As we tread upon the ground, we tend not to think of what lies beneath our feet. I thought about this after I wrote yesterday’s blog post entitled “Mission Creep.” The small size of the cemeteries at the Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez missions in Southern California troubled me because of the large number of bodies said to be buried there. The Catholic Church did not sanction cremation at that time, so literally thousands of bodies, mostly of Indians, were interred over a 65-year period in these small burial grounds.
I live within walking distance of Kuruvungna Springs, a place where the Tongva or Gabrielino Indians congregated f0or ceremonies or just a fresh drink of spring water. It is entirely possible that as I walk along Santa Monica Boulevard and the streets feeding into it I am walking on the bones of Indians who died in the area—at least those which weren’t carted away by dirt haulers as the area was built up with multi-story commercial and residential buildings.
And then I thought of a great English writer who thought the same way. The quote is from an essay by Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) called “Hydriotaphia, urn-burial, or, A discours of the sepulchral urns lately found in Norfolk ….” The 17th century English is hard to read, but I promise that it is rewarding.
In the deep discovery of the Subterranean world, a shallow part would satisfie some enquirers; who, if two or three yards were open about the surface, would not care to rake the bowels of Potosi, and regions towards the Centre. Nature hath furnished one part of the Earth, and man another. The treasures of time lie high, in Urnes, Coynes, and Monuments, scarce below the roots of some vegetables. Time hath endlesse rarities, and shows of all varieties; which reveals old things in heaven, makes new discoveries in earth, and even earth it self a discovery. That great Antiquity America lay buried for a thousand years; and a large part of the earth is still in the Urne unto us.
Though if Adam were made out of an extract of the Earth, all parts might challenge a restitution, yet few have returned their bones farre lower then they might receive them; not affecting the graves of Giants, under hilly and heavy coverings, but content with lesse then their owne depth, have wished their bones might lie soft, and the earth be light upon them; Even such as hope to rise again, would not be content with centrall interrment, or so desperately to place their reliques as to lie beyond discovery, and in no way to be seen again; which happy contrivance hath made communication with our forefathers, and left unto our view some parts, which they never beheld themselves.
Sir Thomas Browne
The reference to Potosi is to the fabulous silver mines at the Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) of Potosi in Bolivia. The mines are at an altitude of approximately 13,300 feet (4,050 meters).
Wherever we may go, we are walking a very few feet above the remnants of the past. We tend to forget this as we follow the latest trends and knock ourselves into a digital frenzy that only hastens us to our own grave.