An Earth Day kind of day

In A World Without Us, the author examines exactly how natural processes would undo humanity’s efforts if we all disappeared tomorrow. Anyone could guess, for example, that cities would crumble, but this author tells us how the decay would likely happen as pumping stations fail, roofs go unrepaired, and foundations erode. As water seeps in everywhere, the soil, seeds, and animals will follow, and flowers will bloom in the ruins as surely as they did for a millennium in the Colosseum in Rome.

We spent Earth Day 2017 in a place where something like this has happened on a very small scale for all the wrong reasons. During the era of segregation, East End Cemetery in Richmond was once the go-to burial spot for Richmond’s black middle class and most prominent citizens alike. But unlike nearby cemeteries for whites, it did not receive funding from public sources and did not have provision for perpetual care. The result was decades of active burial from 1897 to the mid-20th century, a period of tapering care into the ’80s and, finally, decades of complete neglect. (A fuller version is told nicely here.)  As the weeds and English ivy thrived, the cemetery disappeared into the earth. Tombstones submerged under the soil, and interlopers found the rambling brush to be a good place to dump tires and other trash.

Our work on Earth Day was to do our small part to reclaim the cemetery as the sacred resting place it is. We walked a couple of hundred yards past graves uncovered by volunteers during the past several years to a patch of weeds and vines for our morning’s work. As we stepped over the fallen trees and through the thick underbrush, the ground beneath our feet was uneven, cresting and falling like arrested waves. The depressions occur where holes were once dug and then filled in with loose soil that compacted over time. This was how we knew there were graves somewhere under our feet.

We spent a strenuous three hours there doing meticulous manual labor. We pulled and cut vines as thick as a motorcycle’s handlebars off the side of a tree in order to save it. We dug engraved marble slabs out of the dirt, cleaned them with water and a brush, and set them up for the sun and rain to whiten into grave markers again. We filled wheelbarrows and wagons with ivy that we wheeled halfway back to the access road and dumped into an industrial-sized dumpster the county has begun emptying at, I think, no charge — one of the few forms of public support the clean-up project receives. Otherwise, we were the keepers of de Tocqueville’s vision of America in our inclination to form voluntary associations to get things done. It was small recompense for the shameful legacy of inequality this place embodies.

In our shift that day, the two dozen or so volunteers cleared an area about the same size as the footprint of the small house where I now live. This is how the cemetery here is slowly being reclaimed, in patches and hours that add up to acres and years. “Uncovering History” the organizers call the effort, and that’s exactly what it is.

[Info on volunteering here.]

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