Stardust on the Corn

In his essay, The Work of Local Culture, poet and rustic sage Wendell Berry famously wrote of a steel bucket that used to hang from a fencepost on his Kentucky farm:

"I never go by it without stopping to look inside," Berry wrote. "For what is going on in that bucket is the most momentous thing I know, the greatest miracle that I have ever heard of: it is making earth. The old bucket has hung there through many autumns, and the leaves have fallen around it and some have fallen into it. Rain and snow have fallen into it, and the fallen leaves have held the moisture and so have rotted. Nuts have fallen into it, or been carried into it by squirrels; mice and squirrels have eaten the meat of the nuts and left the shells; they and other animals have left their droppings; insects have flown into the bucket and died and decayed; birds have scratched in it and left their droppings or perhaps a feather or two. This slow work of growth and death, gravity and decay, which is the chief work of the world, has by now produced in the bottom of the bucket several inches of black humus. I look into that bucket with fascination because I am a farmer of sorts and an artist of sorts, and I recognize there an artistry and a farming far superior to mine, or to that of any human. I have seen the same process at work on the tops of boulders in a forest, and it has been at work immemorially over most of the land-surface of the world. All creatures die into it, and they live by it."

Berry's recognition of "an artistry and a farming far superior . . . to that of any human" at work inside his bucket is, of course, homely recognition of the fact that the universe doesn't need people. The universe got along fine before humans appeared. The universe will get along fine when humans disappear.

Prehistoric Meteorites

Scientists today know that Earth and her ecosystem were shaped in part by a series of meteor strikes. Geological evidence shows, for example, that 65 million years ago a meteor some 10 kilometers in diameter roared down from the heavens and struck Earth near what is now the town of Puerto Chicxulub, on the Yucatan Peninsula. The giant rock exploded upon impact, leaving a crater roughly 180 kilometers in diameter. The explosion filled the atmosphere with clouds of gas and debris that blocked the sun’s light for years. The long darkness caused immediate and catastrophic global climate changes, of which one result was the extinction of the dinosaurs.

About 74 million years ago, some 10 million years before the Yucatan apocalypse, a similar disaster occurred near what is now the town of Manson, in northwest Iowa. The impact and explosion of the Manson Meteorite, as it is called, left a crater 35 kilometers wide. The Manson Crater is 23rd largest of the 172 meteoric craters known to exist on Earth. Basing their calculations on evidence such as the size and depth of the crater and damage to the surrounding terrain, scientists believe that the Manson Meteorite was about 2.5 kilometers in diameter and was traveling at about 56,000 mph when it hit the ground.

Though human history is filled with wars and floods and plagues and famines and volcanos and earthquakes, neither our written records nor our folklore recall cosmic calamities like those at Manson and Chicxulub. The heavens thus far have refused to rain annihilation upon man. Of ancient craters like those at Chicxulub and Manson, no part is now visible. Scientists know those craters exist and can map their extent thanks to evidence from drill cores, from seismic instruments, and from other scientific and technological resources.

Meteorites in Iowa History

Though hundreds of small meteors enter our atmosphere daily, most all of them burn up before they reach the ground. Evidence of their burning, particles of ash sometimes called cosmic dust, perpetually drifts down from the sky.

Some of that dust surely falls into places such as Wendell Berry’s bucket and contributes in some way to the process at work there, though neither Berry nor anyone else could actually see it. The 'stardust' that rains upon us is invisible to the naked eye and can only be detected using special tools and techniques.

The nightly display of 'shooting stars' is all most folks ever see of rocks from outer space. For a meteor to actually strike the ground (only meteors that hit the ground are called meteorites) is an extremely rare occurrence. Some of those lucky enough to witness such an event may be superstitious and attach ominous import to what they have seen. Others may not know what they’re seeing and mistake it for something else entirely.

So it was when, at about 2:50 p.m. on February 25, 1847, a meteor streaked fire and smoke across the sky and exploded over Linn County, Iowa. Pieces of the thing showered down on a strip of wooded land near the Cedar River, from Hooshier Grove (now the town of Ely) to a spot two or three miles south of the village of Bertram.

Published accounts agree that “The attention of people in that region was arrested by a rumbling noise as of distant thunder; then three reports were heard one after another in quick succession, like the blasting of rocks or the firing of a heavy cannon. . . . These were succeeded by several fainter reports, like the firing of small arms in platoons. Then there was a whizzing sound heard in different directions, as of bullets passing through the air.” (a)

The explosions were so loud that they caused alarm in Iowa City, 22 miles away. (b) Judge James Cavanagh and two of his sons were cutting wood along the Cedar River some way south of the impact area. When they heard the heavy explosions and saw puffs of dark smoke in the northwestern sky, the Cavanaghs and other witnesses thought the town of Marion had been blown off the map. (c)

