Over Our Dead Bodies by Anthony Esolen


Over Our Dead Bodies

Men Who Are Willing to Lay Down Their Lives Are Truly Indispensable

When the old slate quarries of the Pennsylvania town ceased operation, the land was sold to an enterprising fellow who leveled the heaps of refuse and cleared dozens of acres for junking cars. That man’s a millionaire now, and does necessary work, but he has not been able to alter the quarries entirely.

On his property remain three holes, each of them well over an acre in breadth and from a hundred to two hundred feet deep, now shining as lakes of cold clear water. They are banked by screes of jagged slate that will cut a bare foot as quickly as shards of glass, as I have found by experience. But sometimes it is not a bank, either, but a veritable wall cut vertically in the rock, with the clean corrugations of the quarrying saws still visible.

Wrested Slate

Water was an important part of the slater’s day. You had to recirculate water as coolant in the works of diamond-grit saws, lest in a few moments the heat generated by the friction of blade-rock against quarry-rock fuse the machine’s innards. The -quarry’s own gut had to be pumped continually, lest the breached water table fill the cavity. And human bellies, too, have their needs. A workman might sweat fifteen pounds of water on a day of normal heat. They replenished it, usually in a form to stir up conviviality or fighting or both; and those, too, are not the least of the calls of the man’s life.

For all that it had to be wrested from the mountains by daring and force, the slate was put to delicate use: blackboards for schools, tables for elegant dining rooms (and for smoky billiard halls), and shingles for anyone who could afford better than wooden shakes and tarpaper. To my eye, there is no finer roofing than slate, sometimes glossy black but oftener a sheeny silvery-gray with irregular washes of light iridescence.

The shingles are cut square, oblong, or scalloped, to cover the gables and turrets of Victorian houses. And when the sun breaks out upon a slate roof after a storm, the tiles glisten like jewel-work. Delicately beautiful are they, yet stalwart and stubborn. Some slate slabs an inch thick can support the weight of two men; and slate shingles can last over a century without crumbling or falling.

That town was literally sawn out of the hills by sturdy Welshmen. Now its Welsh character and its sturdiness are hardly memories. What else, when “safety” is extolled as the summum bonum, and when we are all encouraged to look upon the globe as our dreary universal suburb, rather than see in our own small town a peculiar and precious glint of the universe? Welsh boys no longer pick fights with Italian boys from the Catholic town above. Do not attribute to forbearance what may more plausibly be attributed to apathy or despair. They don’t fight, because there is nothing to fight for.

We Must Not Fall

Yet maybe a vein of the old virtus remains beneath, sustaining the flitting life above it, but unseen and unknown. For when the junkman bought that land, the town required him to render it “safe” by putting a chain-link fence and barbed wire around the most spectacular of the lakes. We must not fall for or into anything: That is the first rule of the nannied life. But the local boys have dutifully trodden the fence down in several places, and wise policemen have looked the other way.

If you walk up there, then, and trespass over the straggling barbed wire (as I have), you will be struck by a sudden vista of astonishing beauty. On two sides you will have to scramble over jumbled slabs of slate, from a few pounds to many tons, steeply concluding in a lake as broad as a park. Its sides facing you will be banked by walls, etched and grooved by man’s tools, tufted with grass and birch at the top and in odd dirt-catching crevices, rising to a height of 115 feet above the water.

Anthony Esolen is the author of over thirty books, including Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius). He has also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House). He and his wife Debra publish a web magazine, Word and Song (anthonyesolen.substack.com), on poetry, hymnody, language, classic films, and music. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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