I opened a jar of thyme to test its freshness – I needn’t have worried – and was back in a small country cemetery in the Schoharie Valley of New York. It was early summer fifteen years ago and I was working on a story about a hamlet I can no longer remember. I wrote dozens of such stories, all of them now turning brown in a file cabinet, and the names blur but the graves in this cemetery were densely covered in grasses and thyme – readymade pun! The scent was potent and I gathered some for friends in the newsroom.
A low limestone wall sinking into the earth surrounded the plot, and the grass was flecked with violets, phlox, chicory, dandelions, Dutchman’s breeches and daisies, and I thought of Don Adriano de Armado’s song in Love’s Labours Lost:
“When daisies pied and violets blue
And lady-smocks all silver-white
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadows with delight…”
Some of the gravestones dated from the eighteenth century and bore Dutch and English surnames – brothers to Gray’s “rude Forefathers” -- though many inscriptions are partially erased by acid rain and time. Each, looked at carefully, “Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.” The day was warm, the air pleasantly scented, and I was content to write my notes and enjoy untroubled solitude. Alice Thomas Ellis writes in A Welsh Childhood:
“The place on earth where I come closest to peace is the graveyard amongst all the quiet dead. I seem to have thought, all my life, of little but death – partly because of impatience, a yearning to have it over and done with: that extraordinary last thing that we are called upon to do, the act of dying. If we have to do it – I think to myself – I would rather do it sooner than later. But mostly it comes from the old awareness that I am not whole, that there is something missing: something more important than all the world. Death is the price we must pay for completion.”