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Archive for September, 2009

It occurs to me that my previous post might leave you with a not quite accurate picture of this part of town, because, as it happens, dredge piles don’t stay dredge piles, at least they don’t around here.

I’m not sure how long ago this part of the valley was churned up in a quest for gold, but it had to be between the late 1800s and the 1940s. At any rate, decades, not centuries.

But when I moved here, I was amazed at how much soil there was. It also flummoxed me that the gravel was so neatly dispersed in it. There is no question but that it is rocky soil, but where in the world did the soil amongst the rocks come from? What I’d learned in school about soil didn’t fit with what I was seeing. I wasn’t seeing layers of soil, built up as vegetation on the surface decayed. I wasn’t really seeing layers of soil, period. But there was a lot of soil, reaching down.

I finally figured it out (I think), thanks to stumbling across info on people who called themselves soil farmers, who built up their soil by (amongst other things) having cattle graze there. The cattle cropped the grass, the cropped grass couldn’t support quite as big a big root system, some of the root system died to put things into balance, the dead roots added to the soil and in their wake left little channels for water and air. Or something like that.

I watched out back, where I leave the yard semi-wild, and noticed that, left to itself, the back yard has one wave of short lived annual after another. In short, plants grow and die, and their roots decay in place, putting organic matter down as far as they reached. Such a deal.

In previous years, I helped things out by watering out there, and by adding a few annuals of my own. (Semi-wild I can handle, weed-infested I’d like to avoid.) This made for some relatively lush growth, and allowed plants to grow throughout the summer. When things got out of hand, I’d pull out the mower, and get satisfaction from thinking that not only was I making the yard look better, but I was cropping the plants, which would crop the roots, which meant I was soil farming.

OK, I am easily amused, and easily find satisfaction in my work. What can I say? I find joy in small things. I liked the idea of soil farming. I still do. And I like that I don’t have to buy amendments or put down layers of compost to do it. Not that amendments and compost can’t be good for soil, but this seemed to be helping without all that.

This year, the landlord asked us to cut the water bill, if we could. So the back yard lay somewhat fallow for much of the summer. But the native plants still popped up in spring, and whenever there was rain. And then most of them died. And therefore, there is just that much more organic matter, that much more soil in progress.

There are other factors, of course. There is active insect life, and worms, and they burrow, and leave manure behind them (as do the deer, birds, cats, etc.) I suspect that some of the gravel is decomposing, too.

But what fascinates me are the roots. I don’t remember learning about roots as soil builders when I was in school. And yet, in this semi-arid climate, which produces relatively little organic matter above ground (and much of that gets whipped away by wind), roots are getting the job done.

There were gravel piles. Now there is land.

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… can disappear from sight for a while.

No, really.

More on Popo Agie here.

In the town where I live, there was (I am told) a not-entirely-successful effort years ago to divert one of the small rivers that runs through it.

At any rate, water (supposedly from the poorly diverted river) runs through huge deposits of gravel left behind by gold dredges, underneath streets and houses and businesses. We like to tell visitors that if they go down to the furniture store and into the basement, they can sometimes hear the water going past. Often, there is flowing water in certain storm sewers when there has been no rain for a long time. Our deep-rooted trees do not need water in the summer, unless it is extremely hot for a while. (I wish the ‘river’ I live over ran high enough I didn’t need to water the lawn. No such luck.)

In our previous bookstore location, we would invite people to put their ear to the floor. Sometimes we told them what to expect, and sometimes we didn’t, depending on our mood. They usually thought we were a bit crazy in either case, but you should have seen their face when they heard water gurgling through gravel. How often, then, they’d run get a friend and haul them to where they’d listened, and say ‘put your ear to the floor!’.

Well, what would you have done? How many floors do you know that come with sound effects? (More than you might guess, I’d guess. Have you checked? I know I’m not in the habit of putting my ear to floors.)

And yes, this part of town is noted for tilted floors and damaged foundations. Building on what amounts to piles of gravel is not necessarily the soundest policy. (The post office, I am told, is built on posts sunk down to bedrock. Why it simply wasn’t built outside of the dredge area, I don’t know, but at least they understood what they were up against here, and took pains to tackle the problem. Most people just built away, either out of ignorance, or with the idea they’d muddle through one way or another if problems cropped up. Buildings, after all, can be repaired or replaced. And poor people can’t be choosy.)

Water simply goes where gravity pulls it, I guess, at least until it evaporates. And if that means coursing through underground channels for a while, or emptying into an inland saltwater sea, or onto salt flats, so be it.

Isn’t it nice that people aren’t like water – that we can change course? Not that we always do change course when we should, but isn’t it wonderful that we aren’t mindless particles, inherently unable to resist the gravity and evaporation of circumstances and culture?

