When the ground moved loss of balance had me reach out – to cling onto something, anything. Closest thing was a large fir tree at the side of the forest track. Next thing I knew was that me and the tree were dropping down through a sinkhole, earth and rocks shooting up past us.
Somehow, as tree and I plummeted ever deeper, mossy ground and yellow roots going first, I found myself a little further up the trunk and protected by the spread-out roots and lower branches, their ends bent upwards by the sinkhole's sides.
Did I take a breath as we fell? And fell. The fall seemed to take a subjective age. Maybe in objective time not that long, my face flinching from flicked back grit and pine needles.
Then we stopped; and gravity grabbed at my feet. My arms though had wrapped themselves around the bough beside me. So I found myself swinging, but protected by the bough and branches above from stones and showers of loosened earth falling after us. A couple of stones did bounce off my forearms. Caused no damage though: my thick walking jacket absorbed both thud and patter.
I waited, still swinging, for the shower of earth crumbs and stones to cease. Then I looked down beyond my walking boots. I wasn't sure if we had reached bottom or we had become stuck part way down the sinkhole and there was further yet to go. So far as I could make out though, through what little light was reaching us, the loosened earth and stones were stopping with us.
The fir tree had bark like large brown fish scales. I used these, fingertip and toe-holds only, to ease myself to the floor. Floor yes, I swore then to never again use the expression 'solid ground.'
Certain we had stopped falling it was then that I let out a huge sigh and again became conscious of breathing.
“This,” I told myself and the tree, “is what happens when you come to live in an old mining community.”
Quaint the valleys might now be, cleaned and greened up, but we had lately suffered a series of earth tremors. Geologists disagreed regards the cause, whether due solely to old mine shafts collapsing, or 'natural' tectonic shifts resulting in old mine workings falling in on themselves.
Forestry had long replaced the mines and the smaller uneconomic farms, and it was my wont fine weather to roam the plantation tracks. Not all were, by the time I arrived, spruce dark and gloomy. Toxic subsoils and tree diseases had left parts of these new forests a collection of white and black sticks. Although silver birch and willow had now started growing up between the sticks.
“So much for natural regeneration,” I said; and peered up through a gap in the squashed together pine boughs to a small roundish smudge of white sky.
“How very Murakami,” I decided. “All I need now is a talking tree. Say 'Pardon',” I told the tree.
Not so very Murakami the tree kept its own woody counsel.
Naturally occurring sinkholes are mostly caused by water undermining weak spots in the Earth's lower strata. Complicated here by mines having been dug under and through various of the strata and further weakening Earth's structure. Many of the deep mines had had to be pumped out and were left to flood when abandoned. Here that 'new' subterranean flow of water sooner or later caused the sinkholes.
Where tree and I were however seemed dry, the sides of the hole if possibly damp certainly not leaking wet.
“Further investigation required,” I told the tree.
I worked my way crouched, then crawling, around the trunk. The sides of the hole seemed solid except where a lower bough had penetrated.. I went, wriggling on green needles, into the narrow gap and the dark.
Now my youngest daughter is a worrier, a conjuror-up of worst-case scenarios. One of which is that, on my lonesome hill walks, I might break a leg, have a heart attack, be assaulted by a rampaging squirrel or an out-of-sorts deer. So she has supplied me with a rescue kit. I refuse to take the mobile phone as I don't want it going off and frightening the wildlife. Which happened the first time I had it with me, a call from the service provider asking what I thought of their service.
Ever since I have left the phone, uncharged, at home. But I do take with me in my small backpack the compass, foil blanket (folds down to wallet size), Swiss army penknife, flint fire-starter, Kendal cake (in tin), whistle and – of importance here – a wind-up torch.
Unclipping its handle, I wound up the torch.
In the torch's white light the opening, mostly dry soil, sloped away from me and into deeper darkness.
I lied there on the green needles – smell of pine as invigorating down there as above – looked down that miniature hill of soil and stones and tried to work out what to do. There was no way I could climb the sheer sides of the sinkhole. And it was too big, sides too far apart, too unchimney-like for me to push feet-and-back up through to the top. I could blow my whistle for days and no-one would hear. Maybe when the Coal Board came to cap off the sinkhole the workers might stop their engines long enough to hear. But that could be weeks away. Often walking the paths and tracks I could be a month or more not seeing any other walker.
Seemed I had no option. Twisting onto my side I gave the torch handle a few extra turns, then began belly-slithering down the slope. Which turned out not to be as deep as my torch beam had thought. I had arrived on level ground, in an old mining gallery. Disappearing off into the dark it didn't give me quite room enough to stand erect.
I rewound the torch and shuffled a little further on, glancing back – for comfort as much as orientation – to the diminishing grey-green light of the tree.
I came upon some wooden pit props. Their being wooden made this a very old gallery. Later mines had used pre-stressed concrete and metal sheeting. Here though, because it was so dry, neither props nor lintels had rotted.
A gallery this old would have been dug into the side of the hill. I'd come across more than few collapsed exploratory diggings in my wanderings. No openings though that hadn't collapsed. Although this one could now easily come out into one of the denser fir plantations. A cavity overlooked?
Before I went any further I decided to go back to the sinkhole, check that there wasn't any way past all the debris that had come down with me and the tree. There wasn't. Rewinding the torch, backpack clutched to my chest, neck bent, I shuffled further along the gallery. The shuffling, not stepping, was because I no longer had any faith in the reliability, the solidity of ground.
I came to some more wooden pit props. Not even surface softening. Then a candle stub on a rock ledge. That meant this mine predated even the Davy lamp. I had no matches, only the flint fire-starter and, unlike those ancient miners, I didn't want to risk a methane explosion. That said all that I could smell still was pine sap.
On I shuffling went, trying to work out where I might be in relation to the remembered topography above me. Or was I dreaming? Had I fallen asleep under the tree, and was this all a dream? I recalled some advice on a social media thread: 'Never fall asleep reading Murakami, you'll wake up as something else.'
Or was I already dead? The fall seemed impossible, my surviving unscathed unreal.
I scratched for reassurance at my trousered left leg. So unlikely was this, “All so very Pincher Martin.”
As you may have guessed I am of a literary bent. Very bent at that time, due to the height of the gallery. Old-fashioned mining favoured folk of a smaller stature, children even.
The sound of running water, and an increasing dampness in the air had me concerned. Although the pit props were still unrotted this water was maybe how the sinkhole had been created. Water coming in at a distant juncture having created sufficient suction along the gallery, that suction finding the weakest point and bringing down the tree and me.
My yellow-white torchlight got reflected off the damp air first, mini-droplets thrown up from the splashing stream, which had already gouged a path through the mine floor, coming in from the right side and leaving through a large hole in the left. Beyond the stream the mine roof had collapsed.
As I stood trying to figure out what next to do sides of the stream were crumbling away and being shot off to the left.
There are streams throughout the forest. All have to emerge somewhere. And that decided me.
My intention had been to step into the stream, to carefully sit myself down, then bottom-shuffle my way along it. What happened was that no sooner had I stepped into the stream than I slipped and was shot down, clutching my torch and backpack, at one time underwater, then into whirling air, rolled over again, and finally shot out into daylight. I found myself stumbling down a small waterfall and trying not to trip.
And that's how I came to be walking home soaking wet on one of our rare dry days here. I met no-one that day to disbelieve where I'd been.
Nowadays locals disinterestedly say, when I tell them of the tree and me, “Oh yea,” or “Right.” They had relatives who had worked down the mines. Some had even died down there. No-one it seems wants to believe me. They say, “Lot of old mine workings here,” and they go about their business.
© Sam Smith 1st January 2022