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Distant Thunder - Glorious mud!

As geologist and science writer Nina Morgan* discovers, geologists are not the only ones who love mud.

JHGIn 2011 the Geological Society held a meeting to celebrate Poetry and Geology.  This year the Society is waxing poetical about mud. "Mud represents both and end and a beginning – the end of the cycle of erosion and transport, and the beginning of the generation (through burial and transformation) of new materials of great value to society," reads the notice on the Events page of the website. 

These are two topics close to the heart of Liberty Hyde Bailey (1858-1954, pictured right).  As a child, Bailey apparently loved playing with stones – but he also loved plants.  In the end, plants won.  Mentored by American botanist Asa Gray [1810-1888], who corresponded with many in the Geological Society, Bailey went on to focus his prodigious talents on botany, and helped to create the science of horticulture.  But his interests were very wide.

He corresponded with Darwin as a supporter of Darwin's Origin of Species, and once entertained Alfred Russel Wallace when Wallace visited the Michigan Agricultural College.  Bailey was also a prolific writer, rural sociologist, philosopher and environmentalist.  He wrote poetry too, and fully appreciated the importance of mud – a sediment he celebrated in verse in his collection of poetry entitled Wind and Weather, first published in 1916:


Mother Mud


Ye roils of mud! On slag and road

On wallowed track and slipping yard

Down millioned years of slash and goad,

Ye be the earth's first honor-guard. [sic]


Clean scurf and rain, by heaven mixed

Forth-destined when the orb was flung –

Within the quick'ning sludge transfixed

Were all the songs the years have sung.


No sprout of earth, no winnowed soul

No singing sphere, no god of man

Except from out your brooding shoal

Had ever winged their master-span.


Flush sloughs of mud! In fragrant dawn

Is leaping spring and garnered fall

I tribute bring to breed and brawn

Nor dare defile one mire withal.


Flow down ye rains to earth far-long

Rise up ye lands to wind and rift

When ye be strong then all be strong

Full-free of doubt and stain and shrift


For from the sleech the strong ones come;

And ev'ry bird and hoof and bud

In godly part and sacred sum

Proclaim the kinship of the mud


Though he could never be said to be a geologist sensu stricto, Bailey's celebration of mud must surely qualify him as an honorary geologist at least!


This vignette was inspired by the gift of a 1919 edition of Bailey's book Wind and Weather rescued from a box of his books recently rediscovered in storage near the orchards at Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, in Ithaca, New York, US.  Other sources of information include an obituary of Liberty H Bailey, published in the New York Times on 26 December, 1954; and A Biographical Memoir of Liberty Hyde Bailey, 1858 -1956, by Harlan P Banks, published by the National Academy of Sciences, Washington DC, 1994.

* Nina Morgan is a geologist and science writer based near Oxford, currently working on a book about the Geology of Gravestones.