Is your garden a cemetery? (Walden 167)

“I am not aware that any man has ever built on the spot which I occupy. Deliver me from a city built on the site of a more ancient city, whose materials are ruins, whose gardens cemeteries. The soil is blanched and accursed there, and before that becomes necessary the earth itself will be destroyed.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Former Inhabitants and Winter Visitors,” Walden

I have to disagree with Thoreau here. He doesn’t think anyone has built on his spot before, but in at least 13,000 years of human habitation of North America (and maybe a good deal more), is it likely that he was the first?

We all build on the past, literally and figuratively, whether we acknowledge it or not — especially if we broaden our awareness to include nonhuman life. The world is a vast cemetery — more than we recognize considering that most individuals are not fossilized but are obliterated by time. We recycle molecules from earlier life without knowing. We are eaters of the dead.

What Henry wanted was to start fresh, and not be bound by the past — which is a very nineteenth-century American thing to want — but it’s not wholly possible.

Really, it’s funny that Henry should say this, considering that he’s just spent nearly the whole chapter telling stories of people who have lived in the vicinity before he has. He thinks highly enough of their stories to include them in his book, but imagines that he can build his own dwelling on virgin ground. There’s no such thing, Henry, not even for you. It is all recycled, and will be recycled again and again.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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