Build Your Life on Eternal Truths

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I just popped out for a burger at Arbee’s, and I chose a seat with a good view of the full moon riding high over a Shell gas station. On the wall of the station was a large luminescent white sign bearing the words “Build Your Life on Eternal Truths”. Chapel Hill has a huge number of churches, most being very small and privately run by their pastors, so I guess what the Shell proprietor really means is “Make sure to follow a culturally sanctioned subset of the many commandments in the Bible”. Or perhaps “Spend a lot of your time participating in church rituals and talking about Christian dogma”. I don’t think so. Anyway, I bought a bottle of chocolate milk and a greasy pastry without being proselytised, and got to hear some serious southern twang, movie hillbilly style.

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The Morehead Planetarium was good, starting with the huge sundial I walked past at about ten. Almost all US astronauts until 1975 received training in naked-eye astronomical navigation at Morehead, sticking their heads in plywood boxes while looking at the planetarium projections to simulate the restricted field of vision from inside their spacecraft. In at least two cases this training proved crucial to mission success when electrical systems failed.

The adjacent university museum has a good little exhibition on Hardaway, a stratified Archaic lithics site going back to 10,000 BC. I enjoyed watching a movie clip about rock knapping, the knapper looking like a wizened old hippie.

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A geocacher had advised me that one’s life could not have any worth until one had eaten at Breadmen’s, so I took lunch there. They have all-day breakfast, and I ordered “biscuits with gravy”: four faintly sweet scone-like cakes doused in a creamy greyish sauce containing sausage meat. With this, I had two fried eggs, a bowl of grits (unseasoned corn-based semolina porridge, much like Chinese rice porridge) and a glass of lemonade. I didn’t quite manage to eat all of it, and it took five hours of almost constant walking before I was hungry again.

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Chapel Hill’s old cemetery is a fascinating place that will make an archaeologist very happy one day. The site was mainly used during the 19th and early 20th century, and it is divided into sections with rich academics to the east and black people to the west, including slaves. In the poorest western section, most graves are marked with headstones in the most literal sense: irregular rows of smallish unmodified natural stones, broken by only a few inscribed slabs! Very prehistoric-looking, I’ve never seen anything like it from so late a period. In the middle of the poor section is an incongruous obelisk monument raised over four men who had performed some important service (in WW1?): it was put up by a year of university students, i.e. affluent white people. Very fitting to visit the site on MLK Day.

A funny thing about English and American cemeteries is the ever-present natural decay. Monuments are left to fall to bits at these places, to become overgrown by trees. In a Swedish cemetery, a grave is either maintained (by the family or the congregation) or the stone is removed and the plot re-used. This means that in Swedish cemeteries, everything is very neat and the older stones are found in ranks leaning against the cemetery wall.

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Comments

  1. #1 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    January 22, 2008
  2. #2 Mikey
    January 22, 2008

    Having lived there as a grad student in the 1970s, I’ve enjoyed reading your posts and seeing your photos from Chapel Hill. Your description of grits, biscuits and gravy was hilarious to this former Carolinian! I wish I had had your elegant descriptions when I tried to persuade my northern in-laws to try grits.

    Many family cemeteries in the south have been lost to development out of greed and carelessness. In the 1700s and early 1800s, the graves of both whites (except for the wealthy) and slaves often had only field stone markers with no inscriptions. Historical societies and state archeological agencies are trying to identify and preserve the remaining cemeteries. One identifying feature is periwinkle (also called ‘cemetery vine’ by oldtimers in NC) growing under a group of trees near a farmhouse or in the middle of a field.

  3. #3 Martin R
    January 22, 2008

    Many thanks for your kind words! Those cemeteries sound like quite an informative site-type seen from an archaeological perspective.

  4. #4 HP
    January 22, 2008

    a huge number of churches, most being very small and privately run

    You realize of course, that outside the big cities and tourist meccas, this describes pretty much the entire United States. Chapel Hill actually has the reputation of being a fairly secular oasis.

    I’m with Mikey: Your description of biscuits and gravy should be on the menu of every diner in the country. You can actually track 19th c. migration routes by the presence or absence of B&G on the menu — the southern mid-Atlantic states, western Kentucky and Tennessee, a spur that leads up into Indiana, then, heading west, a whole lotta nothing until you get to the old mining towns in eastern California and western Colorado, where they’re fanatical about it.

    I’ve always thought “biscuits and gravy” must sound terribly odd and unappetizing to anyone more familiar with Commonwealth English than American English.

    /* pictures a packet of HobNobs and some beef drippings */

  5. #5 eleanora
    January 22, 2008

    “I’ve always thought “biscuits and gravy” must sound terribly odd and unappetizing to anyone more familiar with Commonwealth English than American English.”

    Well to this Aussie it sounds odd, but edible, and looks disgusting. No wonder Martin didn’t want to eat anything for hours afterwards.

  6. #6 katherine sharpe
    January 23, 2008

    “I didn’t quite manage to eat all of it, and it took five hours of almost constant walking before I was hungry again.”

    Smiling and laughing at your description of buscuits and gravy. I hope you are enjoying America.

  7. #7 Martin R
    January 23, 2008

    Yes Miss Katherine, thankee, I def’n’ly do!

  8. #8 Tim Abbott
    January 24, 2008

    Your cemetery observations got me thinking about an early post of mine at Walking the Berkshires on the topic which you might enjoy:

    http://greensleeves.typepad.com/berkshires/2005/11/hallowed_ground.html

    Relevant excerpt: “The oldest markers remaining in New England cemeteries are undressed field stone. Slate was common until the late 1700s when it was often supplanted by sandstone or marble. Granite stones tend to date from the latter half of the 19th century or later. The colonial stone carvers art preserves what are essentially the earliest forms of public sculpture in America. Archaeologists who make a study of New England’s funereal art are able to trace the influence of individual stone carvers and their migrations across the region through the motifs they developed and modified. Death’s heads, cherubs, urns and willow trees are specific to certain time periods in our nation’s early history and reflect changing attitudes about religion and death.”

  9. #9 Martin R
    January 25, 2008

    Tim, yeah, I like your entry! Also, I’ve read the classic James Deetz paper about those grave markers, where he uses them to test models of typological seriation and artisan mobility.

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