The first woman, according to Genesis, was Eve. Her name in Biblical Hebrew, Chavvah, probably meant “to live, to breathe.” And the first man’s name, Adam, probably meant “made of earth.” The story shows God taking dry earth, shaping the earth-creature, and then breathing life into it.
We are thus made of matter and spirit, molecules and forces. Nonliving and living.
On this trip, we’ve spent a surprising amount of time looking at earth.
In Ireland, we saw vast tracts of flat bog with long, straight rows of peat-slices taken out of the wet and laid alongside the gash in the earth to dry. It’s still used in many homes in the fireplace. I was surprised to feel how hard and dense it is compared to what I know as “Peat Moss” from garden stores. This stuff has been compacted for millions of years, sort of like coal, whereas the fluffier stuff is much newer and comes from the tops of boglands. (Photo from Newton’sApple.org, a uk-based science teacher resource)
In Wales, we spent a good part of a day looking at the ongoing destruction of a mountain made of slate. Neither of us never really understood how cool this particular mineral is. My parents had a slate-top table in the family room that was SO heavy (I’m glad I never tipped it over on anyone), and I know slate roofs are very expensive, but not much more.
Slate starts with a different kind of mud than peat. It spent far longer underground–under seabeds, actually–and spent millions of years being heated. Slate starts out as a sedimentary rock, like shale, made of fine-grained clay or sometimes volcanic ash that gets metamorphosed by heat and pressure. This cooking makes the grains of the rock all line up perfectly so that someone who knows what they’re doing can make beautiful, thin slices with a hammer and chisel. Once upon a time, the tectonic plate Wales rides on was part of a continent that included the eastern part of Canada and was located in the tropics! I took this picture at the National Slate Museum in Llanberis, North Wales. The tiles in the foreground are just 1/4″ thick.
Below is a picture of a part of the slate mountain we which has not been worked for thirty years or more, right behind the museum, which used to be a slate works that employed hundreds.
Here is a closer look at the mountainside.
You also may remember our fascination with the earthworks called henges,
And we saw Ammonite fossils at Lyme Regis on England’s Jurassic Coast:
This really big one ended up on a lintel above someone’s door in the village:
Alert readers at Breck might also remember that I had planned to go to Peru on this sabbatical, a trip we’ve postponed until I can connect with some anthropologists. They are trying to understand who made the miraculous tropical soil called terra preta, super fertile dirt that actually grows every year. In a place where modern farmers struggle on gigantic clear-cut swathes of Amazonia with soil so poor in nutrients that it’s useless without obscene amounts of fertilizer!
Terra Preta owes its life to microorganisms, household trash, charcoal, lots of broken pottery, manure, and lots of plant matter. The town-dwellers of the Amazon basin intentionally constructed hundreds of square miles of this dark soil hundreds of years before Europeans came, and their recipe is still secret. (yellow on the map below)
I wanted to see terra preta myself to understand better how people can work with the earth for the benefit of future generations. They didn’t write books or leave stone circles. They didn’t turn mountains into shingles for the world’s roofs, but whoever they were, they deserve to be praised as true Earthlings.
The funeral service in the Book of Common Prayer has, for five hundred years, poetically described our lives as “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Since 1990, on every Ash Wednesday I have solemnly reminded people, while inscribing a cross of ashes on their foreheads, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” On this sabbatical, I am finding there is a lot to learn about us in that dust.