LILAC IN THE COAL MINE
My wife grew up in Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal country, not far from Wilkes-Barre. Tall buildings for coal-crushers dotted the landscape the way silos do in Vermont, and always there seemed to be a runaway coal mine fire somewhere, “deviously wasting and inextinguishable,” as poet W. S. Merwin once put it. Coal smoke was everywhere, too.
Maybe for that reason, she is phenomenally sensitive to particulates. Driving down the highway after a truck has stirred up road salt is a torment. So is sitting next to someone at a concert who is wearing cheap, heavy perfume. When someone smokes, her throat clamps shut, and as she has observed, “When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters very much.” She’s gained a measure of local fame for her saying, “Having a smoking section in a restaurant is like having a peeing section in a swimming pool.”
Her early warning system is so well-attuned to particulates that sometimes I call her “the canary in the coal mine.” Those who went down those shafts sometimes took a canary in a cage, knowing that if there was a problem with the air, the bird, with its higher metabolic rate and oxygen demand, would show the effects first.
When she moved to Vermont, one of her regrets was that the lilacs she loved so much did not bloom on Mother’s Day the way they always did in northeastern Pennsylvania.
Some observant readers will be wondering here, “What do you mean not blooming on Mother’s Day? That was this past weekend, and lilacs were blooming everywhere.”
That’s the point. Within one person’s lifetime, the season for lilacs has advanced by weeks. The lilacs are, among other things, a “canary in the coal mines”--for global warming.