Sunday, November 23, 2008

Ex libro lapidum historia mundi

Mazon Creek lagerstätte
Mazon Creek lagerstätte
All geology represents the present-tense freeze-frame of the earth's history, condensed conveniently in the chemistry of rocks and soils. Though the course of any single organism's life is infinitesimally minute by comparison with the history of the earth, only one species in the earth's parade of life — ours — has managed to crack the code. It is as though some geological variant of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle prevents observation over a more meaningful time span. Any organism attaining the power to unlock the earth's secrets also acquires, by that very stroke, the power to destroy the earth itself.

The true wonders in this world do not hide. Rather, they wait in plain sight, obscured not so much by ice or vegetation as by the shades we draw across our eyes. Most of geologic history belongs in this category of true wonders. Terrestrial history accretes at rates too slow for any mortal observer to notice. But it leaves records in the form of rocks and soils and layers.

CoccolithophoreOn extremely rare occasions, the chroniclers of geologic time pause to pick one fragment of one organism — a leaf, a wing, a shell, a bone — and enshrine it in some durable medium. The imprints of Carboniferous ferns, horsetails, and club mosses, insects in amber, the barely perceptible bas-relief of a mollusk, cliffs colored by coccolithophorid shells, even the hydrocarbon relics of ancient plant life that humans so casually burn and polymerize — all these bear mute testimony to worlds long past.

As with sediment, so with sentiment: Our efforts at self-understanding have no chance of overcoming the mindless buzz of being and doing. We cannot understand feelings of the moment, with deep emotional footprints and even with lasting practical consequences, until we stop acting upon those feelings and seize the opportunity to look backward, in the serenity of solitude.

Editor's note: Cross-posted from Jurisdynamics.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Veterans Day

Glory Land

With new dress blues and shiny shoes
And the strut of a brave brass band
Daddy took-up his country’s flag
And marched to glory land.

Without his shoes and new dress blues
But behind the band and flag
Daddy came home from glory land
Wearing a burlap bag.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The body of an American

Editor's note: This item was originally published in The Cardinal Lawyer on Veterans' Day 2007. It is a timeless message, though, and for that reason I am posting it here despite being a week late for Veterans' Day 2008.

Mary McHugh and James ReganTomb of the Unknown

There is perhaps no finer tribute to American veterans than John Dos Passos's "The Body of an American," the concluding chapter of 1919, part two of the U.S.A. trilogy (1930-36):

Whereasthe Congressoftheunitedstates byaconcurrentresolutionadoptedon the4thdayofmarch last-authorizedthe Secretaryofwar to cause to be brought to theunitedstatesthe body of an American whowasamemberoftheAmericanexpeditionaryforceineuropewholosthis lifeduringtheworldwarandwhoseidentityhasnot beenestablished for burial inthememorialamphitheatreofthe nationalcemeteryatarlingtonvirginia

Unknown SoldierIn the tarpaper morgue at Chalons-sur-Marne in the reek of chloride of lime and the dead, they picked out the pine box that held all that was left of

enie menie minie moe plenty of other pine boxes stacked up there containing what they’d scraped up of Richard Roe

and other person or persons unknown. Only one can go. How did they pick John Doe? . . .

how can you tell a guy’s a hundredpercent when all you’ve got’s a gunnysack full of bones, bronze buttons stamped with the screaming eagle and a pair of roll puttees?

. . . and the gagging chloride and the puky dirtstench of the yearold dead . . .

The day withal was too meaningful and tragic for applause. Silence, tears, songs and prayer, muffled drums and soft music were the instrumentalities today of national approbation.

