Several years back when living in London, we went on a February holiday. When we returned a week later, we opened the door on the stone wall to find a yard filled with blossoms. What we previously thought was a scraggly, scrappy bit of lawn was actually a field of saffron crocus that hadn’t yet bloomed. What an astonishing sight! It felt truly magical, as if we had been visited by fairies. How wonderful to learn how wrong we’d been about the judgment we made of that lawn. Something much more extravagantly delightful was given us instead in spite of our misconception.
The crocus were followed by a parade of other flowers. In Regents Park aged cherry trees ballooned sprays of white flowers, and along our urban neighborhood streets cherry trees lifted tender pink cheeks, street lamps illuminating sprays of flowers as if trying to enter a painting. Except for a few months of the year, flowers seemed to be everywhere in London, sending out their gentle greetings to whoever passed by. Flowers are such inclusive, generous folk, who seem to think everyone needs a bit of beauty in their lives, and they give it freely.
London’s cherry blossoms turned into daffodils crowding walkways in Regents Park along paths, and clearings. Blossoms are the dreams of trees and plants, the result of winter’s cold work, the absence of sun, the ongoing unseen, quiet effort of renewal. Whether by the sweat of the brow, the effort of the brain or the liquid pressure inside cells at the base of waiting blossoms, everything that blooms does so with effort. Li-Young Lee, in his poem, “From Blossoms”, describes peaches he eats as a child, fruit picked from bended bows, and ladened with dust. Eating the peach he savors the flavor, the orchard it came from, and the shade he sat in as he eats the fruit.
O, to take what we love inside, to carry within us an orchard, to eat not only the skin, but the shade, not only the sugar, but the days, to hold the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into the round jubilance of peach.
There are days we live as if death were nowhere in the background; from joy to joy to joy, from wing to wing, from blossom to blossom to impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
Flowers lift our hearts and delight our spirits. Spring after spring, the blossoms return. Like plants that need certain nutrients to bloom, humans. too, need nurturing for their lives to flower. There is not just one spring in a life, though, not just one season to bloom. On our property here in California we have a peach tree. The tree is ailing and we’re not sure how to help it. Bent and lichen covered with barely a trunk to stand on, every year we think it’s bound to die. But every year it blossoms. Every year the sweetest buds break forth.
I have a pair of slippers with blossoms on the soles. When I walk in them, I think of how they leave an invisible imprint of flowers where my feet move across the floor–blossoms with every footprint. I wish to live in the way that Thich Nhat Hahn states when he writes, “The mind can go in a thousand directions, but on this beautiful path, I walk in peace. With each step, the wind blows. With each step, a flower blooms.”
In a world waiting for spring, longing for renewal and beauty to rise, walking across the world with the intention of leaving behind a trail of blossoms for those along the way is something worth living for, something worth doing. The Navajo prayer says it well,
Through the returning seasons, may I walk. On the trail marked with pollen may I walk. With dew about my feet, may I walk. With beauty before me may I walk. With beauty behind me may I walk. With beauty below me may I walk. With beauty above me may I walk. With beauty all around me may I walk. In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk. In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I walk. My words will be beautiful…
May our presence and our words be a door for others opening into a garden filled with the gentleness of flowers.
There is a voice that doesn’t use words. Listen.~ Rumi
Looking out my window this morning, I realize that while the weather here on California’s coast is amenable a stiffening cold has settled in across a great portion of the nation. Hundreds of thousands are without power in the US, and more snow is on its way in the next few days. Winter is still very much with us, and for many people in many ways it seems winter has been going on for a long time.
A season for slowing down or even stopping, winter, while it may sometimes be bleak and difficult, can also be a space for going inward–for listening to the silence and for noticing what touches the heart and waits there to be noticed. The natural world is imbued with silence–snow’s heavy quilt in winter, a desert’s dunes, the forest world, vegetables growing in a garden with clouds floating through, rocks strewn along a pathway–the very earth itself. Everything that exists rises out of a space of silence. “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything…silence, like the art of sculpture, is the removal of excess material so that the true form — of one’s consciousness, of the world, of life itself — can be revealed,” states Gordon Hampton whose work has been to record the earth’s most silent spaces. Maybe this very absence of continuous movement, our being stopped in our tracks, so to speak, is calling us to a place of deeper presence, the stillness itself an opportunity for greater awareness.
We’re living in a period of reduced movement as a result of the pandemic. Fewer of us fly across the world and many of may be driving less often as well. While working at home, it may be that I don’t speak aloud for hours as I read, write or do chores. Outside the window birds flutter at the feeder. At night the tongues of stars speak with a silent, silvered light. All can seem quiet on the surface, nevertheless, I notice that it’s not necessarily true that lack of speech means I’ve entered through a door of silence. My mind likes to jump restlessly from thought to thought as if on a pogo stick. Sometimes I have to go for a walk just to grow quiet. To be fully quiet, to hold one’s entire mind, heart, and body open as if it were a listening ear is challenging. Pablo Neruda in his poem, “Keeping Quiet” writes,
If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving, and for once could do nothing, perhaps a huge silence might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves and of threatening ourselves with death. Perhaps the earth can teach us as when everything seems dead and later proves to be alive.
During winter things beneath layers of cold or snow can seem dead, but much is going on inside the earth. Inner life is connected to external life. Making plans and setting goals, these are valuable activities but as Neruda suggests, the earth can be our teacher. Ongoing and endless production and activity isn’t necessarily life-giving in the end. Eventually, resources run out. What rests beneath the surface of all our action rises to our awareness because we have finally stopped moving enough to notice it. Silence is integral to growth and shifts of consciousness and understanding. When the huge silence arises, Neruda suggests, we can turn to the earth to teach us how to move out of ourselves into a place of greater connection to life. Like the seasons rotating through the year, we too can create seasons of quiet, letting the leaves from branches of activity drop long enough to allow a quietness to enter and renewal to occur.
Sitting on my front porch in the morning, I hold my cup of tea and quietly observe the day for twenty minutes. This morning while sitting in the coolness, I noticed small buds beginning to appear on the buckeye tree, the rich, the illuminated green of chard and pineapple sage poking up from the garden beds, the nuthatches, chickadees and California scrub jays fluttering at the bird feeder, a gray squirrel scrambling up the pine trunk, thin clouds scudding through overhead. With this gentle entrance to the day, I’m reminded of my connection to a world wider than my concerns or the list of things I might want to accomplish.
The natural world is nonjudgemental, and as a result, nourishing. It can carry us into the place of embodied silence. Larry Ward, in his book, America’s Racial Karma, describes actions that reground the body and “reset the nervous system.” Some of these are looking around the space wherever you are and paying specific attention to what you observe, giving attention to the sounds around you, naming colors you see, and noticing your skin temperature. Ward also suggests purposefully greeting the day by going to a chosen spot out of doors where you feel the earth beneath your feet and the sun on your skin, then doing a slow 360-degree turn, noticing what you feel while listening quietly to the sounds in the world around you. Silence creates a pause in action, a gap inside which we can reground ourselves and grow more aware. These practices can help the mind and body calm and come more readily into stillness so we can enjoy the silence.
