Friday, March 11, 2016

Stumbling Stones

Last December the Badische Zeitung (BZ) reported about a quarrel regarding the pavement in front of the new university library. The city had ordered basalt stones that had been imported from Vietnam. The lobbyists of the Industrieverband Steine und Erden (Industrial Association Stones and Earth) started a shitstorm suggesting that the acquired material was the result of child labor. The news was spread that in the Far East children are exploited in quarries working for starvation wages. In addition the transport of the stones from Vietnam to Freiburg is not climate-friendly.

The city answered that they had requested gray basalt in big quantities for covering the surfaces in front of the new university and of the Square of the Old Synagogue and not the usually black or blue basalt from the German Eifel region.

Gray basalt in front
of the new university library (©Michael Bamberger/BZ)
The story boiled up again this March when an expert from Zürich (As you know, a prophet has no honor in his own country) declared: For this project only basalt from Vietnam is suited. It has the required quality for heavy use. During a press conference Matthias Pliefke of Freiburg's garden and civil engineering department and project manager of the Umgestaltung des Rotteck-Rings (Transformation of the Rotteck-Ring), presented samples of the two basalts in question. The basalt lava from the Eifel does not have the same quality as the basalt from Vietnam. The selected Vietnamese material is certified with the label Fairstone signifying that child labor is excluded although no foreigner has access to the quarries that are located in prohibited military areas. Working conditions are checked by communist trade unions that in turn are controlled by the Vietnam government. Indeed it is rather a blue than a grey area or as the Bavarians are saying: Nichts Genaues weiß man nicht (One does not know anything precisely).

Matthias Pliefke showing samples of Vietnam basalt (left) and
Eifel basalt lava (©Michael Bamberger/BZ)
Starting at the end of the 19th century blue basalt became the material of choice for solid roadways in Germany. However, with the increasing car traffic after the war the abrasion-resistant surface showed its drawbacks. In 1950 Der Spiegel wrote: Road surfaces made from blue basalt are covered by a layer of dust and dripped off oil that becomes slippery in times of beginning rain or fog. Drivers experience this floating layer as a delightful toboggan run.

A typical road strip in Germany covered with blue basalt (©Panoramio)
As a high school graduate in Hamburg Red Baron did not read Der Spiegel, my driver's license was dated February 1954, and I had little driving experience. So I was unaware of the danger when in April of the same year, driving in Hamburg's notorious drizzle, I had to brake my father's brand new car on a down slope covered with blue basalt. I slid into the car of a driving school (sic!) and that was no delightful toboggan run at all.

It is no excuse that in the 50's neither the treads were covered with today's intelligent rubber compounds nor there was ABS. Luckily the car had only body damage with the left fender being crushed. When I arrived at my father's office he ordered me to return the car immediately to the workshop from where I just had come. I shall never forget the smirking looks of the people pointing to the crushed fender and the headlight in pieces. It felt like running the gauntlet. The order was that I had to stay at the workshop until a new unpainted fender had been installed. My father taught me a lesson but had confidence in me for three days later he asked me to drive my mother to a funeral in far Westphalia the new fender being still unpainted.

Coming back to the basalt quarrel. In Wikipedia I learned about another one that is much older and has to do with creation. In the late 18th century two groups in Europe, the Plutonists and the Neptunists, disputed the origin of basalt. The latter defended the Urozean (primeval ocean) as origin of basalt: In the beginning God created heaven and earth. The earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the deep, and the spirit of god moved upon the water (Moses 1,1-2). Therefore water was at the origin of everything and naturally of the formation of rock. Water contains minerals which settled out of suspension in a process of sedimentation to form the core of the planet and the continents as a series of layers. The Plutonists however noted that basalt does not include any fossils and hence the stone should be of volcanic origin. The dispute was on and Neptunists and Plutonists quarreled fiercely for decades.

Why do I write this? Our national genius Goethe being Neptunist and a specialist in geology too took actively part in the debate. When, following Alexander von Humboldt's opinion in the basalt quarrel, Johann Wolfgang saw his position dashed he did what he knew best, writing a poem, an ode dedicated to the States:

Den Vereinigten Staaten

Amerika, du hast es besser
Als unser Continent, das alte,
Hast keine verfallene Schlösser
Und keine Basalte.
Dich stört nicht im Innern,
Zu lebendiger Zeit,
Unnützes Erinnern
Und vergeblicher Streit.
To the United States

America, you're better off
than our continent, the old.
Neither do you sport decaying castles
nor basalt rocks.
Your heart is not troubled
these days
by useless reminiscing
and empty disputes.

Well, is it still like this? The strong reference of the Neptunists to the bible reminded me of the on-going dispute between creationists and evolutionists in the States. On our continent, the old this is no issue. So it seems that nowadays we in Europe are better off than the US at least in this kind of quarrel.

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