Cat Got Your Tongue?
My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original posts. This week in my From the Archives series: just be sure you throw it over your LEFT shoulder.
I love researching the historical underpinnings of superstitions.
Take spilling salt, for example. A common superstition says that if you spill salt, you need to throw a little bit over your shoulder. This isn't actually the whole story, though.
You're supposed to throw it over your left shoulder (into the eye of the devil lurking over it) without touching the thrown salt with your thumb or index finger.
The superstition has a few possible origins. Some claim that Judas spilled salt at the last supper. Da Vinci actually painted Judas spilling salt in “The Last Supper.” Others think it came from the fact that salt was extremely expensive in the Middle Ages. That one seems rather reasonable to me, except that then throwing it over your shoulder as a cure for the bad luck doesn't make a ton of sense.
Another superstition says that you should hold your breath when passing a cemetery. If you don't, a spirit might fly into you. I'm actually going to argue that this one doesn't make sense anymore. In the Middle Ages, graveyards were dank, miserable places. Graves were cramped, placed close together, and often shared. Burials were often shallow, so bones would stick out. The gravestones were decorated with grim and gloomy reminders of eternal suffering. They were dank, awful places—both by design (to compel people to the Church) and by poor urban planning (cities tended to be cramped and without green space).
In the 1800s, this began to change. People began to have a very different view of humanity: rather than being doomed, sinful creatures, we instead began romanticizing humanity, and began considering it naturally good.
Graveyards became cemeteries. The word cemetery comes from the Greek koimeterion, meaning “place of rest.” We started honoring our dead, placing them more widely apart, and giving them beautiful, well-tended green space. In fact, the first cemeteries built this way were such popular tourist attractions that they began inspiring American cities to begin building parks and having more green spaces in the city.
So why doesn't that superstition apply anymore? Well, it would make perfect sense that spirits would want to leave a dank, miserable graveyard. A cemetery, though? Sounds to me like a pretty nice place to rest once you're gone.
More Locks and Funiculars
My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original posts. This week in my From the Archives series: the power of the mule.
Construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, also known as the C&O Canal and the Grand Old Ditch, began in 1828 and finished in 1850.
It reached a final length of 184.5 miles, extending between Cumberland, MD to Washington, DC. Coal was the primary good shipped—though businesses also shipped lumber, limestone for construction, sand, flour, salt, and much more.
The canal operated until 1924, when it was finally shut down due to competition from the railroads, along with major flood damage that year.
Interestingly, the mule-drawn barges were often operated by families that lived on them, especially in the earlier years of the canal. The families would all work together to run these barges; not surprisingly, the mothers were the main figures in running everything. They steered the boats, raised the children, and did all the housework.
The men just took care of the mules and the heavy lifting.
If you've never tried to raise children while running a house, well, let's just say I'll take the heavy lifting any day. (I've never had any illusions about Maggie being the most important part of my family.)
While it operated, though, the C&O Canal contained some of the most impressive engineering designed for a canal. To aid ships in moving uphill, the canal held 74 canal locks, or enclosures: ships sailed in, the lock closed behind them, then fill slowly with water, raising the height of the ship to the next elevation level. They also built 11 aqueducts for crossing major streams and more than 240 culverts to cross smaller ones.
In addition to this was the Paw Paw tunnel, which stretched nearly a kilometer in length, the construction of which almost bankrupted the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company. They were forced to end construction early, failing to get all the way to Pittsburgh.
My favorite part of the canal, though, was the C&O Boat Elevator. It served to lower boats down past Georgetown, where traffic jams tended to build up. It operated exactly like a funicular, only for boats—lowering them 600 feet on the diagonal and 40 feet in elevation.
The downward journey was entirely powered by gravity, while water powered turbines would lift the empty boat carrying caisson back to the top. It's a big step up from the Diolkos. Another great example here of human ingenuity in action.
