What makes an old man plant a black walnut tree?
Whatever evolutionary oddity it was that gave us the throat to shape words and the brain to form them may have set us on the path to civilization. Speech undoubtedly gave us the ability to cooperate and coordinate our labors and our hunts (not to mention the utility of “Look out, Fred – the bear’s heading your way and he’s really pissed). Perhaps, too, it gave us the power to idle away the winter mulling over just how we might convince food plants to grow where we wanted them. But most importantly, speech (and still more, its descendent, writing) gave us our first measure of immortality.
Beyond all the other abilities we share to some degree with other animals, there is this: We alone can send a message down the years to speak to those who come after us. From the carefully memorized ancestral chants and heroic poems of the unlettered to the clay tablets of the first clerks to the inscriptions carved into huge monuments, this is exclusively human. We alone have built our world on the amassed, inherited wisdom and experience of our predecessors.
It is only because of language that we can read a supervisor of a group of ancient Egyptian tomb workers complaining about the quality of the beer they’ve been getting and the irregularity of the royal food deliveries. It is only because of language that we can read Cicero’s overblown speeches centuries after they put Romans to sleep. And it is only because of language that we can read all the lessons Napoleon learned about why one shouldn’t invade Russia. It is also because of language that we can read about the soldiers of the Second Reich learning the same lessons in the First World War and then read about the soldiers of the Wehrmacht re-learning the same lessons in the Second World War. (Language only records the lessons – it can’t make us pay attention.)
But, of course, it’s more than that. It is on language that our entire civilization, with its science, its math, and its architecture is built. Newton said that he could see so far because he stood on giant shoulders. It is language alone that gives our precursors the power to stand up so we can see farther.
I suppose one could say that it was language that first gave us the idea of inheritance itself.
There are lots of folks who will argue that the human being is a nasty, selfish creature, intent on grabbing all it can and devil-take-the-hindmost. That is certainly true enough of far too many of us far too much of the time.
But the human being is also the creature who accumulates and then wills our possessions for others to use and enjoy. There are people who actually “spend our grandchildren’s inheritance” or otherwise attempt to take it with them, but they are rare. We genuinely seem to enjoy passing that which is precious to us along to others.
And, as heirs, we find an added value in things that were actually touched or owned by someone long dead. We take special delight in knowing that chifforobe belonged to our great grandmother or that book once belonged to Winston Churchill. But even if we have no specific knowledge of who once owned or handled some antique, when we find ourselves actually holding some piece of Egyptian pottery or some medieval manuscript, we are struck with awe and reverence.
One could argue that this is a peculiar attitude for a species to take to secondhand goods, but I think it is part of our acknowledgment of the fact that all we have and all we can create are owed, in large measure, to others who fought the same battles as we fight, but with much poorer tools.
They fought, and far too often they lost their battles, but they gained a small measure of victory in the process which they passed down to us.
Recently I went on a tour of an aerospace museum. Being a history nut, for me this was a real treat, seeing all the old airplanes and rockets, from the canvas and wood gliders up to the (amazingly small) spacecraft of the Space Race. But, for me it was even more fun to go down into the basement to the work areas where they rebuilt the old planes and other exhibits.
Working in a museum, they were scrupulously careful to restore every part to its original condition. Where the original was past saving, they built new ones from scratch, using brown old drawings or what could be deduced from the remnants of the original part, coupled with their years of experience.
And it was that experience that was the most impressive of all. Everyone in the place seemed to be in the senior citizen category…and then some. White hair and bald heads abounded, along with canes and even a few walkers. I was told the oldest was 94!
What these men (alas, they were all men) brought to the table was a wealth of obsolete skills and specialized memories of how things were done back in the day. These were the very people who, in their younger lives, had built planes similar to the ones they were restoring. In a few cases, they had actually built these specific types.
There is, for me at any rate, something especially human in seeing these old men dogmatically intent on restoring these antiques with absolute authenticity. Talking to them, I discovered that they wanted every plane to be restored to actual flying condition. It’s unlikely that anyone is ever going to wheel their Sopwith Pup or Vought Corsair out for a spin. They are too precious and the insurance is prohibitive. But these men are committed to seeing that, long after they are dead, visitors will come and see the real thing, products of the skill and science of their generations, exactly as it was.
These are their heirlooms, and they want them to be worthy of both those who made them and those who will receive them.
What makes an old man plant a black walnut tree
For future generations he’ll never see?