Rosendale Natural Cement
    Kevin Frey

I wasn't there when the first mines were dug,
the forests cut down, kilns built, workers killed;
the breaking point can only be determined
by breaking what will support the entire structure.

Forests cut down, kilns built, workers killed
in order to extract the natural cement;
by breaking what will support the entire structure
strength is tested, though the origins be lost.

In order to extract the natural cement
lives were lost, lives through which the company's
strength was tested. Though the origins be lost,
I wasn't there when the first mines were dug.


Forests cut down, kilns built, workers killed:
only a few of the costs
of production. Cave-ins, fuses
with too much or little saltpeter,
the ravenous fires, the work;
all led some to death.
Their broken lives were once
crumbled and layered with coal
in the fire-hearted kilns
of prosperity and, later,
abandonment. Their ghostly echoes
ring in the currency of quaintness.


I don't know how many workers were killed,
or how the kilns were built, or how they worked,
or when the forests cut down for fuel began
the slow regrowth to their current beauty.

At the local library (originally
a chapel, built with Rosendale cement)
there's a small collection of documents
referencing the history of this small town,

though what is lost must far outweigh what's told.
I'm left to conjecture -- working conditions
in the mines, the lives led in cold homesteads.
These are the records bound up in silence.


In order to extract "natural cement"
the remaining 'natural' landscape was razed:
mines blasted along the necessary strata,
kilns built into hillsides, hardwoods axed
for fuel, slag piled high as mines were deep,
deer slaughtered near to extinction, rivers dammed
and canals locked. That is to say, the usual progress,
the normal ordering of things, which has led
a century later to land overrun with deer
and Norway maples, some new-growth hickory and oak,
a conservation easement protecting the endangered
Indiana bats roosting in abandoned shafts.


The entire structure rests on supports
made from this cement. The Brooklyn Bridge.
The Statue of Liberty. The Croton
and Ashokan Reservoirs. The Thruway.
Drawing people over the water, people
in and out of their concrete workstations,
clean water down from the hills, shaping
lives throughout the invisible environment
of commerce. Structure and intent echo
one another like water and bridge, emptiness
and mines, identity and place. A briquette
of wet mortar, bound by what will break first.


In order of appearance: shallow seas
filled with minerals and shells. Aeons
passage. More sediment, pressure, and time.
Slow changing of sea to land, shell to rock.

A thrusting upwards of the crust. Exposure
once again to air and organic life.
In the blink of an eye men find and extract
the twenty-two foot layer of hydraulic lime,

crush it, fire it in kilns, grind
it to a fine powder. Five hundred pounds
of rock transformed into a fifty pound bag
labeled Rosendale Natural Cement.


There were any number of small companies
operating in the area, each with
its shafts and kilns, through which a handful of folks
earned a meager living. I think about this

each time I come across a mine in the woods,
how desire for this rock supported an entire
community, whose outward traces remain
though their memories and lives seem lost,

buried under the weight of the continuousness
of living. For the moment I stand above --
on whose company's ground I'm as yet unaware --
rooting in the sediment of my brief passage.


The strength of the limestone columns was tested
before the facilities were built. The height
allowed for two-story structures; a virtual
city underground housing the mountains

of records extracted from our complex
lives. New York Underground Facilities, Inc,
is the only business to make profitable use
of the abandoned mines -- the ice and mushroom

concerns having since collapsed. The self-contained
facility is said to be able to survive
a direct atomic blast, maintaining
the record of life, though the origins be lost.


I wasn't there when the first mines were dug,
nor when the last closed. The extraction's aftermath
is all that's made available to me now:
slag heaps of old photos, a few memoirs,
the miner's house (with recent additions) I live in.
And of course the caves. On autumn afternoons
in the largest of these there's a certain slant of light
that allows one to see the bottom; though for all that
it's perhaps a dim reflection of the crumbling roof
off the surface of the water that fills
the depths of so many caves -- depths I've never
plumbed, depths whose measure only the dead can take.

Kevin Frey divides his time between Rosendale and New York City, where he teaches English at Marymount Manhattan College.


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