Daniel J. O’Leary in Year of the Heart writes, “To learn how to wait, how to be silent, how to befriend the dark…Thus do we prepare to be creative. There is a waiting, a silence and a darkness in all birthing. Heart’s winter is already a filling womb.” Out of silence and stillness a different kind of conversation with life has the possibility of emerging. While waiting for spring to arrive, we can hold a space each day for silence, observing the world with open eyes, listening to the world around us with the ears of our hearts. Entering into a place of silence we can slowly discover a new way of being in the world.
Have you noticed the clouds lately–their capability for wideness, their sweeping, rippled texture, their billowed softness, the world of wideness they can bring you to? As a child, I remember lying back on chairs outside our house and gazing up into the sky, naming the shapes of clouds as they drifted by. A dog or dragon, boat or mermaid, a lot of time could be spent looking at clouds’ evolving shapes, their appearance, transformation, then disappearance into the beyond.
Clouds are sometimes spoken of negatively–clouded thoughts, a cloud hanging over someone, clouds on the horizon–but clouds can also lift us, carry us to a places we long to go in our imagination–someplace light and gentle, a place of expansiveness or wonder.
Danna Faulds, in her poem, “Walk Slowly,” writes,
It only takes a reminder to breathe, a moment to be still, and just like that, something in me settles, softens, make space for imperfection
Cloud gazing can do this for us–bring us into a place of open quietness where, absorbed in our observation, the sense of time passing dissolves into a state of oneness with what we’re observing. Returning to California after living in New Delhi, India for nine years where seeing clouds in a blue sky was uncommon, clouds in a blue sky catch my heart, stop me still. Now because people need to stay at home more often and because many face difficulties regarding illness, additional stresses at work or loss of work because we are in the midst of a pandemic, it’s good to remember we can look up to receive the soft presence of clouds. As Faulds later goes on to say in her poem,
I can make the choice to stop, to breathe, and be, and walk slowly into the mystery.
If you’ve ever been stuck while trying to solve a problem, then stepped away from it to take a walk or simply changed locations by moving into the backyard, out onto a balcony, or into the street, and stared up into the sky, you might have experienced how this shift where you let your mind wander allows for a new idea to emerge. ‘“When one gets stuck on a challenging problem, rather than forcing the mind to work it out consciously, it is valuable to allow for daydreams to occur,”’ says Markus Baer, Olin Business School’s professor of organizational behavior speaking to Inverse magazine. Day dreaming assists creative thinking. What we instinctively knew and enjoyed as children when staring up into the clouds opens our mind to different pathways. Restful awareness is good for us.
Sometimes appearing like apple blossoms in an orchard, sometimes the billowy expression of mountainous joy, in their wide variety of forms of cumulous to cirrus, contrails to lenticular, clouds can evoke in us an enormous range of emotional responses. Gazing at them we sense their weight, their ease. Mesmerized by their capricious, shifting forms, clouds have the ability to take us beyond worries and routines, pull us out of ourselves and the activity in our mind to slip into a space where we’re not thinking about the passage of time or anything else. We’re simply present.
At a time when many are wishing to travel, to step out into a new adventure beyond familiar walls, simply by looking up, clouds can take us on a journey allowing us to look at the world with new eyes. As Gavin Pretor-Pinney, founder, Cloud Appreciation Society says, “Nothing is more nourishing, more stimulating to an active, inquiring mind than to being surprised, being amazed…You don’t need to rush off, away from the familiar, across the world to be surprised. You just need to step outside.” What a beautiful spaciousness to return to.
Once while visiting Crete during the spring, I sat for a long time at the mouth of the Samaras Gorge mesmerized by clouds appearing, changing form and dissolving into the blue every few moments, their presence completely ephemeral. We, too, are part of that floating world, forming, expanding, dissolving, always being made and remade.
Appearing, disappearing. Illuminating, hiding and revealing, there is a mystery in clouds. First we see and then we don’t see the trees and mountains they touch. Clouds are an embodied metaphor of the myriad things we have mere glimpses of understanding. There’s so much we don’t know or understand about what it means to be alive. As D.H. Lawrence writes in his poem, “Terra Incognita,”
There are vast realms of consciousness still undreamed of vast ranges of experience, like the humming of unseen harps, we know nothing of, within us.
when at last we escape the barbed-wire enclosure of Know Thyself, knowing we can never know, we can but touch, and wonder, and ponder, and make our effort and dangle in a last fastidious fine delight
Staring at clouds can draw us into an awareness that there are immeasurable realms of life outside of our experience. We are part of a vast intersection and abundance of universes. We swim in creation’s wonder, like water it moves in and through us. The two are intertwined.
TERRA INCOGNITA D.H. Lawrence
There are vast realms of consciousness still undreamed of vast ranges of experience, like the humming of unseen harps, we know nothing of, within us. Oh when man has escaped from the barbed-wire entanglement of his own ideas and his own mechanical devices there is a marvelous rich world of contact and sheer fluid beauty and fearless face-to-face awareness of now-naked life and me, and you, and other men and women and grapes, and ghouls, and ghosts and green moonlight and ruddy-orange limbs stirring the limbo of the unknown air, and eyes so soft softer than the space between the stars, and all things, and nothing, and being and not-being alternately palpitant, when at last we escape the barbed-wire enclosure of Know Thyself, knowing we can never know, we can but touch, and wonder, and ponder, and make our effort and dangle in a last fastidious fine delight as the fuchsia does, dangling her reckless drop of purple after so much putting forth and slow mounting marvel of a little tree.
Some changes are volcanic explosions creating enormous, sudden upheaval. Other changes floods our lives, rising slowly, then carrying us away in a torrent of heavy water. Some changes, however, happen slowly–an erosion that alters through perseverance, grain by grain changing the fabric of what we are to reveal what lies beneath.
Taking a break from the task of deleting folders and papers to create more space, I took a short drive north to explore a new location north of Santa Cruz. Walking the path along the edge of the cliff overlooking the coast, I came upon an area water had eroded into honeycombed textures, lines and shapes creating a fabulous miniature landscape.
Every few steps revealed new perspectives as shadow and light played inside crevices and cracks. Rippling across the sandstone’s face, it was clear everything I stood on had participated in an enormous process of ongoing revision–a perpetual becoming. Through eons of time, water and wind had rushed and rubbed against the shore, slowly changing it, a reminder that though we may not be consciously aware of it, the world and universe Earth is a part of are also constantly changing, revising, wearing away and being made new.
