Underground Amphibians

Guanajuato, Mexico has a lovely rare book library in the Jardín Reforma, mildly rococo, smelling of bee’s wax, with wooden balconies for book access. It is reminiscent of the eighteenth century, oval Duchess Anna Amalia Library in Weimar, Germany, before its devastating fire in 2004. It is part of La Dirección de Archivos y Fondos Históricos (DAFH), The Office of Historical Archives and Collections, of the University of Guanajuato. To touch a book, you must wear sterilized gloves.

My neighbor works there as an archivist. She once asked me to help them translate the titles and tables of content of old German books, to facilitate their cataloging. I dropped in unannounced, so they had to run around and assemble the books I was to work with. This took a little time. While I waited, my eyes fell on a folder that lay on the great oak table in front of me. To pass the time, and being by disposition nosy, I opened the folder a little and looked inside.

I found several yellowed pages of an article that had been submitted to what must have been an earlier version of the Chopper, the city’s thin weekly for history, news, and cultural events. The title of the first page read “Anfibios Subterráneos,” “Underground Amphibians.” A neat pencil annotation gave the date 1945, followed by question mark–which I thought might apply to the subject, or to the reliability of the date.

After performing my German translations, I asked my neighbor the archivist if I could photocopy the article. What follows is a rough translation of a text written by a Miguel Ibarra Chico, a state mining archeologist whose job had been to explore and map the 300-odd kilometers of tunnels and shafts that lay below the municipality of Guanajuato. This is his text:

“José Luis María Finbar was the name of a miner who works at the Canadian-run mine Las Torres, in Calderones, a few miles up above La Presa. His ancestors lie in the quiet, shaded English miners’ graveyard that looks down from the bluff above Real del Monte, on the outskirts of Pachuca. Finbar is the man who was once fired for bringing a turtle to work.

Tall and broad-shouldered, with a spot of white in the front of his red hair, he confessed that he put the turtle in his lunch bucket and brought it out for the break at approximately four in the morning, one quarter of a mile or 402 meters below ground. The temperature at that depth–although it was January and wintry on the surface–was 45.5 Celsius, or 114 degrees Fahrenheit, even with the pumped-in ventilation.

The turtle, still young and as long as a thumb, grew active in the heat, crawled through the muck toward the shaft head and the horizontal blast hole Finney had just gotten through drilling with the company’s very expensive Hendy caterpillar drilling rig. The miners–six of them, seven of them including Finney–watched the turtle’s progress. No one moved. It was the break, after all, and it was quiet, except for the hiss of the carbide lamps on their helmets. All seven beams focused on the turtle as it crawled forward.

At such depth, miners can form quick attachments to living things, and so they were concerned when the creature found respite from the heat by crawling into the blast hole.

For some minutes, they sat on their buckets and chewed on their cold aguacate and frijol tacos, until one of them said, “Finbar, you’ve lost your turtle.”

Finbar approached the hole, some seven centimeters across, took off his hardhat, got on his hands and knees in the muck, held the reflector of the carbide lamp and the hardhat up to the hole, and looked in behind it. He saw nothing. For all he knew, the turtle had crawled to the far end of the drill hole. He estimated it could be three meters away from him. It was four fifteen in the morning. They were to back out the driller and set the charge and be ready to give the signal–a simple electric bell–at four thirty.

The shot setter Francisco Ramirez unwrapped the charges. He looked at Finney. “What are we going to do?” he asked. Finney studied the hole, without replying. The turtle was his friend, and he wasn’t going to blow it up just to get at the silver. The other six miners looked at Finney. They were leaving the decision up to him.

Francisco Ramirez sensed the drift things were taking and began carefully repacking the charges in their brown waxed paper and lay them gently back in their wooden box. The miners picked up their lunch buckets. Finney backed the driller away from the shaft head, making them all cough from the fumes. At the proper distance, he shut it down.

A light came down the shaft. The Canadian supervisor asked, “What’s going on, Finbar?”

Finney didn’t know what to say. It was hard to think in the heat, standing in the warm muck, turning things over in his mind. The other miners respected life below ground. Sweat lines streaked their dust-covered faces. They could barely hear the supervisor’s voice. The roar of the driller had deafened them. They dreaded what was about to happen.

“Finbar!” they saw the supervisor mouth.

To Finbar, the priorities were very clear. A frown covered his entire forehead. In distress, and showing the whites of his eyes, he bellowed, “The turtle is in the drill hole.”

