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‘In Praise of Limestone’

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The relationship between people and the landscape is as inseparable as that of our connection with the air we must breathe if we are not to become, in short order, a part of the landscape.

People exist, as the ancient saying irrevocably states, ‘between Heaven and Earth’: we are a living stratum between the inert earth and the weight of the winds of the stratosphere.

Of the one, we talk a lot about the weather, whose unseeable airs and often intemperate and fickle nature dictates much of our lives; of the other, we are literally on firmer ground, for it is from the Earth that we take all of our sustenance, excepting of course the gift of rain, the rays of the distant Sun, or the fruits of the seas.

Much of the surface of the Earth upon which we play out our lives is fortuitously comprised of rock, a generally hard material composed of minerals and other useful ingredients, such as, for some, diamonds.

Perhaps one of the greatest writers of the last century, WH Auden, used one of the last for his ‘lavender marriage’ to a daughter of Thomas Mann (a German Jew of distinction), thus saving her from the camps of the 1939—45 war that reduced millions to footnotes.

Auden was much taken with the karst countryside around York, England, where he grew to maturity and his poem ‘In Praise of Limestone’ is a paean to underlying structure of his homeland.

He would perhaps have written the same lines were he to these blessed isles born:

‘The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,

Having nothing to hide. Dear, I know nothing of

Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love

Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur

Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape’

Of the triplets of the air, sea and land in this place the last is foremost and almost entirely limestone, to which we should consider a daily praise, or at least from the pews of Sundays.

This article is in praise of a recent event that, perhaps for the first time, is a hymn to the heritage of limestone, being the preservation of a quarry once used for the extraction of that extraordinary matter from the Earth for the benefit of Bermudians and now declared, in effect, a historic monument.

At the unusually named ‘Skroggins Hill’ in Southampton, by Evan’s Bay and just off the Railway Trail, is to be found an eight-acre parcel of land that is now in the trusteeship of the Bermuda National Trust and the Bermuda Audubon Society, thanks to an extraordinary gift.

Within the plot are several quarries, which are now major outdoor museums to generations of stonecutters, one of which has sheer faces rises some 25 feet off the ground, elevations which are as straight as a die, as cut by men of long ago.

The quarries in the ‘Vesey Nature Reserve’ cannot be underestimated as a memorial to Bermuda’s limestone and allied industries, such as lime burning and the masonry trades.

Without that limestone, it is unlikely that we would have the wonderful heritage of unique vernacular architecture that is our historic homes and other buildings, such as the early fortifications.

Had the volcano that forms the resting place for this limestone cap come and stayed above the surface, we would likely have built in timber, for basalts and other such harder rocks are difficult to work, nor would their incineration produce the vital quicklime for paints, mortars so essential to the Bermuda architectural idiom.

Hurricanes love houses of wood and with their destruction would have vanished much of the portable cultural heritage that today survives in our solid limestone homes.

Indeed, it is more than fair to say that without limestone, Bermuda would simply not exist as what some would aptly like to advertise as ‘the Cultural Capital of the Western North Atlantic’.

From the hard limestones of Dockyard to the softer rocks of the Lower Parishes, we are indebted to the whim of Nature that produced the geology of the islands, as they were found in 1505 and later settled in 1612.

So this article is also ‘In praise of Bermuda’, as well as its fundamental rock, but out of the recent dedication of the Vesey Nature Reserve, we must extract a few rocks of very important human elements, minerals that shine above others in this context.

First and foremost is Ms Sharon Vesey, who has given the eight acres of the Reserve in perpetuity, with its limestone bedrock and quarries, as well as its indigenous and native vegetation, or birds, bees and trees, if you will.

At the dedication, Sharon noted that: “Four years ago the deeds to Skroggins Hill were handed to ‘Buy Back Bermuda’ and restored as a nature reserve with donations by many people to the ‘Buy Back Bermuda Campaign II’, a project under the leadership of Dr David Saul and a small committee from the National Trust and the Audubon Society.

“The Reserve was named for my immediate family, my parents Henry and Iris Vesey, uncle Ernest Vesey, grandparents Sir Henry and Lady Vesey, and great aunt and uncle Ernest and Jessie Vesey.

“It was from Ernest and Jessie Vesey that I inherited this piece of property that I am now donating for future generations of Bermudians to enjoy as a part of their heritage.”

Sharon’s gift laid the foundations for this new and important edifice in the village of Bermuda’s heritage, while its ‘walls and roof’ were cemented (with lime mortar, not Portland) by the gifts of many people to the Buy Back Bermuda campaigns.

It falls to two stalwart preservation organisations, the Bermuda National Trust and the Bermuda Audubon Society to maintain this monument to the island’s natural heritage, which itself could not exist without the underlying beds of beautiful limestone, and which it inexorably includes.

All of the people concerned with these organisations and with the establishment of the Vesey Nature Reserve perhaps inherently agree with WH Auden that a faultless love in this place reverberates around a limestone landscape: Praise be unto all of them for all that they do faultlessly and often against considerable opposition to preserve all that there is to love about this place.

Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is Director of the National Museum at Dockyard. Comments may be made to director@bmm.bm or 704-5480

Master stonemason Larry Mills (centre) with former quarrymen Fred Phillips and Robert Simmons holding one of the great saws that were essential to the cutting of Bermuda stone.
Director of the Bermuda National Trust Jennifer Gray (left) is shown standing with Sharon Vesey, the donor of the eight-acre Vesey Nature Reserve which was named in honour of her Bermudian family.
The main quarry at the Vesey Nature Reserve is now the first heritage memorial to the fundamental Bermuda industry of stonecutting and the men who worked in that trade from 1612 into modern times.
A postcard of the early 20th Century shows the popularity of stonecutting and quarries to visitors, most of who would have never seen such a fundamental and unchanging industry at first hand.
The harbourside quarry at the Vesey Nature Reserve is typical of such stonecutting areas that were located near the shore for the easy transportation of the stone by boat.

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Published May 04, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated May 03, 2013 at 6:54 pm)

‘In Praise of Limestone’

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