“Come into being as you pass away,” states the Gospel of Thomas, saying 42, and this is the experience of life. Like the earth we stand on, our bodies and our minds are in constant change. Every single grain of days can seem so precious. As a result, it can be very difficult to let the rub and rush of time change and reshape what we once were–what felt so stable and sure–to let that life flow out into an ocean of experience and be carried away into the vastness of eternity.
Like Earth’s ongoing process of revision, we, too, never arrive. Michelangelo for all his stunning achievement and accomplishment, at age 88 speaking his last words as he transitioned into his death stated, “I’m still learning.” We’re never finished with the effort of our own life, the imagination and dreams that carry us to another plain or into a wider circle of being. As everything is in continuous movement, we can recognize we are part of a great cosmic dance the universe’s music is listening to.
Nature’s rhythms are immensely complex. Age and time working in accordance with their own internal rules, combined with the interactions of all that exists within and beyond our spheres, who can say exactly where life might take any of us? A practice of cultivating an attitude of letting go some of what once held us can be beneficial, allowing the possibility of creating something else in our lives equally as beautiful or meaningful.
The journey between birth and death is meant to expand us. If we don’t voluntarily revise our lives at certain points, time will eventually require us to do so. As we age, we accumulate losses, and loss can be deeply disheartening and painful. Maria Mazziotti Gillan, in her poem, “I Celebrate My Body,” describes the difficulty of living with the body’s erosion time carries us into,
that body that suddenly couldn’t move, the hand that couldn’t hold a pen or open a cap, that body that couldn’t turn over in the bed. Each new thing I can do— close my hand around the pill bottle, hold a book, write my name— I celebrate. I even celebrate my faltering step, my one leg dragging. These and other movements we take for granted until we can no longer do them and only then, do we learn gratitude
Loss, as Gillian wisely understands, can also deepen our awareness of life’s gifts. When it becomes nearly impossible for the body to do what you wish, as Gillan points out, each small gesture the body allows, can also increase awareness and gratitude for the body, in spite of its limitations. Though difficult and painful to live with, loss of the body’s previous abilities can also cultivate greater depth of spirit.
Life is a pilgrimage, a journey toward understanding and awareness, every day a kind of birth and a death, an ongoing transformation like grains of sand streaming their way through eternity’s great ocean. Pilgrims want to arrive at their destination, explains Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder, in her piece titled “Arriving With Every Step” on Emergence Magazine, but the journey itself is what is of central importance. When setting out, “…allow point A and point B to give way to possibility, to mystery. You are meant to allow the journey to do its work on you,” she writes. When pilgrims begin a journey, they set out with an intention. Every moment is an arrival and a departure, and our intentions and observations during the journey help shape reality of the experience. Physicist and chaos theorist Robert Lanza in his article “How Do We Collectively Determine Reality and the Structure of Space Time Itself,” writes, “…a single conscious observer can completely define this structure, leading to a collapse of the waves of probability, largely localized in the vicinity of the cognitive model which the observer builds in her mind throughout her lifespan.
All of this supports a profound shift in our everyday worldview―a change from the long-held belief that the physical world is a pre-formed entity that just exists “out there” to one in which it belongs to the observer. As we and other scientists continue to explore this new line of research, it is becoming increasingly clear how intimately we are connected with the structure of the universe on every level.”
We are connected to the physical world, are influenced and shaped by it and can learn by observing it. The world is full of wonder, but wonder is also made of more than light glistening off the ocean’s surface at sunset. Earth is wild. Falling rock, earthquakes and tsunamis are all an integral part of what forms the world and shapes its wonders. The slow wearing away of earth can be treacherous, leading to a calamitous fall.
Similarly, trauma humans suffer can affect one’s future. Andrew Curry reports in Science magazine, that a biologist at Washington State University in Pullman, Michael Skinner’s recent studies hypothesize that trauma people experience affects the behavior of our cells and can be passed on in ways that affect parents’ offspring.
Pain, sorrow and death are inevitable, yet it is our vulnerability with others that allows us to enter into deep relationship, and to nurture life that regenerates. What we think or observe and the trauma we experience affects not only our lives, but the generations coming after us as well. Enduring through unending erosion is not guaranteed to be pleasant. To prepare ourselves ahead of life’s erosion, we can gather resources: favorite films, poems, photos, art, pieces of literature, and nurture relationships that hold us up and give us hope. We can learn skills of gardening, drawing, dance, or music. We can create and practice rituals we use to sustain us and feed our spirits. Our daily walks can become pilgrimages we set out on with specific intentions, perhaps leaving behind a gift or token, or perhaps we will choose to participate in longer pilgrimages. Always, we can practice gratitude.
It’s easy to miss the instructions for how to carry on through life’s many changes, Schneider says later in her poem, “Instructions for the Journey.” We have to listen and look with careful intention in order to fully notice what’s happening and what it means for us. “And if all that fails,” she writes,
wash your own dishes. Rinse them. Stand in your kitchen at your sink. Let cold water run between your fingers. Feel it.
In other words, carry on your daily work, be present to the physical experience of the world around you. Live each moment aware that you are living.
Each of us are eroding into something new. But we are also participants in creating our lives. What we observe and attend to gains solidity, and expands.
The sun shines intensely in Saudi Arabia. Everywhere, light reflects off the desert floor and reverberates against stone. Filled with light, light, and more light, to stand on the earth in Saudi Arabia is to stand in the midst of a wide circle of sun. Holding immensely beautiful forms and textures, the Arabian peninsula has no rivers and no permanent natural water source.
Several years back, I visited the UNESCO World Heritage site of Al-‘Ula, founded in the sixth century BC, and located on Saudi Arabia’s north west edge. The ancient Biblical city state of Dedan slightly south of Mada’in Salih in this same area, rests on what was the incense route, and was the capital of the Lihyanites. Later, the Nabateans encompassed the area making Mada’in Salih (then called Hegra) their capital. Like the northern capital of the Nabateans in Petra, Jordan, the site contains elaborate facades of tombs cut into rock, where the earth pulsates in vibrant color.
Though there’s much to love in a light-filled day, sometimes, though, light’s intense radiance can make us long for the softness of shadow and night’s coolness. To enter a door and step into coolness is welcomed. Shade and evening hours are blessings.
When crossing over the lintel and walking into a different world, we carry with us understandings of the world we know, making bridges from what we know to what we don’t. Gradually, as our eyes and mind adjusts, we begin to discern how the new world we’ve entered functions. There are many places and ways of being we don’t know about and don’t understand because those places and worlds are not the ones we are familiar with. When we enter a new phase of life, start a new job, move to a different city or country, fall ill, begin playing a new instrument or try learning a new language, we enter a kind of liminal world where things aren’t necessarily illuminated or clear. Instead, we’re in the dark, so to speak, and have to learn to inhabit a new way of structuring meaning and making sense.
