You know those pictures of cities that have been reclaimed by nature. Cars sitting in forests with trees growing out of them? Ship wrecks overtaken by reefs? Houses growing flowers out of the gutter? They’re so satisfying. I think that’s because we like the idea of our own impermanence. We like the idea that what we do doesn’t really break the world forever.
Thoreau was fascinated by this idea. In “Ponds” tells us a story a fisherman told him about an old canoe:
“He came here a-fishing, and used an old log canoe which he found on the shore… It was very clumsy, but lasted a great many years before it became water-logged and perhaps sank to the bottom. He did not know whose it was; it belonged to the pond…”
He imagines the canoe floated alone on the lake for a generation all alone at nature’s mercy. For Thoreau these abandoned objects belong to nature itself now. They show us the history of this place and how far we’ve come. They unravel the hard boundary between man and nature that we have constructed for ourselves, and the sight of it is astonishing.
Of course this is cute when it’s a boat or a brick path, but when it’s a candy wrapper or an old tire it’s disgusting. We never talk about nature “reclaiming” trash. We talk about trash floating in a giant pod in the middle of the ocean and plastic bags suffocating sea turtles.
Both reclaimed objects and litter are images encapsulating the meeting of nature and man, but we seem to like it when nature comes out on top, and not the other way around.
So here is Wooster’s own little snapshot of reclaimed nature. A brick path cutting through the back of Ebert that has sunk into the grass. It’s a path that students don’t take since we’ve gotten better built and more efficient paths. And yes, the grass is not really nature (grass rarely is), but it is proof that the campus can brick a path, and not become a concrete slab. Our changes to nature will not last forever. Eventually, if left alone, nature will recover.
But as I show you this path, and bring people back to this place, we must also remember how delicate this is. These images of reclaimed nature are not an overnight thing. It will take years for the grass to grow in and centuries for the forest, and it all can go away in an instant with just a few people.