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The Saturday Review of Books…

…is up and growing at Semicolon.

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The following is reprinted with the permission of the Alabama Policy Institute, which published it September 22, 2009.

Virtue and Courage – What America Could Use Now

by Gary Palmer

Ordinarily, when a 21 year-old man thinks about what he will do with the rest of his life, he thinks in terms of years. But the tall, handsome, athletic and well-educated young man being led to his date with the executioner could have only been thinking of the minutes he had left to live.

It is certain that he thought of his family because just before he was executed, he hastily wrote a letter to his mother. But family members were not the only people on his mind. He also had a message for those who gathered to witness his death that day and for every American who desired to live in freedom when he spoke in defense of the cause for which he and his comrades were fighting and for which he was about to give his life. Nathan Hale said, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

Denied a military trial, denied a Bible and denied a visit by a clergyman, Captain Nathan Hale was hanged as a spy by the British on September 22, 1776 in an artillery park near the East River in New York City.

The story of Nathan Hale and his last words, which was once well-known by every school-age child in America, is about much more than just his inspiring utterance to the crowd which gathered to watch him hang. Like other school children of the 60s, I learned the story of Nathan Hale and memorized his last words without ever knowing the full story. Much to my surprise, I learned that Hale’s last words were not entirely his own.

Hale’s words were a variation on lines from a play entitled Cato: A Tragedy, by British author Joseph Addison. In Act 4, Scene 4, Cato, the play’s heroic defender of the Roman republic against the dictatorship of Julius Caesar, sees the body of his son Marcus, who was killed in battle. Looking at the body of his son, he said, “How beautiful is death when earned by virtue. Who would not be that youth? What pity is it that we can die but once to serve our country.”

The play, which was published in 1713, was very popular both in Britain and America and was performed in America countless times from 1730 until after the American Revolution. It had a particularly profound impact on key American leaders, including Patrick Henry whose famous quote “Give me liberty or give me death” was very likely inspired by the lines: “It is not now time to talk of aught/But chains or conquest, liberty or death.” The play was also a favorite of General George Washington who had it performed several times for the Continental Army.

As David McCullough pointed out in his excellent book 1776, Hale knew that every British officer would be familiar with the lines he paraphrased. They would also clearly understand Hale’s identifying the American cause with Cato’s struggle against tyranny, because British officers knew the history behind the play.

Marcus Porcius Cato, or Cato the Younger, was known as a man of unquestioned integrity and principle and for his devotion to the republican principles of freedom and virtue. As a leading figure in the Roman Senate, Cato fought to maintain the Roman republic against mob rule (majority rule) and later, against the dictatorship of Julius Caesar. Early in his career, Julius Caesar aligned himself with a faction within the Roman government which supported political and economic reforms supported by the redistribution of land. But Caesar’s victories in Rome’s civil war allowed him to abolish the republic and become a dictator.

When Cato opposed the dictatorship of Julius Caesar and the abolition of the Roman Republic, he was exiled from Rome. He, along with the army supporting the Roman Senate commanded by Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio, were defeated in North Africa by Caesar’s army at the battle of Thapsus. Rather than submit to the benevolence of a dictator, Cato committed suicide.

Nathan Hale’s words not only indicated his commitment to independence and liberty, but also reflected what he thought of himself as a man and how he believed a man should conduct himself, perhaps in the mold of the virtue, courage and commitment to liberty of the heroic Cato. No one can say whether he thought himself a hero or even a martyr for his cause. But if Hale’s final words are an indication, he almost certainly understood and accepted that fidelity to principles and duty to country sometimes demands the ultimate sacrifice.

Nathan Hale, Patrick Henry, George Washington and countless other great American heroes who pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to the cause of American liberty were inspired by heroic figures such as Cato the Younger.

In the context of the political battles taking place today to reform America, I wonder how many members of Congress have such heroes or how many of them have such attributes. Moreover, I wonder how many Americans today even know who Nathan Hale was and what he died for. One this is certain, America could use some leaders with the virtue and courage of Nathan Hale.

hat tip: Alliance Alert

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More than 80 pastors nationwide have signed on for this year’s Pulpit Freedom Sunday. The Alliance Defense Fund is standing by to provide legal help to any pastor targeted for exercising his First Amendment rights.

To be clear: The Alliance Defense Fund’s Pulpit Initiative: What It Is – What It’s Not. (pdf)

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Jennifer Fulwiler of Conversion Diary writes Of cat ownership and “little sins”.

Shannon Woodward of Wind Scraps writes of mice and young men – and predators.

Plain Catholic in the Mountains shares The Seventeen Evidences of a Lack of Humility by St. John Vianney, and also a prayer by a 17th century nun, for growing old gracefully.

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The Saturday Review of Books…

…is up and growing at Semicolon.

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