Len Anderson’s newest poetry book, The Way Home, is a probing exploration and beautiful expression of the territory of betweenness or emptiness–places of not knowing, not seeing, the mystery life can reveal itself to be when we find ourselves inhabiting what feels like an internal desert. In his poem, “Door,” Anderson writes,
Deep in a dream I am a lone pilgrim, walk the ancient city arrive at a door
It opens I enter and find myself in the company of a great silence
As a pilgrim or a seeker described in the lines above, when we enter a new world or way of living, we grow aware we stand in a place of mystery. The old rules and patterns don’t fit and the new world doesn’t speak the same language as the one we left. Traveling through unfamiliar territory is an ancient place. It’s wise to pause and to listen deeply.
In his poem, “Unknown Ghazal,” Anderson writes how the territory of not knowing is a good place to be, “Welcome, make yourself at home, here in the unknown,/ Don’t worry, you can find a way deeper into the unknown.” A thirst of the spirit or heart can last for decades, and for some, centuries. We all desire to be happy, to live with joy and be free of suffering. Thirst is, nevertheless, a given quality of existence. Like the children of Israel who walked into unknown desert for years, thirst can eventually lead to a promised land. Even the promised land, however, was located in a desert.
Because of their wide and windswept emptiness, deserts landscapes embody the longing for life and growth. As Anderson writes in his poem, “The Longing,”
You and I and all growing things are made of longing. Even the stars formed in the longest night we can imagine from the dust left by that flash that opened out into everything could be called a kind of longing.
To be a part of creation is to know longing. Whole continents and subcontinents embody landscapes of longing, together with the very stars that were “formed in the longest night we can imagine.” Yet out of this longing came what “opened out into everything.” Everything visible was born out of a yearning.
Deserts are an embodied yearning. In seasons of adapting and waiting on the lintel of liminal space between worlds where it’s unclear what world you inhabit because the world you’re familiar with is no longer the world you live in, it’s good to remember the desert world and how those who inhabit such lands have managed to live inside its constraints. People have lived in desert regions for millennia. Entire civilizations were created in the deserts of Mesopotamia, known in Ancient Greek as the land between rivers. Channeling water for urban use and irrigation, people built entire civilizations there. Ur, Uruk, Lagash, Eridu and Babylon are all cities that grew up in the desert areas between rivers. Recognizing water’s preciousness as it fills seasonal oases after rains or flows from a mountain spring, desert communities channel the water they find, enabling it to benefit to the whole community. In this gathered effort, it’s feasible to not only survive in a desert land but to also thrive there.
The world is always being renewed, earth reimagining what shape it wants to take. Sitting at the edge of Saudi’s Red Desert you can watch wind lift and flick the sand, tenaciously shifting the perfect-edged ochre and red crystals grain by grain into new forms. “Come into being as you pass away,” says the Gospel of Thomas, logion 42. Everything in both exterior and interior landscape, is shifting, moving, becoming new, even as it alters, ages or dies.
There are sandy deserts and there are stony deserts. Since ancient times people have carved beautiful structures in the hardscape desert lands. Stone personifies deep longing in its steadfastness as it waiting to be worn down or broken open. With patience and endurance, we, too, with the help of others, can create something enduringly beautiful out of what is difficult and hard. As Anderson says in his poem “A Little Mystery,”
Inside each thing is the possibility of everything
Don’t worry we’ll never find it all
Even these stones and mud we call Earth are a child of the Heavens with a touch of Hell
They help hold us here for this fleeting eternity
In his poem, “Into Being,” Anderson describes a child “born without eyes or ears or tongue, without knowing.” This awareness is an unexpected kind of emotional and physical desert the parents in the poem have been given, and they are distraught. The doctor in the poem responds to the parents’ grief saying, “I can only speak from my own / incompleteness.” The beautiful insight Anderson gives here is that even those who are healers are incomplete. It is in recognizing our shared incompleteness with others that we can create a kind of healing. The poem ends with these words of the doctor’s advice regarding their child, “And you must listen / as you never have before. / Each cry, / even the deepest silence / is speaking.” Each one of us lives with incompleteness. If we allow ourselves to listen deeply enough, we can find ourselves in those we perceive as broken or as “other.”
Dwelling in desert places, waiting with uncertainty, we can practice being fully present with not knowing and tune our ears to the sound of small streams of water that allow us to keep going. Embracing the empty land we walk in and visiting the oases when the rains arrive is a way to live in a land between rivers. We survive by practicing hope until we’re able to hear what speaks from the silence and can open the door into a new place of knowing.
At our house in California, we’re harvesting food. All year we work at tending the garden, digging compost into the soil, starting seedlings, planting, watering, weeding, and collecting seeds. From my front door I can walk out and place my feet on the soil. Living in a rural area as we do, our life is very different than it was the decades we lived abroad in mega cities. We savor the change, the opportunity to be enveloped by the natural world and its rhythms. Mornings, from the kitchen window we can see rabbits near the base of oak trees and birds pecking for breakfast in the yard. Afternoons, lizards run from planter box to planter box, hummingbirds slip between flowers, squirrels scamper up trees and wild turkeys wander through. Come twilight, deer come up the draw beneath the redwoods to wander out among the hillside oaks. Evening arrives and crickets sing outside our door, Great Horned Owls hoot. This is a world we cherish.
Though nearly everything in the garden grows in raised beds wired from beneath, though we have bird netting around our berry palace (as we fondly refer to it) animals inevitably find a way to get in. The grape arbor is alive with resonating bee song as the bees happily eat away at the fruit. Every living thing around us seems to love the food we grow, and they enjoy eating from our garden food as much as we do. This can become discouraging when working hard to grow something, only to have some unknown creature sneak into the garden at night to take a bite from your perfect tomato, then throw the remainder on the ground.
Nevertheless, we celebrate our garden and are transformed by it. It provides us exercise, offers beauty, and gives us food. From seed to harvest, the work is nourishing and rewarding. We’re grateful for our garden and the multiple delights it offers. Truly, as Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, the gardener develops a relationship with the land, and as in human relationships, when you give yourself to it, you see directly how the land nurtures and cares for you, how it loves you back through all the many gifts it brings forth.
Wonderful teachers, plants, help us understand the value of watering what we want to grow, making sure it has adequate light, the benefit of good soil, and allow us to comprehend how growth takes time; you have to be patient. It is a pleasure to watch vines lengthen, berries develop, and then to wait a few years for adequate growth to have enough berries to make a pie.
From the delight of dew on cabbage heads to illuminated lettuce leaves, the garden is full of beauty. Not everyone can grow their own food. It takes time and people have a lot of demands on their time. You also need earth close by that you can work in. Many of us live in heavily urban areas and aren’t able to be near land for gardening. Even a planter box on the window sill, however, can be restorative and bring us into a connection to the cycle of nature larger than the workaday world.
