7/26/17 Nearly All of Western Civilization Captured in One Photo

First, thanks to Sharon Collie Northern for the writing prompt.

AsphaltThe seemingly uninteresting photograph bears a closer look. It has just about the most important things we posses that allows us modern civilization as we know it.

The ancient Greeks gave us philosophy, drama, sculpture, art, and architecture devoted to their pantheon that was inspiring, their Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian columns supporting their stone structures all assembled in the form of the golden mean inspire us to look outside ourselves at something greater than mere mortals. The Greeks gave us Euclidean geometry, and Pythagorean theory for science. It was the Greeks that figured out how to use a screw to lift water, or grain, or just about anything else. The Greeks gave us literature with Homer’s ILIAD and ODYSSEY, they gave us Sophocles, Euripides, and the chorus in their theatre. The Greeks gave us tragedy. They gave us comedy. They gave us Democracy. The Greeks gave us Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Xenophon.

The Romans were too practical to spend too much time in philosophic invention, though they had Virgil, Cicero, Pliny the Elder, Marcus Aurelius, and others. They were too lazy in thought to invent their own gods, so they borrowed them from the Greeks, pretending to originality by dumping their Hellenized names and giving them Latin ones.

But the Romans knew how to do a few things well. They could build formidable, durable empires, assemble, train and maintain fast moving and heroic armies, they could move water from places where there was plenty to places where it was needed via their magnificent aqueducts, they could build arches and bridges, they could build roads, and they could use a level, a square, and a plumb-bob. The Romans were engineers, the builders of great public works.

In the photograph, I am reminded of the Romans. In the photograph I see a concrete curb, and asphalt paved surface, and some fine limestone aggregate used in the asphalt. It has been said that the most valuable thing the Romans contributed to civilization is concrete, for it was the Romans who learned that if you mined and pulverized limestone, fired it in a kiln, re-hydated it into a liquid slurry which would mold itself into the form you built and poured it into, it would solidify back into limestone, even under water. Mix in some aggregate like gravel, or the fine limestone shown in the photo, some sand, and insert some iron or steel into it, and you had the reinforced concrete upon which the foundations of the Roman world rested, as well as the foundations of our modern world. No concrete, no Manhattan. No concrete, no San Francisco. No concrete, no Chicago, Nashville, or Houston. Not as we know it, anyway.

Asphalt it another thing entirely. The substance in California’s LaBrea tar pits that oozes to the surface, leaving bogs that trapped and preserved ancient species now long extinct is asphalt, the heaviest part of crude oil. No doubt, John D. Rockefeller, in his Standard Oil wells wondered what to do with the useless, sticky asphalt, he solely wanting the lighter kerosene as a substitute for the whale oil being burned in lamps at night. Someone discovered that if you mixed Asphalt with some fine limestone aggregate to make it go farther, a filler as it were, and heated it to 350°F, you could spread it hot, compact it, and it would harden as it cooled so that you could pave surfaces much cheaper than you could using the Roman concrete, or the bricks that were made and laid by hand. It was not as durable as concrete, but it was much faster and much less expensive. Thus they began to put asphalt and crushed limestone onto dirt road surfaces, calling them “improved” roads, or hard surfaced roads. And indeed, they were a significant improvement over the muddy ruts that would stop your travels frequently in early autos.

Everything we have delivered comes to us thanks to the lowly, easily taken for granted things shown in the photo. Our food is delivered on asphalt roads to markets where it is processed and loaded onto trucks that deliver it down concrete interstate highways, over thousands of concrete bridges, to hundreds of thousands of buildings of reinforced concrete, resting on foundations of reinforced concrete. Our cities rise on concrete and exist as livable places because of asphalt and concrete roads. Even our wastewater is carried away in concrete pipes and manholes. The world rests and rides on concrete and asphalt. If we can’t have concrete and asphalt, then we will have the crushed limestone by itself, for it will make a better road surface than dirt or sand.

Our civilization is built and stands on the things shown in the photo. Without them everything we know would come crashing down around us.

The next time you walk to your car parked in an asphalt parking lot, where the storm water is captured and directed by concrete curbs into concrete culverts, and you drive your car down an asphalt road to get to a concrete freeway, think about this photo.

The next time you buy a Washington State Apple, some California Lettuce, a fine Napa Valley wine, some Wisconsin Cheese, or some Florida Orange juice, think of the role concrete and asphalt played in getting it to you, and your appreciation of the photo might just change, for if the things shown in it are not inspiring in and of themselves, the things they make possible make your life better.

Many thanks to the Romans for their engineering capabilities. And many thanks to the petroleum producers and marketers who found a judicious use for something no one else seemed to value, for creating a market where none had existed before.

Business, construction, great public works, swift transportation, bridges over waterways, and less mud on good shoes from every sidewalk you ever walked on are all admirable things, even vital.

What would you do without the things in this picture?

You certainly wouldn’t live in a big city, hardly even in a small one. You’d likely saddle up and ride your pony in wet weather, lest you find yourself in an impenetrable impasse of mud and muck.

There would also be no such thing as high heels, as rubber boots would have beat them out as a practical fashion item.

Concrete, gravel, and asphalt: these three make our lives livable.

And air conditioning, but that is another blog post.

©2017 Mississippi Chris Sharp

PS: Sharon Collie Northern….I wouldn’t call this eloquent, but I would call it a muse on the vital importance of the mundane. Thank you for the inspiration.

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