I have never stood in front of a blast furnace, or ventured into the bowels of a steamship where coal is shoveled into a gaping maw of fire. But on steamy August days in New York City, as I descend the stairs into the subway station at the top of my street, I wonder if I am experiencing something like those early industrial scenes of torrid heat. It blows hard and hot, and contrary to all normal expectations, the air gets hotter the deeper my descent, even on the rare blessed day when the sea air that reminds me I live on an island is blowing cool at street level.
I hesitate at the first step, reconsider whether today’s obligations truly merit the passage through the scorching bowels. Even without the help of Dante’s vivid rendering of his descent through hell’s inferno, the subway tunnels in summertime evoke the darkest imaginings of hell and damnation. The five minutes until the next train stretch into an unending, unendurable eternity. Peering into a dark tunnel, a swift scurry catches my eye. A rat? More likely a demon, doubtless one of Satan’s minions delighting in our torments. I peel off my broad-brimmed hat, scramble for my water, but there’s not much I can do, no relief. My vacant mind fills with a habitual prayer, Lord, have mercy. And as if in answer, a strange thought enters my mind. I have been cursing the heat, willing it away. But this heat isn’t torment and torture. This heat is life.
For how is it that the subway platforms should be so hot? Although it feels like the heat is emanating from the fiery pit at the center of the earth, the MTA avers that it comes from the trains. The air conditioning that keeps the cars cool inside exhausts heat into the tunnels and platforms (ironically increasing the need for more air conditioning inside the cars). These air conditioning units are powered by electricity, juiced all through the system by the fearsome “third rail.” Trace the electricity back through the grid and find its origin in a generator, a power plant that transforms mechanical energy into electricity. The mechanical energy that fueled the industrial revolution is still the same mechanical energy we use for most of our electricity, the energy stored in carbon bonds in “fossil fuels.”
When the hydrocarbon compounds in coal, natural gas, and oil are burned, the carbon bonds are sundered and release energy. And while fuels may take different forms, all of this energy has one source: the sun. Plants and algae growing millions of years ago captured the sun’s energy through photosynthesis, an intricate biochemical dance that binds hydrogen and carbon into plant matter and gives off oxygen to create our atmosphere. It is, as my plant biology textbook puts it, “undoubtedly the most important chemical process on earth.” Photosynthesis transforms the sun’s energy into life. Burning fuel, we transform life back into energy, the heat of the sun come full circle. Without the sun, earth is just dead rock floating in cold, dark space.
It is easy to forget this in an artificially lit tunnel deep below ground, hidden from the sun’s rays. But the sun is here. It is the source of the energy that runs the trains, the energy that animates my flesh and that of all those around me, the energy that runs in a circuit connecting everything living, everything moving or changing or growing. Here too are the echoes of life past: the giant ferns of primordial forests. The soupy plankton-filled wash of ancient seas. And in the swampy forests and celestial bodies and miracles of photosynthesis and hydrocarbon bonds and the rest of it, there is the hand of God. Glory in the hot blast, the steamy exhaust, the sweat, the crowd, the rumble of engine and the clatter of tracks. Glory even in the dirty brown rat scampering into the darkness. He made us all. Thanks to God, then, for the sun, the warmth of life, for the heat of this day. And for this, too: At last, the Q train pulls into the station and the opening doors release a drift of sweet, sweet cool air.
Samira Kawash is professor emerita at Rutgers University.
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Image by Airbus777 licensed via Creative Commons. Image Cropped.