to the earth imbuing them with a kind of nobility.  His images are powerful and moving.

Dignity in Labor

What Herman observed and what he tells us is that there is dignity in labor, heroism in everyday life.  He tells us that we are stronger working together than standing alone.

Dismantling Communities

What he asks us to consider is whether we have the right to dismantle vibrant communities and destroy an entire industry, even for the sake of what we may think is a greater good.

The coal mining industry in the United Kingdom was for the most part eliminated by large-scale mine closures in the 1980s.  The miners and the mountain-size slag heaps they created are gone.

It would seem that environmental concerns make decline of America’s mining industry likewise inevitable.  Many view miners with something like contempt, uncomprehending of why they would want to pass on a livelihood to their children which has never made them wealthy and often cost them their health, if not their lives.

A Heritage of Pride

What those scoffers fail to see is that mining is a tradition, and a heritage of pride.

If a transition must be made away from that great tradition, we cannot abandon the people who engaged in it.  We cannot relegate them to drugs and despair, in the face of widespread unemployment and grinding poverty [5][6].

Miners explore the deepest darkness.
They search the depths of the earth
And dig…the shafts of mines…
No hawk sees the roads to the mines…
No lion or other fierce beast
Ever travels those lonely roads.
Miners dig the hardest rocks,
Dig mountains away at their base.
As they tunnel through the rocks,
They discover precious stones.
They dig to the sources of rivers
And bring to light what is hidden” (Job 28: 3-4, 7-11 GNT).

[1]  Wikipedia, “Josef Herman”,

[2]  Enhance TV, “Tate Britain’s Great Art Walks – Josef Herman”,

[3]  Ovation, “Tate Britain’s Great British Walks”, Episode 4 – Michael Sheen on Josef Herman, (streaming on Journy).

[4]  Artworks, Josef Herman,

[5]  Quartz, “The 100-year capitalist experiment that keeps Appalachia poor, sick, and stuck on coal” by Gwynn Guilford, 12/30/17,

[6]  Learn Data Science, “How Coal Mining Employment Has Impacted on Opioid Epidemic in America” by Kan Nishida, 8/20/18,


  1. This post really resonated with me Anna because I know several coal mining families in another state. I was given the opportunity to descend into a coal mine once, and I got as far as the entrance to the mine and couldn’t go any further. The prospect of laying down in a coal car and going down a mile into the mountain was something I could not will myself to do. Needless to say I have much respect for these miners.

    I have witnessed first hand the enslaving poverty that comes when the mine is closed and there are no other employment options. If we’re going to abandon the coal industry, I pray there are people on board who realize that there must be a way for these displaced workers to earn their living by some other means. The last thing they need is more of the drug and despair lifestyle associated with losing one’s only means of providing for their family.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience, Ron. This situation moves me deeply. I am so glad you feel the way I do.

      • I forgot to mention that ‘back in the day’ most miners were paid in company script instead of U.S. dollars.
        Of course, this served to create an ‘endentured servant’ relationship to the employer.

        The only place to use this script was the company store. Which of course provided goods at an inflated price,further restricting one from breaking out of the vicious cycle of the working poor.

      • This practice was documented as recently as 2019 by the Mexican susidiary of Walmart, Walmart de Mexico. Amazon rewards productive employees w/ “swag bucks”, a kind of currency that can only be spent inside Amazon. However, the company, also, pays wages.

  2. Thank you for sharing this amazing story Anna.
    With generations of coal miners who were put out of work.. you wonder if it was a blessing or a curse. So many die of black lung and underpaid for the risk involved..
    Yet many were willing to take the risk to feed their family.

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