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Lessons from a cemetery
by Ken Feltman
Virginia City looks like a flower pressed in a book. Pick it up; it will crumble into dust.
- John Gunther
Today, the high desert has reclaimed the cemetery in Virginia City, Nevada. Vandalism has joined erosion and the relentless wind to despoil what was once called 'the most beautiful burial grounds in the wealthiest city in the world.' Little remains except the carcasses of old trees and overgrown sagebrush.
A century and a half ago, in the hardscrabble of the barren Nevada desert, the newcomers to a boom town called Virginia City (named by a silver prospector from Virginia) took the time to create a lush, irrigated burial field. The cemetery became a place of beauty. People strolled manicured pathways among the trees and flowers - an oasis in a bleak and unforgiving land. But why build a grand cemetery in such a forbidding place?
Virginia City?s cemetery was part of the nineteenth century Cemetery Movement. Burial grounds were originally beside churches, in urban areas. Then, land away from the population centers was dedicated to burials and the term cemeteries came into use. Cemeteries of the Victorian era were viewed as gardens, places of contemplation and enjoyment of nature. London's Highgate Cemetery, often pictured in horror films, is perhaps the best known example. Filled with trees, flowering plants, flowing water and dense fields of grass, the Virginia City cemetery followed the contemporary style. The early residents of Virginia City never questioned the wisdom of their effort to create a magnificent cemetery despite the extreme obstacles that the environment forced them to overcome.
The U.S. is by far the largest energy consumer in the world. But the U.S. has no energy policy. In addition, the U.S. has a history of exploiting resources and moving on. Sooner or later, there is no place left that is not spoiled or depleted.
They created a lush and dignified place to bury loved ones and scoundrels alike. The remaining grave markers, too large for vandals to cart off, show the wealth expended to memorialize these dead. During the Silver Rush, hundreds of fortune hunters from places all over the world flooded into this high valley to get rich. Many did. Many died. Because everyone was from someplace else, the tombstones tell a story, often recording the place of origin of the deceased: Scotland, Bohemia, Holland, Cornwall, Ohio, Nova Scotia, Tennessee, Virginia, Quebec, New York and many other places. If no one knew the origin of the deceased, California was often chiseled into the stone because so many had worked the streams of California before heading to Nevada. Who knew where they were born?
The wealthiest city in the world
Americans have always chased the get-rich-quick dream. When gold was discovered in California in 1848, a migration including prospectors, criminals, farmers, merchants, thieves and their camp followers made Sacramento and San Francisco cities. By early 1849, gold fever was an epidemic. Young men explained to their wives that they could get rich in a year in the gold fields. A year apart would be worth the hardship. They said their goodbyes and streamed west by the thousands, young adventurers with a collective dream: A year of pain in return for a lifetime of riches. Dubbed ?49ers because most left home in 1849, few became wealthy and many never returned home.
A few years later, a gold strike in Australia fueled migration to the other side of the globe. Next, fortune hunters surged to the Canadian Northwest and then to Colorado (Pike?s Peak or Bust). Silver, not gold, caused the rush to Nevada in 1859. Thousands of miners from all over the world descended upon the bitter desert around a fabulous silver strike - the Comstock Lode. Today, we realize that the Comstock was probably the greatest single precious metal strike in history.
From sagebrush walls to opulence
Soon Virginia City was the second largest metropolis in the West as 20,000 people swarmed into the valley containing the main vein of silver. Shanties and tents, empty whiskey barrels and pits and hollows by the side of the trail were used for sleeping. People camped in wagons and gathered sagebrush to make walls. Saloons, gambling houses and dancehalls, a few stores with very small stocks of general merchandise, and one or two churches, soon dotted the hillside. Villages named Gold Hill and Silver City sprang up. Houses were built; then streets were made to reach them.
Mark Twain, after an unsuccessful stint as a prospector, found work with a Virginia City newspaper. The Hearst family, later to spawn the publishing empire of William Randolph Hearst, got its start when George Hearst acquired a stake in a promising mine and, in two months, dug out a small fortune in silver ore. But this strike was different: Most of the profits from the California Gold Rush made their way back East or to Europe; The profits from the Comstock benefited mostly Westerners. Silver wealth soon found its way to San Francisco, where the financial and banking system had grown up to serve the gold strike of a decade earlier. Indeed, San Francisco?s importance as a financial capital is owed as much to Nevada silver as to California gold.
