Popular Science Monthly/Volume 72/May 1908/Of the Soil of the Earth

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ONCE upon a time—certainly more than two hundred years ago and no man knows how long a time before—an aboriginal folk fished in the waters of the West Fork of Brandywine. The remains of an old breastwork of stones point to the former site of a dam, connected probably with a rude sort of weir. Such is the tradition handed down through several generations in the family of an alien occupant of the land. This occupant and his descendants to the present time have never permitted the ancient work to be disturbed, a rare and kindly virtue in these days of scant sentiment. Only the unhindered stream has worked its will. Not far from this dam, on a low rise of land overlooking the valley, stands a scattered group of trees—white oak and shellbark hickory—and here, again tradition has it, this aboriginal folk buried its dead. Certain it is that the alien occupant, though he ploughed deeply all about, likewise left this spot sacred to the hand of time. The site is not marked by any tumuli; only the level ground appears a trifle more grassy in some places, more springy under the foot, which lends color to the tradition of long-forgotten graves.

It was beyond a question that somewhere in this ground the mortal traces of a man lay scattered—hidden as completely as in that prior time of his being when as yet there was none of them. Deep in some maternal tissue there had once been that marvelous gathering together of elements—that ever-repeated miracle of the fashioning of a form of life. Where no light was there was yet the molding of a structure that in the days to come would be responsive to the light and to every play of color; a structure that would hold wonderful pictures of land and sea and sky. Where no sound was there was yet the molding of another structure that would come to know the sympathetic voice, the springtime song of birds, the multitudinous sounds of the forest, the droning cadence of streams. In the depths of this nebulous man another structure was being spun out of the life stuff, one that would come to hold all that the sights and the sounds had to tell, that would interpret their meanings, that would come to feel and to know, to remember and to wonder. And yet in this dark fountain-head of being there was no hint of such future possibilities. All through this formative man the delicate threads of life were spun between the central brain and its outposts that in the end he might know himself and all that went about him. Bit by bit bone and muscle, ligament and sinew, were pieced together—strange artifices to do the brain's bidding. The heart began as a throbbing pool of blood, the red current of which found its devious way to every nook and cranny of the rapidly growing form. Long before the possibility of air ever reaching into these depths of dawning life the lungs were fashioned, and the mouth and stomach were prophecies of the hunger to come.

Each particle of life matter that went into the building of this man was indelibly stamped with the impress of inheritance. He was fashioned after his kind. When he finally appeared among his people and as he grew into manhood the bronze color of his skin, the straight black hair, the dark iris, the long head with its high arched cheeks, betokened the stock from which he sprang. His ways and his speech were those of his ancestors. The more remote of these ancestors had come from a hyperborean land at a time far back in the dim, unrecorded lapse of millennia beyond the reach of tradition—a forgotten dream period like that before birth. These ancient men without doubt saw the mastodon in the flesh, as our cave-dwelling ancestors over the seas beheld the mammoth. Successive generations of them may have witnessed the floods of the melting ice-sheet and the changing features of lake and river basins. A later horde, within the period of tradition, crossed the River of Fish (Nameesi Sipu), fought and drove out an ancient people—the Alligewi—who dwelt in the forest land to the east of the great river and whose curious earthworks remain to this day, and finally reached the place at the rising of the sun, beyond the mountains (Alleghany), by the shores of the Great Lake of Saltwater. Such is the meager thread of this man's race history.

Through the lapse of time with its shifting scenes the never-ending drama of the generations of men goes on—birth, and the span of life, and death. One indestructible thread is woven into this tissue of humanity—the thread of inheritance that reaches back, like the strands of a cable, into abysmal depths. This subtle thread of inheritance that runs through the generations had made this man what he was and had cast him into his time and place. And the end of it all is an unknown grave, as it is with Homer and Caesar, and the innumerable host of men, small and great, that have ever lived.

In the waning light of a November afternoon I found the man where he had lain these two hundred years or more imbedded deep in the soil of the earth. The sockets in which the light of life once gleamed, the cavernous nares through which the smells of young April poured into the brain; the bony ear canals that once rang to the rhythm of the stream; the mouth place resonant with its strange speech—all plugged solid with the clay. The very bones themselves had taken on the earthy hue and texture, crumbling into fine dust. A few enduring bits of handiwork—quartz pebbles which had been laboriously bored through for a bead string, a brass finger-ring, a curious piece of shell—were scattered about in the clay; simple things that seemed to mock the less enduring framework of life.

The one haunting thought, after the emotional and scientific elements of the mind had satisfied themselves, was that this man, this aborigine, whosoever he may have been in the flesh, had resolved into nature. There was no victory about this sepulture. The earth had simply taken this man again to herself, and as she had molded him from her clay and built him up out of her breast milk and her maize and beans and the flesh of her fish and fowl, so now she was gently and leisurely scattering the molecules that her magic hand had once so artfully put together. Here then, methinks, is the plain tale of all men.