Unknown SoldierJohn Doe was born (thudding din of blood of love into the shuddering soar of a man and a woman alone indeed together lurching into and ninemonths sick drowse waking into scared agony and the pain and blood and mess of birth). John Doe was born

and raised in Brooklyn, in Memphis, near the lakefront in Cleveland, Ohio, in the stench of the stockyards in Chi, on Beacon Hill, in an old brick house in Alexandria Virginia, on Telegraph Hill, in a halftimbered Tudor cottage in Portland the city of roses,

in the Lying-In Hospital old Morgan endowed on Stuyvesant Square,

across the railroad tracks, out near the country club, in a shack cabin tenement apartmenthouse exclusive residential suburb;

scion of one of the best families in the social register, won first prize in the baby parade at Coronado Beach, was marbles champion of the Little Rock grammarschools, crack basketballplayer at the Booneville High, quarterback at the State Reformatory, having saved the sheriff’s kid from drowning in the Little Missouri River was invited to Washington to be photographed shaking hands with the President on the White House steps; —

Read the rest of this post . . . .* * * * *

though this was a time of mourning, such an assemblage necessarily has about it a touch of color. In the boxes are seen the court uniforms of foreign diplomats, the gold braid of our own and foreign fleets and armies, the black of the conventional morning dress of American statesmen, the varicolored furs and outdoor wrapping garments of mothers and sisters come to mourn, the drab and blue of soldiers and sailors, the glitter of musical instruments and the white and black of a vested choir

— busboy harveststiff hogcaller boyscout champeen cornshucker of Western Kansas bellhop at the United States Hotel at Saratoga Springs office boy callboy fruiter telephone lineman longshoreman lumberjack plumber’s helper,

worked for an exterminating company in Union City, filled pipes in an opium joint in Trenton, N.J.

Y.M.C.A. secretary, express agent, truckdriver, fordmechanic, sold books in Denver Colorado: Madam would you be willing to help a young man work his way through college?

Unknown SoldierPresident Harding, with a reverence seemingly more significant because of his high temporal station, concluded his speech:

We are met today to pay the impersonal tribute;

the name of him whose body lies before us took flight with his imperishable soul . . .

as a typical soldier of this representative democracy he fought and died believing in the indisputable justice of his country’s cause . . .

by raising his right hand and asking the thousands with the sound of his voice to join in the prayer:

Our Father which art in heaven hallowed by thy name . . .

* * * * *

Unknown SoldierJohn Doe’s

heart pumped blood:

alive thudding silence of blood in your ears

down in the clearing in the Oregon forest where the punkins were punkincolor pouring into the blood through the eyes and the fallcolored trees and the bronze hoopers were hopping through the dry grass, where tiny striped snails hung on the underside of the blades and the flies hummed, wasps droned, bumble-bees buzzed, and the woods smelt of wine and mushrooms and apples, homey smell of fall pouring into the blood,

and I dropped the tin hat and the sweaty pack and lay flat with the dogday sun licking my throat and adamsapple and the tight skin over the breastbone.

The shell had his number on it.

* * * * *

The blood ran into the ground.

The service record dropped out of the filing cabinet when the quartermaster sergeant got blotto that time they had to pack up and leave the billets in a hurry.

The identification tag was in the bottom of the Marne.

The blood ran into the ground, the brains oozed out of the cracked skull and were licked up by the trenchrats, the belly swelled and raised a generation of blue-bottle flies.

and the incorruptible skeleton,

and the scraps of dried viscera and skin bundled in khaki

they took to Chalons-sur-Marne

and laid it out neat in a pine coffin

and took it home to God’s Country on a battleship

and buried in a sarcophagus in the Memorial Amphitheatre in the Arlington National Cemetery

and draped the Old Glory over it

and the bugler played taps

and Mr. Harding prayed to God and the diplomats and the generals and the admirals and the brasshats and the politicians and the handsomely dressed ladies out of the society column of the Washington Post stood up solemn

and thought how beautiful sad Old Glory God’s Country it was go have the bugler play taps and the three volleys made their ears ring.

Where his chest ought to have been they pinned

Poppiesthe Congressional Medal, the D.S.C., the Medaille Militaire, the Belgian Croix de Guerre, the Italian gold medal, the Vitutea Militara sent by Queen Marie of Rumania, the Czechoslovak war cross, the Virtuti Militari of the Poles, a wreath sent by Hamilton Fish, Jr., of New York, . . . . All the Washingtonians brought flowers.

Woodrow Wilson brought a bouquet of poppies.

Editor's note: The photos of the burial of the Unknown Soldier appear on ArlingtonCemetery.Net.