Counting Our Grains
My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original posts. This week in my From the Archives series: is sand an endangered, er, species?
Air and water are our two most heavily-used natural resources and, though not as obvious, dirt is number three. What's number four, though?
Surprisingly enough, it's sand.
We’ve used sand for construction since the time of ancient Egypt, if not longer. We utilize certain high-grade sands for glass, with other grades for detergents, toothpaste, cosmetics, solar panels, and computer chips.
The biggest use? Concrete. Essentially, concrete is just sand and gravel bound together by cement.
You might wonder why I'm distinguishing between dirt and sand. They're both just stuff on the ground, right? Well, no. Dirt contains a high degree of biological debris and is great for growing things in. (It often contains sand.) Sand is just ground up bits of minerals, usually quartz.
As common as sand is, turns out that it's also a finite resource. Humans use more than 40 billion tons of sand and gravel every year, and the demand is getting severe enough that riverbeds and beaches all over the world are being emptied out. We can't use desert sand because it's too rounded to bind together well—a result of wind erosion rather than water erosion.
And shortages are beginning to crop up. The absurd construction boom in Dubai has so denuded local sources that they're literally buying and shipping their sand from Australia now.
As local riverbeds, beaches, and quarries run out, sand miners have started to turn to the seafloors, vacuuming up sand from the seabed while dealing marine ecosystems massive amounts of damage.
At least two dozen Indonesian islands are simply gone now due to Singapore's sand requirements (its artificial land construction projects make it the largest sand importer in the world). Environmental damage in the region has gotten so bad that three countries have already banned exports of sand to Singapore.
Construction sand now even has a black market, profitable enough that violent organized crime groups are building up around it.
The environmental damage from the sand trade is immense. This hardly gets any attention in much of the world. After all, it's just sand, and for millennia now we've used “grains of sand” as a metaphor for something countless.
Our sand turns out not to be countless after all.
Or: Kitty Litter Paleontology
My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original posts. This week in my From the Archives series: what's that archaeology team doing in my kitchen?
We usually think of fossils in the context of museums, but you might be surprised to hear that they're probably in your home without you knowing.
The first way this happens is pretty obvious: if you've got limestone as part of the construction of your house. Limestone is almost universally fossil-bearing. In fact, many types of limestone are almost entirely made up of fossils. So, if you have limestone in your house, you've probably got fossils.
Of course, fossils can be found in other rocks as well, such as certain sandstones and mudstones, though limestone is the most common fossil-bearing rock used in construction.
Next is in kitty litter. Bentonite clays are used in countless industrial settings, but they also have one extremely common use inside the home—as the main ingredient of most kitty litter products. Bentonite clay is highly absorbent, making it ideal for this purpose.
Another thing bentonite clay is famous for? Occurring near fossil formations. The Morrison Formation, the geological formation where Dinosaur National Monument is found, is also heavily mined for bentonite clay. There have also been plenty of reports of kitty litter mining companies in Canada knowingly destroying fossil beds for more profit. So... your cat might be doing its business in dinosaur bits.
Third is diatomaceous earth. This fine white powder is frequently used as a cleaning product in the home. Applications of it can kill many types of insect infestations. The actual mechanism by which it does so is a little complicated, but it essentially dehydrates the insects to death. (Sometimes it's also used in kitty litter.) Diatomaceous earth is a sedimentary rock composed entirely of fossilized diatoms, a type of ocean-going microorganism that grows a silica-based shell.
Finally, there's good old-fashioned chalk. Chalk is simply an accumulation of the shells of tiny marine microorganisms, just like diatomaceous earth. Instead of being formed of silica-shelled organisms, however, it's formed out of calcite-shelled organisms known as coccolithophores. (Interestingly, the Cretaceous is actually named after the fact that more chalk was deposited around the world than during any other geological era—not, as you might expect, due to anything to do with dinosaurs.)
So, whenever your kids are drawing on the sidewalk with chalk, they're drawing with fossils.