Perhaps because Marion was then the Linn County seat and the largest town in the area, or perhaps because early reports told of a single strike in Linn County about nine miles south of Marion, meteoric stones recovered by Linn County residents in the days and weeks after the 1847 strike are known to science and to history as fragments of the Marion Meteorite. It is estimated that between 46 and 75 pounds of the Marion Meteorite were recovered in all, and it is likely that more of it remains to be found. Of that which was recovered, Amherst College got two pieces weighing roughly 20 pounds each. A museum in Tubingen, Germany, got a fragment weighing about a pound, and Chicago’s Field Museum houses two smaller pieces. In 1977 Amherst College lent one of its two fragments back to the State University of Iowa, where it remains on display. (d)

The Marion Meteorite was the first meteor strike in the recorded history of Iowa. It was also the first of several that awed and sometimes terrified Iowans in the latter half of the 19th Century: At 10:20 p.m. on Feb. 12, 1875, residents of Iowa County saw an enormous fireball come screeching out of the southeast and blast itself to bits in the sky just west of Homestead. People saw the flash and heard the detonation at a distance of 150 miles. It scattered pieces of rock over some 20 square miles. Another big rock smashed to earth near Estherville (Emmet County) at 5:15 p.m. on May 10, 1879, and still another struck near Forest City (Winnebago County) on May 2, 1890. (e)

The Estherville strike was the biggest of the four. (f) One recovered boulder reportedly weighed 431 pounds. Several others near that size were found, along with hundreds of smaller fragments. The rock’s spectacular explosion caused a dust cloud several cubic miles in volume, according to watchers’ estimates. (g)

In the 20th Century, too, Iowans experienced several meteorites: On a bitter cold night in November 1916, watchers saw a meteor explode in the sky near the town of Mapleton (Monona County). (Grade Another 'detonating meteor' (sic) was seen in the sky west of Alta (Buena Vista County), at 9:55 p.m., on May 31, 1917. A 108-pound meteorite believed to have come from one of those two explosions was recovered in 1939 from a cornfield east of Mapleton. (i)

The continuous rain of meteorites globally should remind us all that Wendel Berry is right: planet Earth is a sort of bucket hanging on a fence post in the cosmos. The soil, the land, the plants and animals, the people that shelter in the bucket, the moon, the stars, the universe itself are parts of a living process that goes on apace, within and all about us. When any person claims to 'own' a piece of that process, he or she is deluded. To believe we can control it is the utmost folly.

Control issues aside, some Iowans believe they can taste stardust in cornbread. Details at eleven.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

a) Rev. Reuben Gaylord in a letter to Prof. Charles Upham Shepard of Amherst College, qtd. in Ben Hur Wilson, “The Marion Meteor,” The Palimpsest 39, n. 4, April 1958, 186.

b) C.W. Irish, qtd. in Wilson, The Palimpsest 39, 188.

c) Judge James Cavanagh to C.W. Irish, qtd. in Wilson, The Palimpsest 39, 187.

d) Wilson, The Palimpsest 39, 185.

e) “Looked Like the Face of Moon Had Fallen Off,” The Cedar Rapids Gazette, 16 July 1967, 5-B.

f) Ibid.

g) Otto Knauth, “Recall Days When Sky Rained Stones on Iowa,” The Des Moines Register, 24 April 1967, 3.

Grade Ben Hur Wilson, “The Mapleton Meteor,” The Palimpsest 39, n. 4, April 1958, 197-206. For whatever reason, the incident caused so little stir at the time that witnesses were later unsure of the exact date of its occurrence.

i) Ibid. 197.


That made for a pleasant

That made for a pleasant read. Thanks.

admin's picture

thanks for the post jimmy

I enjoyed it as well

me too

sorry I've been so busy, but I liked it too.

I felt kinda weird --

I felt kinda weird puttin' that up on a political blog like this. But you said you don't care what I post, so I posted. I like political stuff, too, as you know, but sometimes this other goo is what comes out of the keyboard. Truth is, I'm probably crazy. When I start writing, I don't always know what I'm gonna end up with. Sometimes it works out OK. Sometimes it's just slop. I envy guys who have more control.

Lately, too, with political things being the way they are, I'm more and more prone to turn my back on what's happening. It's a combination of rage and shame and disgust and dismay. Looking at the choice between Nobama and Nobrain, it grows harder every day to hold onto my humanist convictions. I understand Henry Adams more deeply now than I did twenty-eight years ago. Still I'm glad I read it because it helps to know I'm not the first who has tried and failed to make sense of human history.

Question for today: If Mother Nature sends cosmic meteors to erase Her slate on Earth, does She also send bipodal meteors like Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush when She gets tired of watching human complacency and decides She must shake things up to save us from ourselves?

Or have I just got rocks in my head?


"It may be thought that I am prejudiced. Perhaps I am. I would be ashamed of myself if I were not." Mark Twain


This is the best thing I've read in a long time. Thank you.

Thank you, Mr. Cryptic

We aim to please. Keep coming back!


"It may be thought that I am prejudiced. Perhaps I am. I would be ashamed of myself if I were not." Mark Twain

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