Although I live in the Coastal Plain of middle Georgia, my family has 200 acres of woods in the Piedmont region of northern Georgia. It is a beautiful property, with stately oaks, hickories, and beeches, but the sharp eye can see the wounds Nature has scabbed over. Everywhere are gullies and thin rocky soil where farmers asked more of the land than it could provide. Here is a the hole where a moonshiner kept his still, and there is the echo of a sunken road now paved with oak leaves. An old wall by the creek — probably the remains of a bridge, or possibly a mill dam — is a focal point for my visits when I journey back there every few months. Humans have altered the landscape to suit their desires for nearly as long as they’ve walked these lands, and they’ve been especially good at it in the last three hundred years. Yet, as always, Nature makes do. Plant succession will turn a fallowed field to a pine woodland in a score of years, so what hope does a Mississippian mound complex have against Nature with a thousand years to work with?
Some two years ago, I watched a video of some men taking sledgehammers to statues built by workers who were dust and forgotten millennia ago. My first thought: These people need to be stopped. My second thought: These souless people need to be put down lest they destroy anything else. And my third thought: Why am I getting worked up over some statues and tablets when people are being slaughtered? Good point. Of course, I have been getting incensed at the executions, the torture, all the brutality done in the name of some version of God or another. So then I ask myself how one hold the loss of an artifact and the loss of a human life as in any way equal in tragic value.
Here is what I came to. Each unique human life is of immense importance so long as it continues. Life is finite, and when it ends, it’s gone. Some lives leave a legacy. This may be found in children, friends, or students that the person affected during life. When a person has gone beyond memory, there are physical objects – objects of art, things crafted – a book, a bridge, a violin, a vase, a map – these are relics of legacy. Time first steals our memory, then works to destroy other legacies. Libraries burn; buildings decay or are torn down; moth and rust and misfortune tear away the heirlooms of the dead –the inheritance of the future. Age and rarity makes these relics more valuable. A paperback may be so worthless as to end up in the free book bin after one read. But what is the worth of the first run of Walden? Or a book printed by Gutenberg? Or an Anglo-Saxon letters scribbled on a scrap of velum? Or lead sheets with Roman lettering, or Demotic on papyrus, or cuneiform on accidently-baked clay? What about paintings on a cave wall?
Such things, the legacies of the forgotten generations, are truly humanity’s heirlooms, and as valuable in their way as the more direct and tangible wealth of today – land, water, and so on. Both the present lives and those legacies of past lives must be defended from those who see the value in neither.
Images from Wikipedia Commons