HALL: On inauguration day, erode the dirt, perish the thought
Sunday, January 15, 2017
A new Presidential term begins, but to the dirt it’s more of the same. Governmental detritus has already left a 240.5 year mark in the District of Columbia, adding our short patina of civilization to 150 million years of alternating swamp and sea and surface soil in the rock record of the Atlantic Coastal Plain, the same plain on which our Greenville lies.
Though the world will little note, nor long remember, an Earthen memory of every term, every year, every moment, is writ in the layers of the dirt. We daily shed a dusting of democracy, a grit of governance, that settles to the soil and leaves an imprint of our existence.
It starts with a parade.
One score and sixteen years ago, in 1981, cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy were invited to march in the inaugural parade of President Ronald Reagan.
The Academy sent its finest marching unit. And it sent us.
We cadets held a parade every weekend, a public event for the good citizens of New London, Conn. Whichever company cut the cleanest corners, kept the straightest ranks, and got all its rifle bolts open on “Inspection Arms!” would go to the inauguration.
Golf Company would never win. We were sloppy, marching to the beat of a different drummer, prone to giggles when the bolts didn’t open. Foxtrot Company had style. They lined up like Army ants, matched their footsteps to the drumbeat, even pulled off a double-to-the-rear without the slightest stumble.
They did not stroll around obstacles, like Golf Company. They did not straggle through mud puddles, like Golf Company. They marched, undaunted. If a glockenspiel fell off the band into the path of Foxtrot, it was swept into their unbroken cadence to finish the parade neatly glocked and spieled.
The Academy was also asked to send a choir to serenade inaugural events, so along with the precision marchers went a little band of singers, mostly from Golf. In return for our shipping and handling, we were to march with Foxtrot.
It was a long, long, cold, cold wait for a tiny glimpse of the bullet-proof panel behind which the president probably stood. We had on entire uniforms under our uniforms but the chill radiated up through ice-polished shoes and wafted down in a light snow. When we finally started marching, we were too stiff to veer around the meadow medallions deployed by a stallion battalion preceding us. We did Foxtrot proud, spieling right through the pony patties.
At the eyes right command, we swung our heads to the right. There, for a brief moment, was the president of the United States, fleeting icon of the emancipated world, dearly loved by some, dearly respected by all, towering beside Mrs. Reagan’s red dress, beaming at us with a full measure of devotion.
Underneath the presidential reviewing stand, beneath the Coastal Plain, under the 150 million years of ebb and flow and ebb, is a 400-million-year gap in the geologic record. Nothing, it seems, lasts forever.
Elsewhere at that time, the mountains beyond the plain rose and wrinkled in collision after collision, the evidence visible still in writhing twists of the gneiss bedrock of the Appalachians, while the docile Coastal Plain eroded down and perished, its record gone and forgotten.
Its meticulous traces of what and when and where have washed asunder. The 150 million years of flood-by-flood accumulation, mud-by-mud deposit, moment-by-moment residue from above and beside, lie starkly upon far more ancient blocks cast from the deep earth below.
Without the intervening sediments, can we know what really happened in those years? Our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, a fickle continent that for now contains our imprints, for now harbors the dust of administration after administration in stratum after stratum.
But for how long the Earth will remember us and our sovereign ways? How long before our detritus erodes away, leaving no thought of all that has been said and done here? Civilization is but a transient Himalaya. We cannot know that the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Italicized material is from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Joy Moses-Hall teaches physics and astronomy at Pitt Community College. She has a doctorate in oceanography and is the author of the novel Wretched Refuge.