Shortly, Virginia City became the wealthiest city in the world on a per capita basis. As the boom town sprouted and then spurted with wealthy residents, all the trappings of wealth were imported or built - magnificent homes filled with grand pianos and fine China, opera houses, graceful public buildings, roads, gardens - and a cemetery to rival any back East. Everywhere, opulence and excess became the norm. The high desert bloomed with the trappings of the rich.
Then, the silver played out. Virginia City?s population began to move on to the next strike, leaving the magnificent city to decay. Eventually, word of other strikes, some nearby and some as far away as South Africa, took the last of the miners away from the depleted Comstock. The great strike was over. The cemetery?s fountains and intricate watering system deteriorated. Weeds grew up. The imported trees and plants died. Wind reclaimed the land. The desert closed in.
Grab everything you can, then move on
Virginia City?s cemetery became a symbol for an especially unappealing American trait. Almost everyone buried in the hard, rocky ground never intended to stay. They wanted to get rich and move on to the next opportunity or to a comfortable life in some favored place. They were part of an early American tradition: Descend upon an area offering a chance to get rich, grab everything you can, then move on, leaving a despoiled landscape behind. This attitude was so prevalent in North America that it became a tradition and almost a right.
Thousands moved into New England and the Southeast and farmed the soil to exhaustion before moving across the mountains to repeat the despoiling, then moving on to the rich land of the Ohio, Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri River valleys. So many moved on so quickly, leaving so much behind (including neighbors who could not be certain that the departed family had not been harmed), that homesteaders began to mark their cabin doorways when they left without goodbyes. Throughout Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee the letters 'GTT' told neighbors not to worry. The family had Gone to Texas. From the Shenandoah to the Hudson Valley, from the Tidewater to the Great Lakes, this restlessness for better land became the stuff of myth. The West filled up with some cowboys and desperados but mostly with many farmers from used-up land elsewhere.
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Hunters thought nothing of slaughtering animals in such numbers that they drove the great herds to near extinction. The prairies ran red with the blood of bison and within just a few years, herds that had sustained the native Indian way of life for centuries were reduced to numbers that were not self-sustaining without intervention by more enlightened humans. Whole tracts of rich land were overgrazed and left to billow into giant dust storms when the winds came up, as they did when they created the dust bowl of the 1930s.
Used-up resources and a change in control
Used-up land was left behind. People moved on. Eventually, of course, people learned that the land already was spoiled by someone who got there first. Virginia City is a perfect example. Those who got there first had the best chance to get rich. And then, when the Comstock Lode was mined out, they moved on, leaving everything behind.
We are doing it again, now with oil. We Americans are gobbling up yet another resource. This time, we are not just despoiling our own land, we are placing all advanced civilization at risk. The stakes are higher because, when we deplete the supply of oil, there may be no ready replacement. We may have little time left to find an alternative.
Yes, other nations bear a share of the responsibility for the improvident squandering of energy resources. Developing economies want to catch up. They are reckless with energy. But the U.S. has provided little responsible leadership. Instead, the U.S. is a bad example.
Even if a new energy source is discovered, America?s unquenchable thirst for oil has proved disastrous. Forget industrial and auto pollution. Discount global warming. The politics of petroleum are just as bad, perhaps worse.
Look around the world at the places that produce crude oil, the places that supply the oil that modern society depends upon. The Middle East, Venezuela, the Far East, Russia, Mexico, West Africa: We have difficult political relationships with most of them. Is this coincidence or the result of American political and industrial heavy-handedness? The petroleum exporting nations are awash in money and many do not like us. They also have more control over the energy market.
A subtle but profound change has occurred and we need to understand it. Previously, the industrialized nations dictated the terms of the oil business, with the producing states attempting to gain a degree of control through OPEC and other means. But the pressure was on the exporting states to keep delivering or risk loss of market share. Now, ever-so-quickly and almost unnoticed by consumers, the producers are in control and the consuming states are becoming more desperate to secure reliable supplies.
Do you think that some of Saudi Arabia?s oil money may find its way into financing terrorism? Does anyone believe that President Putin of Russia would be less difficult if he lacked oil riches? Do you think that oil-soaked Iran can purchase or produce all sorts of malevolent devices and fund all kinds of nefarious plots? Do you believe that the U.S., Europe and China are in a global scramble for oil supplies? Maybe we need to rethink this whole thing. Maybe the U.S. needs to have a coordinated energy-political-international relations policy. We - and the world - need a better plan to prevent the tank from coming up empty.
They created a grand cemetery in Virginia City. Then the silver ran out.
Isn't it about time for the world's largest energy consumer to have an energy policy?
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