D. E. Steward
Parch Marks
“I have found the world / so marvelous that nothing would surprise me:” (A. R. Ammons, “Extremes and Moderations”)

The earnest focus of a horse in harness single-tree attached skip scraper-hitched standing for the reins’ light rump slap and the GIDUP

With the wooden buck scraper’s edge catching and dragging through and pushing ahead then full

Then dumped

Gee or haw coming back around

Again and again until WOAH

Human with the reins bucking along on the plow handles and crossbar behind

How earth was moved before the skip loader, backhoe and blade

Even cellar holes were dug that way

Without slaves, corvée or coerced labor, and before steel became common the mattock and basket being the method, the demand to get beyond moil was an imperative

The skip with a horse or mule on the pull, oxen were too slow, obviously was much preferred to any hand dig and haul

Bulkier Fresno skip scrapers dug the ditches that irrigate the San Joaquin

Big steel ones up to six-horse or mule teams across

With a Fresno scraper, drag to load its C-shaped bowl, tip to slide the load away, then dump and grade

All with horsepower

The direct ancestor of those amazing immense bouncing roaring cut-and-fill monster-tired fifty-ton capacity scrapers that rearrange the topography at 35mph across the site

It’s a stretch to imagine how much more disruptive our planet-wide horizontal excavation might become

And then advance, or even static permanence, is not a given, after the Romans left Britain its sanitation and transportation went into squalid retreat, as did metallurgy, pottery and other craft technologies, and did not reinvent there for something like seven centuries

We are still flourishing and urbanizing all the way, wherever there is room and cause

We progress leaving ruins, parch marks and graded wasteland behind us

If hedged by the shorelines or other constraints we build Hong Kong high

We began with the vertical

First we dug down

Moving only as much earth as needed for a dugout or a grave

Digging without modifying the horizontal as we now do so extensively

Archeologists will wax quizzical about our housing development artificial berms and dramatically sculptured golf-course sand traps and water hazards

So much dirt moved for every new airport and satellite city in Asia and the Middle East, for every large project imaginable

And the modification irruptive conglomerations like Battery Park City, like Lagos

Lagos and Delhi alone

The bizarre artificial islands in the South China, Red and Arabian Seas

Dredgers pumping sand from the seabed to build enhancements that since 1990 have made fresh dry land the area of Jamaica or Connecticut from estuaries, shallow bays and straits

Dams, reservoirs and canals, open pit mines, landfills, new roads and rail lines

And “Fire in the hole!”

Blast through granite to make the grade, whatever’s in the way, schist, limestone, gneiss or shale, take it out and clean up and set things straight again down the line


Move back in and get the machines back at it

Level, rechannel, cut and fill, leave gargantuan drifts of processed ore and mineral earth

Some set of morons even proposed using atomic bombs to make another Panama Canal, to link several hydrogen bombs to make a harbor in Alaska

Nuclear explosives were used to stimulate natural gas production under the Rockies’ western slope north of Grand Junction, that project abandoned because the resulting gas was radioactive

Practical imagination is the limit

Consolidating towers, building upwards in the urbanscape became general last century and now moving place to place within highrise skylines and airports and transport by elevator jets are how many of us regularly live

But we dug first to bury

“Now pile your dust upon the quick and dead, till this flat a mountain you have made” (Laertes)

The shiny brown loam polish slick of the first shallow grave pit’s face within the bone-infused soil until getting down to mineral earth and shoals of stone

The digging bar’s scars of long and flat verticals, the pick’s short wedge chops on the vertical clay are left

All four faces of the grave’s four sides

In Sandy Ridge’s clay, shoveling out the first clean tan micacious Piedmont sand and sandstone begins to come up below

Grave wall vertical symmetry down six feet corners squared

Seis pies debajo

Sei piedi sotto

Peer in before the funeral arrives, Charly Bacorn heaves himself up and out with a hand from Johnny Brown who shovel-scrapes around the grave cleaning up to put the saved sod back down in place around the edge

“There is no ancient gentlemen but gardeners, ditchers and grave-makers” (Second Grave Digger)