The supervisor had jowls. He stared at Finney, trying to understand. He spoke slowly. “You have twelve minutes to set the charge,” he said, holding up a finger.

The other six miners’ lamps turned toward Finney, who was considering his choices. Ursula and he had no children. She worked at the Presidencia. Her job was secure. She would be angry and make the house chilly for a week, but she loved him and would stand by him. He could kill the Canadian supervisor. But that broke the commandment about life below ground. Still, in the heat, he saw it as an option. But the man had three children, and he couldn’t blame them for being gringos. Or, he could feign mental illness. He could drop in a faint. He could pretend a heart attack.

The supervisor followed him, stumbling back over the hoses, through the muck and debris, to the shaft head. The bobbing lights of the other six miners came along behind. The turtle had not emerged, and Finbar made his decision. He turned around and walked past all of them, with a strong step, and accepted the supervisor’s pronouncement to the back of his head that he was fired, and wasn’t it stupid–all for a pinche tortuguita, a little goddamn turtle.

A new light bobbed toward them, passed Finney in the tunnel, and stopped in front of the supervisor. There had been a phone call, said the new arrival. On a level below them a small turtle had come walking out of a crack in the shaft head, and did the supervisor know what to make of it?

The supervisor knew exactly what to make of it. Finney’s self-propelled Hendy driller had drilled into a void of some kind: a geological fault, an ancient landslide, a washout millions of years old, or an mine shaft from earlier times, for which any record had been lost. The void, through which the turtle had passed, vented out onto the working level below Finney’s level. That meant that, if the shot had been fired, and if the blast had not been burdened by solid rock around charge, Finney’s shaft level, the one below it, and maybe one or two above it could have collapsed, crushing god knows how many men, and taking all kinds of machinery with it.

When Finney stepped out of the lift cage and out under the morning stars, he was greeted by miners from the new shift, who all took off their hard hats and looked at him with stunned expressions. Word had already spread, somewhat altered, that Finney’s turtle had saved them from being buried alive. Finney interpreted their looks as censure and walked straight ahead toward the dressing shed. When he came out, he found his supervisor standing in front of him. The supervisor held the little turtle up for Finney to see. More and more miners, the new shift and now most of the old shift, had gathered.

The supervisor–impressed by his audience–held a speech in which he extolled the value of turtles in mine shafts and how it would be the company’s policy from now on to introduce small turtles into blast holes to explore for voids. The assembled miners nodded their heads politely, but then shifted their eyes to see Finney’s reaction, which was not long in coming.

Finney reached out for his turtle, put it in his lunch bucket, clicked the top, turned around, and marched up the hill toward the bus stop, but not before exclaiming that there were enough living things at risk underground already, and that they didn’t have to add defenseless amphibians who were innocent and would be sacrificed by the thousands unnecessarily, and that the company should map the mines better and study the void phenomenon by making use of scientific breakthroughs which would be able to look through rock and see the dangers.

No one knew what he was talking about, but after a week had passed and Finney had calmed down, the company operating officer, recognizing a leader of men when he saw one, went to Finney and Ursula’s green cantera–rock–house in Calderones and hired him back on as a supervisor. Finney accepted but only on the condition that the company raise the wages of all the miners four pesos per week and renounce any plans for the exploitation of underground amphibians, including snakes, mice, and wild birds other than canaries.

From then on, miners under Finney’s supervision called him La Tortuga, the Turtle. That year, he was awarded the Miner of the Year Award by the president Manuel Ávila Camacho himself, in the capital’s Zocalo, before thousands of miners who had been bussed in by PRI officials, who hoped to co-opt Finney into serving their political ambitions. When interviewed by the press, Finney observed, when asked about it, that he had little interest in running for president of the country as long as miners continued to risk their lives unnecessarily below Mexico’s hallowed ground for still below-subsistence pay. At which point, all of the major political voices, not just the PRI, warned that La Tortuga was a populist who threatened the nation’s institutions and stability and was therefore an insult to the dignity of Mexico.”

That is the end of the text. I returned several times to Guanajuato’s rare book library, to help with the volumes in German. The last time, I found a folder with a picture of Finney standing with his three children–late arrivals–at the side of a large tortoise, at the León zoo. Underneath it, there was a second clipping, bordered in black, about a failed blast in the Las Torres mine, which vented into a unknown void and dropped six meters of peña, bedrock–the length of four railroad cars–on twenty five miners and their supervisor, one José Luis María Finbar, also once known fondly as La Tortuga.

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