Thoreau knew that he and his fellow Concordians weren’t the first people to enjoy Walden Pond. He had long had a knack for finding Indian arrowheads, and he read early narratives about the people who were living here when the first Europeans arrived. But who lived at Walden itself in ages past? So much of it was lost. He could only guess.
He found “a narrow shelf-like path in the steep hillside, alternately rising and falling, approaching and receding from the water’s edge, as old probably as the race of man here, worn by the feet of aboriginal hunters, and still from time to time unwittingly trodden by the present occupants of the land.”
Whoever you are, and wherever you live, it’s a given that yours is not the first culture to inhabit what we all think of as our land. Let me tell you a little about the place where I live… I’ll come back to Thoreau (and to my point) at the end of the post.
I live in a city amid the endless cornfields of the central US. It’s as ordinary a place as could be — except for the knowledge that people have been planting corn here for at least a thousand years, and lived here as hunter/gatherers for thousands of years before that.
And it gets stranger the further back in time you go. The main gallery at the University of Nebraska State Museum is known as Elephant Hall. Elephants in Nebraska? Yes, if you go back in time.
True story: Author Roger Welsch found some elephant bones while digging the foundation of his house in central Nebraska. Impressed, he called up University of Nebraska paleontologist Mike Voorhees (discoverer of the astonishing Ashfall Fossil Beds). As Welsch describes it in his 2006 book, My Nebraska, Voorhies told him, big deal, Nebraska is full of elephant bones. How full? Voorhies estimates that there are about 3,000 individual elephants, in whole or in part, per square mile in Nebraska. (p. 101) Obviously we’re talking many, many generations of elephants (and mammoths). But who’d have guessed?
Further back, about 100 million years ago, the central part of North America was covered by the Western Interior Seaway. About ten years ago I interviewed Voorhees at a fossil dig in northeast Nebraska where a crew was uncovering the 70 million year old remains of a plesiosaurus — a Loch Ness monster-style creature (but real) that was common in the seas of the Cretaceous Period. A science teacher had discovered the fossil while walking highway cuts in search of sharks’ teeth. Yes. He was looking for shark teeth in Nebraska — like elephant bones, they’re pretty common. Instead, the teacher found a huge vertebra lying in the ditch and contacted the university.
So, elephants, sharks, and Loch Ness monsters existed in Nebraska. And I didn’t even mention the camels and three-toed horses at Ashfall Fossil Beds.
It isn’t that Nebraska is especially rich in fossils compared to everyplace else. I just happen to know more about it than I do about, say, Massachusetts. My point is that wherever you are, there’s an astonishing, bizarre, and totally unexpected past literally under your feet.
And just knowing a few things like that — about the people and animals that have come before — makes you think about your home differently. Thoreau certainly understood this. Five years after publishing Walden he would read (and be influenced by) Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking book, On the Origin of Species. Henry lived in interesting times — but so do we, and we have vastly more knowledge about the past available to us than he had in his lifetime.
Henry had the mind of both a scientist and a poet. The poet came to the forefront when he wrote,
“Who knows in how many unremembered nations’ literatures this has been the Castalian Fountain*? or what nymphs presided over it in the Golden Age? It is a gem of the first water which Concord wears in her coronet.”
*source of poetic inspiration in Greek mythology, per The Thoreau Reader
(About “A Year in Walden”)