Can oysters save NC coast from climate change?

“Antonio Rodriguez, a coastal geology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and his colleagues spent 15 years measuring oyster reefs in intertidal zones on the Carolinian coast. In a study released this week, the team reports that, over the years, these reefs have grown at a pace that would match any future sea-level rise. According to Rodriguez, this is a good case for actively restoring oyster reefs on the East Coast. ‘One could end up with a reef that will help protect the shoreline from erosion, filter water, provide fish habitat, and be able to keep up with sea-level rise,’ he says. ‘No rock sill can do those things.’

“Oyster walls are dynamic, in other words. Conventional sea walls, tough though they may be, are static. After the ocean rises enough, waves will be able to swoosh over the top of stone walls. Oyster reefs grow by accumulating drifting oyster larvae that latch on and are kept in place by sediment buildup….

“If ‘oyster-tecture’ ever does happen — and Rodriguez’s research may help it along — it will be a great example of American adaptation to climate change.”

— From “How Oysters Can Protect Houses From Hurricanes” by Svati Kirsten Narulain in The Atlantic (May 5)

Not everyone, of course, believes oysters are needed for anything but seafood platters.


Spruce Pine’s leftovers fill bunkers at the Masters

“The Augusta National golf course’s most distinctive feature is the bright white sand in its bunkers.

“However, contrary to Augusta lore, that sand is not ‘feldspar sand,’ according to Drew Coleman, professor of geological sciences at UNC Chapel Hill.

“Feldspar is ‘dirty quartz,’ that is, quartz that contains other elements like aluminum and potassium. If you went to a beach in North Carolina, you’d find about 88 percent of the sand is quartz, while 10 percent is feldspar.

“The Spruce Pine Mining District in North Carolina is famous for its feldspar and quartz, and since the 1700s feldspar has been mined there. When they mine the feldspar for aluminum, they just discard the quartz. What we call ‘feldspar sand’ is a waste byproduct, Coleman said, and there’s likely not any feldspar in it.”

” ‘That’s why the bunkers are so white,’ Coleman said. ‘Spruce Pine quartz is the best in the world, and the quartz created from the feldspar mining process is so white and so pure.’

“More recently, the quartz has become more valuable than the feldspar, according to Coleman. The same stuff in those Augusta National bunkers is now used for silicon chips.”

— From “The bunkers at Augusta National are spectacular, but they are not ‘feldspar’ sand” by Mike Walker at (April 8, 2011)


Thomas Wolfe does double duty for Prof Koch

On this day in 1919: Professor Frederick Koch’s Carolina Playmakers debut with a trio of short plays in the Chapel Hill High School auditorium. Leading the bill: “The Return of Buck Gavin, A Tragedy of the Mountain People,” written by Thomas Wolfe, who also plays the part of Buck.

Among Prof Koch’s other notable early students: Paul Green, Jonathan Daniels and Frances Gray (Patton). By 1928 Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times will write that “what Professor Koch has accomplished, not only in Chapel Hill, but through the state, is nothing short of extraordinary.”

You can see costume items from “The Return of Buck Gavin” in the North Carolina Collection Gallery exhibit “Making a People’s Theatre: Proff Koch and the Carolina Playmakers,” from now until May 31.

Sam was silent, but Communist speaker wasn’t

On this day in 1966: University of North Carolina police prevent Herbert Aptheker, historian and member of the American Communist Party, from speaking on the Chapel Hill campus.

Aptheker first attempted to address students from the ledge of a campus landmark, the Confederate statue known as Silent Sam. Thwarted, he steps a few feet away, crosses a low stone wall onto town property and faces 2,000 students seated on the campus lawn. His speech proves less than incendiary; its main result is to focus national attention on the state’s 1963 Speaker Ban Law.

Legislators adopted the ban during a period of social unrest and at the height of the Cold War. Secretary of State Thad Eure drafted the law “to regulate visiting speakers at state-supported colleges and universities.” On the blacklist: any “known member of the Communist Party,” anyone who advocated the overthrow of the state or federal constitutions and anyone who had pleaded the Fifth Amendment about “subversive connections.”

In 1968 a federal court will declare the Speaker Ban Law unconstitutional.


Campus was no place for ‘Student Body’

On this day in 1991: Paul Hardin, chancellor of UNC Chapel Hill, announces that “The Student Body,” a bronze sculpture labeled racist and sexist by some students, will be moved to a less conspicuous site after being vandalized.

Four of the seven figures have provoked heated opposition: a black man in a basketball uniform spinning a ball on his finger, a black woman carrying books on her head and a woman leaning against her boyfriend as they walk together.

The sculpture by Julia Balk of Westport, Conn., was donated by the Class of ’85 and installed in front of Davis Library.