Just so they dug graves on Sandy Ridge always friendly to a tike on his tricycle

In the decades before suburbanization and popular cremation thereabouts

Back, back long before there long were mounds and cairns through the ages to sheltering bones and skulls

Dug first with horns, antlers, big shells, fire-hardened sticks, flat stones, bark shards

Funeral mounds to cairns to tombs to towers

Charly died in 1980, as a kid he built two livable dugouts in the woodlot across Sandy Ridge Road from their farm

Designed in the manner of those in which the Civil War armies wintered

One of his dugouts even had a stove

Capped black stovepipe dramatic in falling snow among the woodlot’s bare branched oaks and maples, hickory and sassafras’s upswept-twigs, witch hazel’s delicate white there only in early spring

The Bacorns farm with a Rhode Island reds henhouse and summer range houses, a hay barn and silo, hogs, three or four hand-milked cows, Guinea hens, all enabled mostly by a pair of Grey Shires named Belle and Maud

Small platform tree houses, shinny up a rope and pull it up after you, another common thing to build, going up a tree of course has always been a way to survive

Other eras, other ways reaching through beautiful and vivid realities as far back as reasonable imagination stretches

“...the windy oats / that clutch the dunes / of unremembered seas” (A. R. Ammons)

And then the cold, the cold must have been terrible to endure in prehistoric Eurasia

They lay there huddled together and moaning and trying to make light of it, the oldest thinking they might not survive much longer that winter or even through that night

Their litanies of pain from ill-healed fractures, bronchial distress, infections, the headaches, broken molars, the hopeless fears, with the biting fatalism that must have been their only relief from agony

They lived four decades, we live eight

Their innocence and our worldly awareness and even now fatalism’s cynical response to the mysteries of disease and the awful violence of local conflicts and war remains

What the murdered in My Lai that fated day felt staring for in the instant before death back over the front sight post of the M-16 flat into the face of their GI executioner

What a teeming inventory of agonies is still behind the deep tympani and basso chorus of Shostakovich’s Babi Yar Symphony

The harrowing realities of the continuity of historical violence remain

All the way back

With memory and what memory may engender, brutal imagination

No backfill of the past’s sinister deep pits

When it was the terrifying, pedestrian and clumsy sword, the club, the dagger, the boot and fire, the face of the single killer was markable

But most often not now with the commission of violence often an abstract with minimal or no guilt assigned, execution of force becoming instantly justifiable, almost matter-of-fact

Police shootings building from timidity and naked fear, and the guideline that a weapon should only drawn if used, and if fired should be aimed to kill

The frequently impudent personalities of resist and of forced compliance

Death by drone, detached electronic absolute impersonality above the bottom of the chain of command

Envisioning what violence is in the offing sickens and frightens

Stamp and shout, hoot and whistle while ICE takes them away

Continuation and enhancement of the distant, virtual realitylike happenings that reach us media-filtered and blunted by our insouciant ignorance

The horrors highlighted and fragmented, flash-edited and quick-cut for exploitive commercial viewing

Was that in Iraq or Iran? Burma, Miramar? Was that rash of dozens of hot summer weekend shootings in Cleveland or Chicago? That last terrorist incident in Paris or Brussels?

That street rioting and looting as the storm surge flooded the underground city knocking out all utilities

The loss to constant tidal flooding of whole districts of South Florida and the Gulf cities

Climate change dislocations will be modern epic violent in their desperation

Developing slowly with accumulating circumstances, then with perceived inevitability become doomful and frightening for those involved and adjacent

It will not be a pleasant world then and we begin to taste it now

A reality shift into subtle violence that will stun, injure and unseat social stability

The fortunate and savvy will maneuver through and apart from most of the chaos and go on with what they do, and they will hold the keys

The advancements of AI and machine learning will be manifest and adaptation will continue within their world of high scientific enlightenment as if on islands in society’s fast river of turmoil

They well have the means and awareness to understand the paradoxes and the mysteries

And they will know the future’s traps now so generally ignored

With nods to democratic means and gestures of magnanimity they will continue to capitalize

Often embittered profiteers in a kind of Ayn Rand survival world

Their insights about what will come, if we could share them now