If this isn’t possible, then hopefully you can find time each day to go outside and savor the sun on your face, absorb the sky’s expanse, and notice the natural world around you, inhaling for a minute or two perhaps, as you stand by your door ready to enter the morning’s world, as you return from some place you’ve been, or as you sit by an open window in your home or work space. Allowing yourself these moments is to allow yourself to be held by the recognition that nature is wider than worries or fears we hold, bigger than our sorrows and our joys. It’s a gift to you can give yourself.
Cooking food from the garden and sharing that food with others is to become part of the interchange of care and nurturance. To expand this love of the earth’s abundance, my husband, Michael, and I are developing recipes with foods mentioned in my book A Space Between that I’m working to put into a small electronic cookbook. Michael cooks with his heart and the dishes he makes are as good as poetry. The food from the recipes is absolutely delicious.
Michael and I will be reading from A Space Between this Thursday, 1 October, 5:00 pm Pacific time for approximately 25 minutes. We will be reading on Zoom as part of the Poets Circle in connection with the Watsonville Public Library, here in Santa Cruz County. Follow this link to connect to join. Our reading will be followed by a second reader, Terra Summers.
Barry Lopez in his children’s book, Crow and Weasel writes, “Remember on this one thing, said Badger. The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memories. This is how people care for themselves. ”
Quiero sentarme donde la rima no me alcance lejos de bordes y límites, métodos y axiomas. Donde dos más dos sea cualquier cosa menos cuatro. Donde el ser fluido se mezcle con todo y nada se acuerde de lo que es. … I´d like to sit where rhyme cannot reach me far from edges and limits, methods and axioms. Where two plus two is anything but four. Where fluid self mixes with everything and nothing remembers what it is.
–excerpt from Virginia Francisco’s, Like The Comet
The lines from Francisco’s poem above describe a self so completely connected to her surroundings that she merges with it, borders dissolved. How do we live a life that comes from a place of inner wholeness, that is in process of working toward unity with the world around us? We hear many voices in our world, often with opposing viewpoints, stating they are giving us the truth. Though we might have been raised in a particular way, as we age and come in to contact with other traditions, experience other cultures or other people’s ways of thinking and living, our picture of what the world is and how it works can grow less sharply defined. Instead of experiencing a sense of unity, we live in a place of inner dissonance. We might wonder how to see clearly again and ponder if we’re going blind or whether our vision is merely changing, the focus of the lens readjusting as we enter into a larger understanding of the world.
I’ve been sitting on my front porch in the morning, practicing being still. Eyes closed, I listen, and am noticing how the borders of sound are not firmly defined with specifically shaped form and edges. Sound is elastic. It bounces, reverberates, and stretches into diminishment, is more like the fading of light at sunset. As I listen, leaves rub against one another and grass rustles. Panting dogs run up the nearby road. Prayer flags flap overhead. Bees hum intermittently as they move among the borage in the planter bed. Sounds surface I earlier wasn’t aware of, and my thoughts turn to my sister who has been losing her sight to a rare disease that causes the eyes’ cones to stop functioning. How differently she negotiates now through every environment in the loss of sight. I think of her many adjustments to a new way of living and consider my own blindness in understanding what that would feel like, be like. There are many worlds that fall below my awareness. I have so much learning to do. Blindness of the mind. Blindness of the heart. As William Stafford has written in “Ritual to Read to Each Other,” “the darkness around us is deep.”
Blindness isn’t limited to physical blindness. Last week I went to the Calaveras Big Trees State Park here in California. I’d wanted to visit the trees since first reading about them in Simon Schama’s book, Landscape and Memory while living in Singapore quite a few years ago. In his book, Schama tells about the “Discovery Tree,” a sequoia that was felled in 1853. The tree was so enormous it took three weeks to cut it down. After turning the giant sequoia into a stump, people put a gazebo over it, and danced on it. The fallen portion of the trunk also had a structure put over it and it was used as a bowling alley. (Drawings of the tree and photos of the area from the time period can be seen here.)
The motivation for cutting the tree was the desire to make money. As Frances E. Bishop and Judith Cunningham state on the Calaveras History site, “Captain William H. Hanford, president of the Union Water Company, viewed the Big Tree and envisioned a way to make a fortune by stripping the bark and sending it on tour to New York and Europe. The bark was exhibited first in San Francisco and then New York, where it was consumed in a fire.” Felling the tree to prove such amazing beings existed proved futile, however. Not only did people believe the tree’s enormous size was faked, felling the tree caused much of the trunk’s wood to shatter. According to the National Park Service site, because sequoias’ wood is brittle, as much as 75% of the tree’s wood can be wasted when it falls.
The felled “Discovery Tree” measured 25 ft in diameter and the ring count ring count showed the tree to be 1,244 years old. Had it been left alive, some scientists say it would be today the largest living thing on earth other than the mycelia that is found beneath the earth’s surface.
When I saw the “Discovery Tree’s” stump, I was awed at its stupendous size and moved by the beauty in the turns of wood at the ancient trunk’s base. At the same time, I felt appalled and grief-stricken at what had been purposefully carried out. A portion of the fallen trunk that had been used as a bowling alley rested on the ground a short distance away. Sequoias have an average life span of 2,000 years but can live as much as 3,000 years. Looking at its enormous girth lying on the ground inert knowing very well it might still be living, I felt remorse that something so rare and wonderful was cut down for such frivolous reasons.
A second famous tree in the North Grove area of the park is called the “Mother of the Forest.” D. A. Plecke on the Cathedral Grove website states the tree was named for its graceful form. This tree also was destroyed upon discovery by people of European decent. In 1854 a scaffold was built to the height of 120 feet, and the tree was stripped of its bark, an act which destroys the tree. The bark was sent first to New York then onward to London in an attempt to make money, as well as to prove that trees as gargantuan as these exist. People who hadn’t seen the trees in person, however, didn’t believe they were real, and their views didn’t change after being presented with the physical evidence. The bark was put on display at the Crystal Palace in the UK but was destroyed by a fire in 1866. The tree was 2,520 years old, 305 feet high, and had a 63 feet circumference.
Walking among the sequoias, standing at the foot of the gargantuan wall of their trunks, one can’t help but feel both humbled, and speechless. Though nature is a refuge for our spirits and trees are a boon to our lives, little seems to have been understood about the value of trees’ living presence. We know things about trees now that weren’t understood in 1853. Among other things, they reduce asthma and depression, as well as help lengthen our life span. Trees’ benefit to our lives and complex nature are only recently growing to be understood. Even though this is true, it’s still difficult to understand why it would seem like a good idea to destroy these enormous, magnificent and ancient trees.
