Friday, May 28, 2010

Knapsack 6-3

Notes from My Knapsack 6-3-10

Jeff Gill


Artifacts of a Bygone Age



When you describe it matter-of-factly, it sounds a bit insane.


Go far off around the world, to find a substance out of nature and the deep which you must, at great cost simply to extract and transport, bring home to light your living room or illuminate public space, fuel your devices, and even transmute chemically for making other materials.


Oh, and it almost inevitably must run out, but we keep using it faster and faster and more wastefully, only occasionally confronting the human cost, let alone the natural impact of what we're doing.


Oil drilling, right? Or maybe coal mining? Well, it could describe those economic activities as well. With what's playing out in the Gulf of Mexico, and why we have to treat the Persian Gulf's distant geography like our backyard, all of the above is grimly true for our current dependence on fossil fuels.


The reason my hopes for the future are not so grim can be seen, so to speak, in the display window of Taylor Drug (koff), I mean, the CVS pharmacy on Broadway. The next time you stop by Victoria's Ice Cream Parlor or Whit's Frozen Custard, walk as you eat across Prospect, and check out the old time pharmacy windows Greg is kind enough to keep in front of us in 2010.


In a large glass jar marked "Spermaceti" is a lump of white waxy stuff. The name is no doubt good for a few jokes from the adolescents on bikes who cluster on that broad stretch of sidewalk, but when you look at it, think of a vast sperm whale plumbing the many thousand foot depths of the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean.


The whaling industry of the 1800s traveled the globe in search of the sperm and right whales, the latter of which was "right" because of all the ocean going cetaceans, it was the right one to come upon and harpoon. You could more easily kill, flense, and render a "right" next to your whaling ship, which would float (usually) even when dead, allowing you to cook down the abundant fats from the thick hide in kettles amidships. Those resulting barrels of whale oil were valuable for lamps, making candles, and for lubricating machinery.  If you sighted a sperm whale, a riskier proposition, it was perhaps worth pursuit because, if you could keep the body from sinking, at a certain point you would lower a crewman down into the skull case of this aquatic mammal, yards across, where tons of a waxy material called "spermaceti" was even more useful and much more valuable.


Along with whalebone going into corsets and umbrellas and such, the reason a pharmacist would have a supply of spermaceti on hand was that it made for an ideal neutral substance when making up pills, as well as helping make the most clear, bright, steady-burning candles.


In the 1850s, a remarkable amount of American life was made from, lit by, or facilitated by products derived from whaling. We couldn't do without it.


Can you imagine a day, perhaps a century hence, when using hydrocarbon rich fossil remnants of ancient swamps, drilled from under the oceans or pulled out of distant deserts, will seem just as fantastic? And what technology will replace it?


That I don't entirely know, but the likelihood that it will be replaced is summed up by that white waxy lump, harvested a century and more ago from a faraway ocean, now in a jar visible along a Granville sidewalk. Take a look, tell me what you think.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; yes, he's read "Moby-Dick." Tell him a fantastic tale at or follow Knapsack @Twitter.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Faith Works 5-29

Faith Works 5-29-10

Jeff Gill


Where Memorials Do Not Stand



All eyes are watching the Gulf of Mexico, where 5,000 feet below the sunny surface of the water a darker gush blooms in the deeper gloom.


Perhaps by the time you read this, the broken wellhead will be capped. Perhaps. The stain of oil across the Gulf will still be poised, sliding, smearing along the coasts.


With the larger ecological crisis, a more intimate disaster is still spreading through at least eleven families, the relatives – wives, children, friends, parents – of the men who died early in the disaster that ultimately overturned the semi-submersible drilling rig.


Over a hundred other men escaped, and were rescued; something around 75 other platforms dot the Gulf of Mexico, each with their own hundred or hundreds of crew watching nervously, and their families in turn wondering anxiously how this story will turn out.


Each time we turn a car ignition or flip on an electrical switch, we are participants in the pressures that led to this extreme blowout in unimaginable conditions of pressure and inaccessibility, all because of the economic hunger for cheap energy.


Which of course is not; not cheap, that is, when the entire cost is considered.


This is Memorial Day weekend, and the many processions and ceremonies rightly recall us to honor those who have died in our nation's service, beginning from a Civil War era commemoration and extending now to every conflict from the country's beginning to those battles now fought in Afghanistan.


There is another way that people die serving their fellow citizens, and that is in a different sort of uniform, but in a conflict with the elements and opposition and resistance almost intentional in its threat. This Memorial Day, I'd like to build a bridge to the roots of Father's Day, still a few weeks away but technically 100 years old in 2010.


The best known origin of Father's Day, now the third Sunday in June since Lyndon Johnson affirmed and Richard Nixon proclaimed it as an official holiday, goes back to Spokane, Washington, and a woman who wanted to honor her father, a widower pastor who raised his six children alone after his wife died young; her thought was to place a commemoration on the calendar for all fathers.


There's a further connection back to the end of June in 1908, when plans were made at Williams Memorial Methodist Church in Fairmont, West Virginia (now Central UMC), to pair an observance to honor fathers the same way, the month before, Andrews Methodist Church up the road in Grafton had begun to honor mothers on the second Sunday in May.


There was an added poignancy to the effort to remember fathers in the spring of 1908. Just a few months earlier, on December 6, 1907, the nearby Monongah Mine had exploded, killing at least 361 men, over 250 of them fathers themselves. Some historians believe that due to intentionally incomplete record keeping, the actual death toll could have been hundreds more, but at least that many are documented and confirmed. There are a few old pictures of streets in the mining settlement of Monongah, and near the downtown courthouse in Fairmont, where from sidewalk to sidewalk, there are coffins packed tight eight abreast, each with a miner inside. The sidewalks are packed with women and children, scanning the faces, looking for their lost.


It is in that sense of memorial that Father's Day began, honoring those who work to feed their families, who risk their lives to build up a home, and whose labors make all our lives easier. Spokane got the word out a little more effectively, but the West Virginia roots go a little deeper. Today we recall the miners who died not so very long ago in southern West Virginia, where mines still explode as coal is pried from the depths, and the eleven rig workers whose remains may never be found from the Gulf disaster.


Those, too, died serving not only their own families, but their fellow citizens, doing work that we depend upon, whether we realize it or not. Somewhere between Memorial Day, and this centennial Father's Day, and summer's end with Labor Day, we have a chance to recall and remember and realize what some fathers have to do to feed their children and fuel our way of life.


In those realizations, we also have a chance to reflect on what we might do together to lessen those risks, to care for those left behind when those risks must be run, and how to live lives that are less dependent on others running such risks on our behalf.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he was proud to serve as a pastor just up the hill from the site of the Monongah Miners Memorial some years ago (not in 1907). Tell him about your father at or follow Knapsack @Twitter.