I’ll be away from the computer for much of the day, so I probably won’t get a chance to complete the fifth and final installment of “The Origins of Easter” until tomorrow. To tide you over, here’s a brief essay I wrote last July (reprinted from my other website). I think it kind of demonstrates how much fun one can have if one studiously avoids doing any research whatsoever!
LIFE HISTORY OF THE COAL MINER’S CANARY
I am wondering about the coal miners’ canaries, the quick & perilous lives that must’ve been their lot, a century or more before they ever gained entrance to the long linguistic half-life of metaphor & byword. Were they rotated, with a different canary assigned to every trick? Or, once drafted, were they kept down there full time? Wouldn’t their bright feathers have faded as the memory of the sun dwindled to a pinprick from a distant lamp? What about their songs of green & silver, palm frond and minnow flash? Even a stray note might’ve turned fey in the face of so much ageless & unattainable fire.
But surely the miners had every reason to keep their guardians as lively as they could. In an era when even epidemics like yellow fever & of course malaria were attributed to bad air, the sacrifice these birds stood ready to make, however unwitting, must’ve seemed a fine, brave thing. I picture them in cages of polished brass, swinging perches lubricated with whale oil, caches of hempseed & sunflower, pressure-activated water fountains, the works. And of course the miners must’ve had lots of superstitions, little amulets wired to the bars: rosaries & crucifixes, probably some patron saint’s emblem. I can even imagine someone entrusted with a cloth of fine white linen to go over the cage during blasting.
Because it’s one thing for the rational mind to accept that the canary must not be shielded from death–that its life is precious mainly for its potential to suddenly cease. But getting the heart to buy into it is another matter. As long as the canary stays safe, we’ll all make it! murmurs the dogmatic pulse, that thick dark stuff that keeps us soft & resilient. Faithful blood that turns red in the presence of oxygen.
Though of course any man who goes down to the coal spits every day the smudgy spore of his own death into his handkerchief. He folds it three ways for politeness’ sake & returns it to a breast coat pocket, where it lies like a little miscarriage pining for milk.
Sooner or later a long-lived canary must’ve become like family: so familiar, so easy to forget. The whistle blows, they get in the cars & half-way up someone says who’s got the bird? And the poor thing will perish there overnight–whether from hunger or from terror, who knows? Because you can’t expect the bosses to let them go back & hunt for it a quarter mile down some new shaft. They split up quickly at the entrance, then, & go straight home, evading their wives’ queries, evincing a sudden interest in weeding the garden. Kneeling in the coal ash-coated dirt, half-expecting to find under every ball of roots some scrap of brightness, a lost coin, a child’s toy whistle.