Cutting these giant sequoias demonstrates a blindness regarding the value of the trees’ lives. As Leo Hickman states in his article, “How a giant tree’s death sparked the conservation movement 160 years ago,” at the time the trees were cut, Americans believed nature was theirs to exploit. Nevertheless, there were at least those who felt enough outrage at felling these trees that an effort to save other remaining trees was made. Deforestation didn’t cease, however, as these images from 1915 depict. Today, according to the Save the Redwoods League, only 5 % of the original redwood forests survive. Our blindness continues.
Plant blindness, the inability to see plants and to recognize them is real, is a term coined by Elisabeth Schussler and James Wandersee. People tend to live outside of an awareness of trees and plants precious, life-giving presence. As mammals, our brains more readily pay attention to those things similar to us. Because of this, we don’t tend to see the plants in our environment. A botanist and biology educator, Schussler explains “humans can only recognise (visually) what they already know.” Few today are involved in nurturing plants, and plants are also nonthreatening. As a result, plants tend to blend into a background of green and people mostly ignore them.
We need wood for buildings, tools, furniture, fuel, and paper. But trees, and plants in general, are also important beyond their utilitarian function. What appears to be missing in our awareness as we use wood, as well as other resources, is a connection between our use of resources and our responsibility to the greater community of life–a foundation of respect for the natural world that sustains our life. As Richard Powers in his book Overstory states, “What you make from a tree should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.”
In Thailand, the culture has a tradition of erecting spirit houses when humans choose to purposefully change the land or do something that alters its natural state. Spirit houses are physical embodiments of a cultural recognition that when land is built on, the life energy of the land and all it sustained is disturbed. There is an acknowledgement that one’s actions have consequences for others beyond what is seen. Spirit houses are a beautiful expression of an awareness of human interdependence with nature. In America, some people celebrate Earth Day and Arbor Day, giving recognition to the earth’s gifts, but these are one day events rather than a practice or a continuing way of seeing or interacting with the natural environment. What stories or practices might help our eyes be opened to see how the sanctity of human life depends on respect and care for life in other forms?
We are born into and grow in a particular environment or environments. Life is a long process of learning who we are, what the world is, and what our relationship to it is. While life differs from place to place and culture to culture, some form of loving our neighbors is found in beliefs around the world. Plants are most certainly our neighbors. Perhaps now could be a good time to get to know our plant neighbors better and to explore more of how we belong together in the world, and the joy a relationship with them brings. We don’t have to remain plant blind. We can start with learning the names of plants outside our door and in our neighborhood and discover what is native to our area. This website gives links as well as book titles with information to help you identify and learn about plants in various world regions. Here is a website for the US to help you do that, and also a plant database to help you learn about native plants of North America based on their characteristics. As Mary Oliver writes in her poem, “Don’t Hesitate,”
We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world…
…whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.
…you and I each
carry the other in a gesture here,
a phrase there, a sudden burst of laughter,
and we have changed one another
in ways we may never recognize
and these mountains are our witnesses.
–Michael L. Newell, from “Of Goodbyes, Memories and Eidolons”
Sumac, horned toads, lizards, hawks, jack rabbits, and hills covered in wild grass strewn with granite boulders, these were inhabitants in the desert homeland where I grew up in San Diego County.
I spent many hours wandering grassy hillsides of pungent perfume with wildflowers as a child, looking out across a wide valley to hills in the far distance. Those moments in quiet solitude indelibly shaped my sense of home. The world I knew as a child was a narrow one. We didn’t go anywhere on vacations, and though we lived twenty something miles from the ocean, our family went there but a few times, and only occasionally visited the Cuyamaca mountains, though they, too, were only a little over an hour’s drive away. We were people who stayed at home. As a result, the natural landscape was our companion, a blanket we wrapped ourselves in—a place we repeatedly explored. It was an open space to wander and explore, a place of deep connection.
There is much to be said for the wonder of desert lands—the Earth’s exquisite beauty is revealed there with such openness. Deserts bring us in direct contact with Earth’s elemental form, the magnificence of mineral essence. Nevertheless, listening to stories about other parts of the US and learning about the world beyond the borders of my understanding, my curiosity grew. With the wish to experience something of the way others lived and saw the world, I left Southern California, moved to the Midwest, then to Northern California, and eventually moved abroad, where I lived and worked in six different countries over a period of twenty-six years.
Each place I’ve lived had recurring scents unique to that particular location. In Delhi, where I lived for nine years, smoke, Hexol, and paint fumes were dominant scents. In a city of 20 million, where approximately 200 thousand are homeless, in winter months people burn whatever they can find to keep warm—including wood from the forest on the ridge near Buddha Park, garbage, dung, and plastic. The smell of smoke in evenings was strong, often overpowering. Because of difficulty breathing, in addition to running three air purifiers in the apartment at all times, each night we’d put masking tape around our doors and pushed towels up under the door to help keep smoke out. When my husband and I returned to California each summer after teaching in Delhi, we’d spend a lot of time weeding in our garden, renewing planter beds, watering, and generally nurturing things back to life again. On the far side of our planter beds a stand of redwoods rise up from a gulch. One afternoon, while hunched over pulling weeds in the blackberry patch, the redwoods’ loam released a perfume—a warm woodsy, clean fragrance that felt nearly magical. I stopped what I was doing, stood up, and inhaled deeply. The scent was light and hung in the air, an offering of only a few fleeting moments. Then it was gone. Awareness of beauty is often raised by experiencing its absence. Inhaling the redwoods’ perfume after living for years in Delhi where I would never find such a scent, my heart opened to this gift from the trees and held it as a kind of sacramental moment.
One fallen redwood leaf by itself, doesn’t create the perfume that stopped me from my work to acknowledge the trees’ presence. Such perfume arises as the result of thousands upon thousands of leaves that have built up over time in collaboration with the afternoon’s heat. Deep presence is an accumulated practice of letting go, a perfume of spirit, blessing all who are near.
Deciding to return to the US after living abroad for nearly three decades, many people asked, “Why now?” One of the central reasons was to reconnect to the land in a more integral way. There was more life to be lived, different lives to inhabit, and I wanted to step inside a new way of being. Life overseas opened many wonders and offered new insights. Returning to live beside trees and near wild space, however, would allow me to let go of firmly fixed schedules, dig my hands into the earth, and allow myself time to discover a slower, different rhythm where I might encounter a deeper truth about living and inner space could expand.
In his poem, “Estrangement,” from his new book, Wandering, Michael L. Newell writes, “I have lived so long among strangers / that I have become strange to myself.” Returning home after so long a sojourn is to find myself in the words of Newell’s poem. Entering in again to life in the country I was born into, refamiliarizing as well as familiarizing myself newly with its history and land, I’m made aware, again, of the contradictions between America’s actions and its ideals.
