Extractions from underground (journal excerpts)

by Guy Königstein

Dear Old Man,

I have been in your homeland for a few days now. Somewhat coincidentally, the inner motivation of this research trip may never be revealed to me. Nor did I define an exact destination before my departure.

But I have you as my compass and I intend to remain faithful.

Would you help me track you down? Perhaps illuminate the way into the heart of the mountain? Allow your voice to echo through the ventilation shaft?


My search has been rough. Although the mining lexicons in the House for the History of the Ruhr clearly confirm that you belong here, other references lead me to nebulous terrains. So far, I have encountered you above all under the heading of “Mining Subsidence Engineering”, among mathematical formulae that I do not understand in the least. But sometimes you are also mentioned with admiration in reports about your role in the “Miracle of Lengede”. Back then in the year 1963. In one book there were even photos of you and the eleven trapped miners. For a moment, I was touched. Will I soon be embraced by you as well?

Otherwise: strata control and long-term stability, post-mining landscapes and potential shakings, co-determination and male mono-structures, underworld spirits and underground waste disposal – old remnants everywhere.

By the way, I wouldn’t have thought that entering the German word “alt” – meaning “old” – in different grammatical cases could broaden the horizon of the archive search results to such an extent. Will have to try out all declensions in future, including typos.


On my way to the Geological Park I wondered if we would recognise each other. But upon arrival the initial butterflies of this first date quickly subsided.

“Collapsed gallery” was the only thing written on the plaque, which I had to clear of dry leaves as I do at my grandfather’s grave. Wikipedia assured me that all this was really about you. And all that remained was the hope that I could look into your eyes.

But no, you didn’t let me. You turned your head away.

I climbed over the fence and came closer to you, but didn’t dare go further. With a length of almost two metres, you seemed rather unspectacular, not particularly inviting.

I briefly posed in front of the camera to immortalise our first meeting. Then I left, a little disappointed.


Hey, quick question. An “apprenticeship for persons over the age of eighteen without mining experience for employment in underground coal mining”, could that be something for me? Or perhaps an “apprenticeship as a dust officer”?


I looked for you for a long time today at the Mining Museum in Bochum. Only once did you appear in the exhibition; and that was in the context of mining in the recent past – very confusing. In the visitor’s mine, I eventually came across a sign: “The yellow machine cuts the coal out of the seam by means of the rotating cutting drums. What remains is a hollow space, known in German as the ‘old man’ (Alter Mann), which collapses without support.”

Huh …?!?

Only later in the library did I understand my mistake. Your terminology has probably changed over time. While several centuries ago you were considered an abandoned field, which was rediscovered by later generations, you now seem to describe any decoaled area. Even fields that have recently been robbed of coal by the enormous cutting machines and are immediately condemned to large-scale filling or demolition blasting are called “old men” (Altmänner), just like you.

There is nothing left of the place that once stood for the supratemporal meeting of several generations of miners.

And so, my romanticised notion of you as a grand underground chamber has become disenchanted. Perhaps in the past, when you were near the surface and did not have to suffer under the extreme forces of the mountain, you could be found as a complete space and named according to your kind. But – and I only understand this now – as you hollowed yourself out deeper and deeper, at a certain point you could barely withstand the burden, and you allowed yourself to be gradually crushed, until you completely broke down.

And with your advancing spatial disappearance, you had to expand and generalise your term in order to survive at all. Oh, what a clever old chap you are.


Do you feel exploited by me?

My time with you is coming to an end and I only have more questions. Sometimes I feel like I have pulled you out of nowhere – or from a certain depth – to come to terms with my own ageing. Or maybe you were meant as a door behind which I wanted to live out an unspoken fascination for older men?

But what is this space, behind this door? What kind of fantasy are you and how did you become this target of projection? Or maybe any person can be a “space” for another person? A void that can be filled with intimate made-up tales? And I as well?


Today I looked for you in file 200B in the Works Council archive of the Westphalia mine. Under the title of “Accidents subject to reporting and accidents resulting in death”, there are eyewitness accounts collected by the mining authority. The dry descriptions are difficult to read and although you are never mentioned by name, I would have to speculate about your participation. After all, you were there at all of these events!

Is it a coincidence that in addition to “collapse of supports”, “trapped between mine cars” or “tearing of ropes”, also “falling rock” and “dislodged boulder” are occasionally mentioned as causes of an accident? Your way of demanding attention?


Dear friend, it’s time to depart.
My luggage is now heavier with 47.3 gigabytes of scans and photos. I’m thus taking you with me, knowing full well that you can’t join.

But – will you remember me?

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