“As an artist,” Balk says in a letter responding to the criticism, “I am particularly sensitive to the issues of racial inequality, sexism and social discrimination. To denounce these figures with the terms ‘sexism’ and ‘racism’ and ‘-ism’ is to see the sculpture with one’s eyes closed. This work is a celebration of student life and the act of learning.”

Interesting details here, plus photos of the vandalism.


UNC researcher debunks ‘Black Friday’ origin

“Beginning in the nineteen-thirties, fans thronged Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium for the Army-Navy football game…. The game was frequently held on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and just as visiting fans were showing up the day before, holiday shoppers also would descend on downtown…. The cops nicknamed the day of gridlock Black Friday, and soon others started to do the same….

“Retailers worried the phrase would scare people away…..  A few decades later, when the term came to describe a day when retailers’ ledgers shifted ‘into the black’ for the year — a connotation also pushed by marketers — people assumed that had always been the connotation.

“That idea never made sense to Bonnie Taylor-Blake, a neuroscience researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an amateur etymologist. ‘Since when was “Black Friday” ever used in a positive manner?’ she wrote in an e-mail. She searched for the earliest uses of the phrase, finally landing on [the Philadelphia]  reference, a discovery Taylor-Blake reported to the listserv of the American Dialect Society….

“Puncturing the myths surrounding Christmas, even cynically manufactured ones, can make a person feel like the Grinch, but Taylor-Blake hasn’t suffered. ‘I’m fortunate that family, friends, and co-workers I’ve shared this story with are, like me, skeptical at heart,’ she said. She doesn’t care much for shopping; on Black Friday, she plans to stay home.”

— From “”Everything You Know about Black Friday is Wrong” by Amy Merrick in the New Yorker (Nov. 28)


Prometheus undone and historic evidence gone missing

This account of how British scientists in 2006 accidentally killed the world’s oldest known clam reminded me of a how a UNC Chapel Hill scientist in 1964 accidentally killed the world’s oldest known tree.

Felling the bristlecone pine that came to be known as Prometheus put geography graduate student Donald Rusk Currey at the center of intense criticism. But the incident led to greater protections for ancient trees and to the creation of Great Basin National Park in Nevada, thanks in part to Currey’s own lobbying of Congress.

He was professor emeritus of geography at the University of Utah when he died at age 70 in 2004.

Currey had been unaware of the age of the not-yet-famous tree until he took a pieced-together, polished cross-section back to his lab at Chapel Hill and counted its 4,844 rings.

I asked Barbara Taylor Davis, manager of the geography department, about the cross-section’s current whereabouts. “Dr. David Basile, who was Department Chair from 1967-1977, and retired in 1985, was the last known person with the slab,” she said.  “Unfortunately, he passed away in 1985…. I wish I could be more helpful — the department would love to still have ‘the slab’!”


History Ph.D.s casting their nets more widely

“The national conversation about the merits of graduate education has intensified, and concerns have grown about whether programs are admitting more students than the academic market can bear. Many colleges have shown reluctance to produce Ph.D.-placement information, knowing that it would underscore the stark reality that doctoral students often do not get the kind of jobs they want for the money and the time they have spent in their graduate programs…

“Universities’ track records on providing placement data for Ph.D. programs vary widely…. Some individual departments also have good information about their graduates, including the history departments at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Rutgers University.”

— From “Do You Know Where Your Ph.D.’s Are?” by Audrey Williams June in the Chronicle of Higher Education (September 23, 2013)

So how do those Chapel Hill history grads use their doctorates? Ever more nontraditionally, says department chair W. Fitzhugh Brundage, William B. Umstead Professor of History:

“About 2/3 are in academia, either tenure-track or administration.  Roughly 10% are in public history positions (museums, etc.) while the remainder are pursuing all manner of careers.

“As a department we are now making a concerted effort to inform our graduate students that academia is not the only valid career path.  Just as no one would contend that any law school graduate who doesn’t practice law is a failure, so too we stress that the training one receives while earning a PhD has utility whether one enters academia or not.

“To better prepare our graduates for alternative careers we have now initiated a summer program of funded internships so that students can build networks outside of the traditional academic workplace.  And we are having alumni who have pursued non-academic careers offer wisdom and perspective as well.”

Presidential campaign train vs. funeral procession

“I regret that our [campaign] train trip last month interrupted your father’s funeral procession. However, I was heartened to read that the incident helped to ease somewhat the tension of that solemn occasion. You’re right; the Lord does work in mysterious ways….”

— From a note to Anne Fisher Williams of Thomasville included in “All the Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings” by George H. W. Bush (2013)

President Bush, a prolific and often effusive correspondent all his adult life, wrote Ms. Williams on Nov. 10, 1992, only a week after being defeated for reelection by Bill Clinton. “All the Best” opens with several letters to his family from Chapel Hill, where he was enrolled in Navy Pre-Flight School.