The place and earth we call home wants to be known, cared for and nurtured so it can continue to regenerate. Nevertheless, as reported by the National Geographic, among other things, the current US president during his office has given the go ahead to increased logging, reduced restrictions for clean air, and narrowed the definition of what constitutes clean water, as well as sold land belonging to national monuments to private businesses for mining and drilling, There is a long history of this way of thinking, as Lucille H. Brockway describes in her article, “science and colonial expansion: the role of the British Royal Botanic garden,” clarifying how Britain, (and the West in general) sought to manipulate plants and saw them primarily a way to advance their country economically and to control trade. The disunity we’re experiencing now in the US, resulting from centuries of ongoing oppression, fear and the anxiety reaches beyond the US borders to the world at large. Human oppression is not unrelated to Western culture’s treatment of the natural world.
As Robin Wall Kimmerer says in her talk on Emergence Magazine, when you nurture the land, it expresses back to you its love in the life it gives you. This is true in human relationships as well. One of the poem’s in Newell’s book, “That Hand Which Was Never Withdrawn,” describes a child’s heartbreak and anger after experiencing a painful fight between his parents the previous day. The father, picking the child up from school reaches out to him, still in pain.
“We must talk sooner or later.” His voice
was barely audible. “I hate you,” I said. “I hate you
and will never talk to you again.” I glanced at him:
his face caved in, his eyes lost down the country road.
His voice floated up from some deep cavern or well
where people go when pain is too great for daylight.
“Michael, you will be my son for years. No matter
what you say or do, you will always be my son.
And I love you.”
The poem poignantly speaks to our humanness, to our loss and brokenness, how difficult it is to transform ourselves in the midst of painful events, challenges, and histories that have hurt and divided us. We can see this in the child’s harsh words, “I…will never talk to you again,” words whose pain echoes in the father’s heart as his eyes drift down the road, before his voice lifts from the depths of his own wounded heart. The beautiful thing that occurs in this exchange, however, is the father doesn’t react in anger or spite. Neither does he deny the wounding that has occurred. Instead, he extends his love and tells his child, ‘“…No matter / what you say or do, you will always be my son. And I love you.”’ There is such tenderness given here, such wisdom.
Both our human relationships and the land we live on shape and change us, helping to create the home we live in in our minds and hearts. Whether speaking of human relationships or the natural world, renewal and healing requires us to look deeply at the conditions that bring destruction, as well as the causes of oppression, fear and brokenness in the world around us, and then to work to rebuild relationships on foundations that allow both humans the natural world to flourish. Affirming relationships, as the father did in Newell’s poem rather than feeding the pain and anger, creates a bridge to meet each other on and begin anew.
Leaves don’t drop they just let go,
And make a place for seeds to grow
Every season brings a change,
A seed is what a tree contains,
To die and live is life’s refrain
What needs to be let go of in our actions or way of thinking again and again like the leaves of the redwood? What hinders our fullness and prevents our lives from being like the redwoods whose accumulated fallen leaves release the perfume of our transformed selves so that on days when someone who happens to be near can unbend from the strain of their hunched labor and inhale life’s blessing?
Note: Michael L. Newell’s book, Wandering, can be ordered through Bookshop Santa Cruz, as well as through Amazon.
“Italians just want to welcome people by sharing what they have, however simple, in abundance. An Italian’s role in life is to feed people. A lot. We can’t help it.” —Giorgio Locatelli, Made in Italy, Food and Stories
One of my earliest memories is of my mother making bread, her mixing the ingredients, kneading it, and forming it later into dome-shaped buns. I loved the yeasty tang of the raw dough she sometimes allowed me to taste before baking, and how the bread’s aroma filled the house while cooking and as she pulled the golden-brown loaves from the oven.
When living in Turkey, bread was available from the local bakery fresh every day. Buying two loves was requisite, as with a loaf of warm bread in hand on a cold day and its beckoning aroma rising from the loaf, it was nearly impossible to get home without eating a portion of what was supposed to be available for the next day’s meals. Walking to work in the morning while living in Izimir, loaves of bread could be found in bags tied to the people’s front door so that those who didn’t have enough, could be sure to get their daily bread.
Bread baking is an ancient art. As Theresa Machemer describes in her recent article in the Smithonian, “The World’s Oldest Bread is Rising Again,” bread was made in ancient Egypt 5,000 years ago. Recently, yeast spores from Egyptian artifacts have been brought to life again to make bread, and it’s reported to be delicious.
The perfect combination of flavor, crumb, and crust is what a baker looks for when making bread. At the Bread Library in Belgium, people are collecting sourdoughs from around the world and explore various techniques of making breads with sourdoughs. You can get a virtual tour of people’s breadmaking expertise in a variety of countries here.
San Francisco is famous for its sourdough bread, began when spunky little critters of wild yeast got inside miners’ bread starter and began fermentation. Wild yeast naturally finds its way into your bread when you leave the starter out on the counter. When Italians immigrated to America, some brought with them their bigas, their bread starters. Their bigas imbued with yeast from their home locations fused with the yeasts found in the areas they settled in. The bread the immigrants made was thus a fusion of the old world and and the new.
At my house, we’re experimenting with cooking various foods mentioned in my book, A Space Between, with the intention of sharing recipes. Naturally, bread is one of those recipes, as it is a basic food. While we were living in London several years back, my husband began his starter. Each time he bakes bread, he sets his starter out on the counter for a few hours. When the grapes start coming on the vine this summer, he plans to set the starter out beneath the arbor to collect some of the wild yeast. This is how you can begin your starter.
½ cup wheat
½ cup white flour
Water enough to make a thick batter, added a little at a time.
Place in a quart jar on the counter. Cover it with a cheese cloth and place a rubber band around the jar’s opening.
One day later mix a small quantity of flour and water and feed the starter. Leave the jar sitting on the counter.
On day three feed the starter again the same way. By the end of the third day you should see bubbles in the starter. Leave the jar sitting on the counter.
On the fourth day, remove some of the starter from the jar and feed the starter again. Leave the jar sitting on the counter.
Save what was removed and place it in a small container. Place this in the refrigerator.
Feed the starter again on the fifth day.
Next day, make bread using one cup of the starter.
Every time you take starter out to make bread (or pancakes or muffins,) feed the starter an amount equal to what you took out.
When baking bread, use what you need, feed the starter again, leave it out on the counter for a couple of hours and put the lid back on the jars. Then, place them in the refrigerator.
As I write, a loaf of walnut rosemary bread with parmesan crust just came out of the oven. My husband, Michael, loves cooking and loves sharing food with others. He has coached a number of people through getting their starters going and making their first loaves of bread. Bread making is less of a science and more of an art, he says. You learn to make it with your hands and heart, through observation and taste.
Below is Michael’s recipe.
