II: Coal

Why do bad kids get coal in their stocking?

II: Coal
Charcoal. Photo by Nikolay Kovalenko / Unsplash

Good morning. Today is duodi, the 2nd of Nivôse, Year CCXXXI. We celebrate l'houille, a lump of naughty in nature's stocking.

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All coal was made at the same time. There was a 60 million year period that ended about 300 million years ago when plants had just figured out how to make lignins, which are the molecules that make wood so ... woody. There was a tree explosion, because now everybody could grow higher and be tougher. The problem was that the decomposers like fungi and bacteria hadn't figured out how to eat it, so dead trees just fell over and stayed there, never rotting, never decomposing. This wood fossilized as it became buried under layers of other trees, until decomposers finally figured out how to break down lignins and the feast began. Fossilized wood is coal. Hardly any wood in the last 300 million years has had a chance to fossilize. So coal is an evolutionary accident – a slip in the food chain – that will never be made again.

Coal goes to bad children. If you don't think of coal in the context of mining or the energy industry, this would probably be the strongest association you have. I'd guess it's right there at third place on the Family Fued board.

But why? I think, as a kid, I imagined that coal in a stocking was bad because it was messy. It would leave black marks all over your hands and face and the punishment was that it wasn't candy, and it might trick you into thinking it's candy, and you'd eat it, and then your teeth would be black? I guess I never really thought it through. My introduction to coal overall was as a punishment, so I just took it on faith that a lump of messy black rock was, yeah, really punishing.

But, like, it was a pretty good gift, back in the day.

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