A snippet of wisdom from almost a century ago

No. People do not go to war for abstract theories of government. They fight for property and privilege and that was what Virginia fought for in the Civil War. And Lee followed Virginia. He followed Virginia not because he particularly loved slavery (although he certainly did not hate it), but because he did not have the moral courage to stand against his family and his clan. Lee hesitated and hung his head in shame because he was asked to lead armies against human progress and Christian decency and did not dare refuse. …

It is the punishment of the South that its Robert Lees and Jefferson Davises will always be tall, handsome and well-born. That their courage will be physical and not moral. That their leadership will be weak compliance with public opinion and never costly and unswerving revolt for justice and right. It is ridiculous to seek to excuse Robert Lee as the most formidable agency this nation ever raised to make 4 million human beings goods instead of men. Either he knew what slavery meant when he helped maim and murder thousands in its defense, or he did not. If he did not he was a fool. If he did, Robert Lee was a traitor and a rebel — not indeed to his country, but to humanity and humanity’s God.

That’s W.E.B. DuBois in 1928. He also had this to say in his magazine in 1931:

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You have to hand it to the man. He could write with clarity.

[Both of these I came across in the excellent Civil War Memory blog kept by an alumnus of the university where I work.]

Things I didn’t tweet you during our team’s daylong strategic retreat

  • “You up?”
  • “1/2 Interesting puzzle would be can you comprehend the presentation slides if you replace ‘brand’ with ‘Brad’ and flash”
  • “2/2 … subliminal stills of Brad Pitt shirtless in Thelma and Louise.”
  • Quote attributed to Proust that’s really Pitbull paraphrased
  • “wine (red), papaya, two baguettes, shaving cream, whatever else you think we need”
  • A question about how your departmental budget works over there
  • Cartoon Ann Telnaes tweeted earlier, RT’d with #hrmph
  • Photo of tone-on-tone leaf pattern in the carpet, run through an Instagram black-and-white filter with hashtag #bored
  • “We’re at lunch. Is it bad to order the coconut shrimp? Will that draw attention?”
  • “We’re curling. Seriously.” W/photo
  • A cry for help

New story: North of Eden

Not gonna lie. This was not an easy story to write. The sources were great and the editor perceptive, but the subject matter itself was challenging: a decades-old architectural controversy that few wanted to go on record speaking about negatively.

But there was another tension at the heart of the piece, the fact that at the University of Virginia nothing escapes the gravitational pull of the ideas of its founder, Thomas Jefferson. That force — constraining or inspiring, probably always both — is inescapable. As I wrote, “University leaders and planners can push toward, pull from, and have a thousand splintered attitudes about this reference, but UVA will never know what it is like not to have it.”

from Portland Magazine

“Do you remember 1970? If you remember, then you were alive when there were almost twice as many plants and animals, forests and fields, as there are now. … I will die in a world that is half as abundantly beautiful as the one I was born into. My children will tear out half the pages in their field guides and throw them away. … Oh for heaven’s sake, people say; change happens. Evolution is a game with winners and losers. If it weren’t for the dinosaur extinctions, there wouldn’t be human beings. Hoorah for the Fifth Extinction! Maybe so. But there is a distinction between change and destruction, and that is the difference between death and murder. … We are like people who live in the penthouse of a hundred-story building, Daniel Quinn writes. Every day we send workers down to remove blocks from the foundation, so we can make our penthouse bigger, fancier.” —Kathleen Dean Moore


When the story of the decline of Western civilization is definitively told, Exhibit A of our decadence will be the carved-out half pineapple that held the rice dish that I ate at the Thai restaurant Sabai tonight. 

An Earth Day kind of day

In A World Without Us, the author examines exactly how natural processes would undo humanity’s efforts if we all disappeared tomorrow. Anyone could guess, for example, that cities would crumble, but this author tells us how the decay would likely happen as pumping stations fail, roofs go unrepaired, and foundations erode. As water seeps in everywhere, the soil, seeds, and animals will follow, and flowers will bloom in the ruins as surely as they did for a millennium in the Colosseum in Rome.

We spent Earth Day 2017 in a place where something like this has happened on a very small scale for all the wrong reasons. During the era of segregation, East End Cemetery in Richmond was once the go-to burial spot for Richmond’s black middle class and most prominent citizens alike. But unlike nearby cemeteries for whites, it did not receive funding from public sources and did not have provision for perpetual care. The result was decades of active burial from 1897 to the mid-20th century, a period of tapering care into the ’80s and, finally, decades of complete neglect. (A fuller version is told nicely here.)  As the weeds and English ivy thrived, the cemetery disappeared into the earth. Tombstones submerged under the soil, and interlopers found the rambling brush to be a good place to dump tires and other trash.

Our work on Earth Day was to do our small part to reclaim the cemetery as the sacred resting place it is. We walked a couple of hundred yards past graves uncovered by volunteers during the past several years to a patch of weeds and vines for our morning’s work. As we stepped over the fallen trees and through the thick underbrush, the ground beneath our feet was uneven, cresting and falling like arrested waves. The depressions occur where holes were once dug and then filled in with loose soil that compacted over time. This was how we knew there were graves somewhere under our feet.

We spent a strenuous three hours there doing meticulous manual labor. We pulled and cut vines as thick as a motorcycle’s handlebars off the side of a tree in order to save it. We dug engraved marble slabs out of the dirt, cleaned them with water and a brush, and set them up for the sun and rain to whiten into grave markers again. We filled wheelbarrows and wagons with ivy that we wheeled halfway back to the access road and dumped into an industrial-sized dumpster the county has begun emptying at, I think, no charge — one of the few forms of public support the clean-up project receives. Otherwise, we were the keepers of de Tocqueville’s vision of America in our inclination to form voluntary associations to get things done. It was small recompense for the shameful legacy of inequality this place embodies.

In our shift that day, the two dozen or so volunteers cleared an area about the same size as the footprint of the small house where I now live. This is how the cemetery here is slowly being reclaimed, in patches and hours that add up to acres and years. “Uncovering History” the organizers call the effort, and that’s exactly what it is.

[Info on volunteering here.]