The sun sank behind the Brandywine hills; the light of the western sky faded and with it the outline and color of the landscape. The first few stars twinkled dimly overhead. The filling crescent of the moon hung low in the darkling west and passed out of sight. The Dipper turned slowly across the northern arc. The dawn light of a new day came into the east. It was the never-ending change of the eternal background. Countless generations of men had passed, their very existence forgotten—blotted out in the lapse of time—and still the everlasting shift from day to night, from night to day, went ceaselessly on. Of what account was this man or all the millions of men that had lived only to be forgotten—lost in the soil of the earth?

As the thread of inheritance is seemingly indestructible so far as the race of men is concerned, there appears still another manifestation of immortality, of a purely individual character, which appeals to every man as an element of his being that must outlast the things of time. Just what this is has never been vouchsafed to any man to know. It is the eternal riddle of life, the hopeless tangle of all mythology and philosophy throughout the ages. Mankind has ever found itself in a world of material facts and elemental forces the manifestations of which have revealed a vast environment of the unknown. What a man calls his soul is the recognition of this unknown which lies beyond the reach of his senses. The mind has explored a half-way region—a region of principles and forces—and has analyzed these with some degree of surety. Beyond this, on the boundless ocean of infinity, the chart and compass of the mind are of no avail. Men have framed theories of this outer realm far more crude and improbable than any notion entertained of the outer geography of the Odyssey and they have peopled it with beings quite as improbable as those encountered by the adventurous Ithacan. More than this, mankind in every age and in every state of society holds to the belief, more or less crude in its conception, that at the dissolution of the body the individual ego, soul, elusive psyche, will burst through the barrier of the material and pass into the limitless realm of the unknown.

Through the medium of his sense organs a man perceives the material portion of his environment, at least that part of it that can affect these nervous structures. The mind, however, reaches out beyond the frontiers of sense and has divined the existence of those supreme elemental forces that mold and shape the material universe. But not a hint comes from these efforts of mind and sense as to the great underlying question of the unknown. On this question, I take it, the primitive pagan is as enlightened as the most accomplished philosopher.

Touching the fact that a man's recognition of the unknown comes through the amplitude of his being, it becomes a matter of no small moment that this being is a state of living within the domain of a material environment. Whatever is discerned of the unknown environment can not come else than through natural means, for man is not greater than nature. Moreover the unknown is not a supernatural realm, nor is what man calls the soul a supernatural portion of his being. Both alike are indeterminable elements within the sphere of natural law and are supernatural only so far as they are indeterminable and represent an unknown quantity in our comprehension of the universe. Seeing that knowledge can not accomplish this end of knowing the unknowable, it remains for a man to know himself as a part of nature, which, so far as may be discerned, is working toward some vast purpose. It is surely no part of the scheme for him to blind himself with false ideas and vain imaginings about a hereafter. His work is to live the life of the great animal type into which he has developed, uplifted by all that comes to him through his exalted brain structure.

Research into the nature of things, which characterizes the modern scientific attitude of mind, is unquestionably a means toward a fuller appreciation of the conditions of existence. This does not necessarily imply, however, that the pagan's philosophy of life is altogether a failure. There is a warmth and vitality in the pagan view of nature which the scientific mind has never attained. The poet comes nearer to this, since the poet and the pagan alike personify the forces of nature and idealize the facts of life and environment. And it is on this idealization of the facts that men build their joy in life. This man of the Brandywine knew nothing of molecules or of the ultra-violet ray, yet he surely knew the joy of the opening spring. He was not versed in the geological history of his locality, but the hills and the stream were part of his very life and he read their story in his own way. The voices of the forest spoke to him in a language unknown to men of a less wild strain of blood. There was a personality like unto himself in each beast, bird and fish that he knew; a genius loci in every waterfall and mountain glen. The forces of nature were personal elements in his philosophy. He lived, this man of the long-forgotten past, as all men live—getting his food, begetting his kind, loving, hating, fighting, rejoicing in the coming of the spring, pleased with his own person and its adornment, repeating the tales of his forefathers about the fire—then vanishing into the all-containing soil of the earth whence he came.

What man, once quickened by the spirit of the earth and touched by its thousand sweet influences, would ever think of resigning this mortal inheritance, with all its certainty of dissolution, for an immortality in some unknown, untried sphere of existence? The perennially hopeful day; the charm of sex; the friendliness of fellowship; the mating of man and woman; the birth and nurture of children; the buffet of the elements; the warmth and glow of fire; the delight of working muscles; memory-haunting smells; food and drink; labor and rest; the night and sleep—these are man's heritage and joy.

If the old pagan spirit still dwells in the hearts of men it surely makes for the best and sweetest that life holds. In this spirit a man may come to regard the dissolution of his body with some degree of complacency, knowing that his mortal parts will again become incorporate with the soil of the earth, and the grass, and the all-sustaining air—things which entered into his being through all the days of his life—and yet trusting that the best of him—the part that found joy in living—will still find joy, somehow and somewhere, in the realm of beneficent nature.