A canary needs much greater amounts of oxygen than other animals. In order to fly to heights that would make people altitude sick, birds require immense quantities of oxygen so their anatomy allows them to take in oxygen as they inhale and again as they exhale. Because of the extra air intake and small frame, the poisonous gas will effect it very quickly and give enough warning for the miners to evacuate.
But the canary wasn’t just a warning signal, its cheerful whistle broke up the darkness and monotony of the miner’s day. They would whistle along with the bird and bring music and joy into their otherwise bleak underground experience.
This all came flooding back to me this week when I read a quote from Andrew Denton, “Laughter is the canary in the coal mine of any relationship”. What a beautiful and telling image.
I wonder if there is any greater joy than spending time with people who knows how to laugh. There are few things that feel so great as a good belly laugh, to laugh till you cry, till your chest hurts and your tummy aches and all your stress evaporates. To share that with someone else is healing and life-giving.
That’s another memory I treasure of my grandfather, he had the most hearty, joyous laugh. I would sit on his lap as a small child and listen to his stories, to his glorious voice as he sang me Welsh ditties and laugh with him as he caught me up in his enthusiasm for life.
How does one maintain that joie de vie day after day in the darkness of the pit? I’ve descended into one of those coal mines and it is the darkest place I have ever encountered. And yet those miners were a jolly lot.
My grandfather taught me so much about life. He lived very simply, didn't have a lot of what this world now considered necessary but he was content and had a zest for life, he was always whistling or singing, and laughter almost seemed his language. He had a jovial heart and he loved well.
His life had been harsh, losing two daughters in infancy and a son in war, yet he was never bitter or in anyway defined by the scars of life. He was a man who knew the depths of darkness in ways few of us will and yet he found a way to live light and hold it out for others.