What I do is I fed the starter the day before (this is key to having your starter really active), then the next day I put 2 cups of the starter into a bowl with a cup of flour and a little bit of beer and stir until smooth like heavy pancake batter. The beer is a medium heavy amber that I made, and I usually save the bottom of the bottle to do bread (It’s kind of like putting a little sugar in the dough which you could do instead.)
Feeding the starter. The day before makes the yeast in your starter really active and this really helps. I let that sit in the bowl with saran wrap over it for three or four hours until it gets really active just like when you feed it; it usually doubles + in volume. I have started doing this at mid-day now, so it peaks just after dinner or a bit later.
At this point I mix in another 2 cups of flour and a bit more water and salt to taste. I sometimes add a bit of organic cider vinegar too, but not always. You do want the dough to be a bit sticky as bread dough goes.
Once the dough is mixed up, knead it for a fairly short time (2-3 min.) on a floured surface and put it into a heavy pan that has been greased and floured like you are baking a cake. (I have been doing this step without flour using my bread scraper and just folding and folding.) Lately, I’m baking the bread in a triple wall stainless steel bowl inside my Dutch oven which adds steam without putting an extra pan of water in the oven. I put the bowl of dough into the refrigerator overnight to rise, covered tightly with saran wrap so the sourdough can do its work.
The next morning the dough will be at the top of the bowl. I sometimes let it warm up and rise a bit more depending on how the overnight rise has been. I preheat the oven to 460 degrees then turn it down to 415 for the last 15 minutes (but last time I tried 500 then turned it down to 450 for the last 15 min and liked the crust with the hotter oven.)
Once it hits temperature, I slit the dough with a sharp knife (some say use a razor blade) and carefully put the stainless-steel bowl with the dough into the castiron pot with the lid on for 30 minutes. I don’t preheat the Dutch oven because it’s only a matter of time working with a 500-degree piece of cast iron that you are going to burn yourself! I take the lid off for another 15 minutes more to brown up the crust. I leave the bread in the oven after I turn it off with the door open so the crust gets nice and crispy as the oven cools down. The tough part is waiting for the bread to cool down so you can try it. I’ve used this with the four variations of flour, and it comes out every time!
When I feed the starters, I usually have to pour some off, so it doesn’t overflow. I make pancakes or muffins from that occasionally.
Placing the bread on its side like this while it cools keeps the cut portion of the bread from drying out.
Making bread is a way to connect us not only to ancient cultures and to foods that have nurtured us for millennia, but a way to physically connect with the relationships that create the fabric of living. In my life, as is true for many, bread connects us to the community of others we sit at a table with, those whose lives we share and give ourselves to. In whatever form, whether steam buns made from rice flour, a grandmother’s rye, or sourdough, to break and eat bread together is to participate in a communal experience.
In participating in these shared experiences of living, we create relationships that reach beyond time.
She held me in her arms
like stone. She was rock
and everything about her
except for the fact that
every movement she
made was bent toward
around. I was the small
pebble in her palm, the one
she rubbed against
She set the model before me,
but she was the rock I shaped
my life from. Today, her life
to gravel, when I lean to kiss
her good night. I tell her
“I love you,” and she holds
me firm, repeating one
of her two remaining sentences,
“We really do need our cereal,”
as if to mean “I love you.”
She won’t let go.
I hold her in my arms, rocks
in my throat. She knows
the foundation she has
The flint hidden in her
but this: The bread of life.
Imagination opens again to earth. We believe in bees, the wild rose’s grail filled with summer…–from “In Late Winter,” Thomas R. Smith
The world has changed. Worldwide we feel it. It has been changing all along, but in the solitude of our current sheltering in place situation, we feel it more distinctly. I wash my hands or cook food and consciously consider the scarcity of everything I have, and contemplate the multitude of unknown and unseen people throughout the world who have cooperated in order for me to have the food I eat, pen and paper I use, books I read–packaging and transportation included. This is no simple thing.
Though each of us have different approaches to coping with the shelter in place, if we didn’t recognize it before, we recognize now that we literally depend on each other’s work and actions for survival. Because of the variety of perspectives, insights, knowledge, and skills found in the larger community, we have the strength to hold each other up and to meet problems. Our need to depend on each other is bigger than what divides us.
As a child, I grew up in a home in a rural area with parents who lived during the Great Depression. They knew how to live on sparse resources. We grew food in a garden, and we had an orchard. My mother gave us haircuts, sewed our clothes, and also wore hand me down clothing my great aunt sent in boxes that my mother resized or remade for us. We lived minimally, learned to care for things so they would last, as well as to save, repurpose and recycle. I’m glad to have had as a model my parents who had many skills for fixing things and making things by hand.
While living abroad, my husband and I grew small gardens in pots and containers on windowsills and balconies, and while living in India, had a small plot in a community garden as well. Living in California again now, we have a garden once more where we’ve built raised beds. When we first returned home, the yard was filled with weeds. We had built some of the raised beds earlier as well as a grape arbor, and a place for berries, but in our absence, weeds grew prolifically, even though we periodically had someone weed.
It has been hard work, a long process of pulling weeds, creating compost, filling the beds with new soil and compost, saving seeds, watering, learning about what kinds of light various plants need, and how to prune them, but the physical rewards of working in the soil and watching things grow into blossom, fruit, and vegetables is a continuing delight. Recently, I dug weeds out of new areas in the garden and planted the many flower seeds left from plants last year. We just planted arugula, berries, beans, cilantro, collard greens, pickling cucumbers, kale, lettuce, onion, peas, squash, and tomatoes. The grape vines are beginning to bud, and the lemons are ready to pick. It’s a joy to see on the front porch in the morning listening to the bees and hummingbirds at work, and to see the visible evidence of physical work. In his poem, “Morning Song,” Don Colburn writes,
Spring is the dangerous season, awakening
this bee-crazed meadow to overgrowing-
and in me awe, and ache, avid to begin
like birds and the earth all over.
It doesn’t have to be spring to watch a bee-crazed garden, light illuminating flowers and the undersides of leaves as if living works of art. Cloudy days and rain filled days are good too, each bring their own mood.
Laura Spinney explains in her article in the Guardian, “It takes a whole world to create a new virus, not just China,” that the pandemic we’re currently experiencing “wouldn’t emerge in food markets if it wasn’t for factory farming, globalized industry, and rapid urbanization.” Humans have pushed further and further into wild places. industrialized farming in China has pushed millions of smallholder farmers, in order to survive, “into the production of more exotic species – animals that were once eaten only for subsistence. But the bigger operations have pushed the farmers out geographically too, as they have taken up more prime farming land. The smallholders have been forced closer to uncultivable zones such as forests, where bats – reservoirs for coronaviruses – lurk.” What we eat, our lifestyle choices are costly, Spinney explains. It’s a systemic problem. The globalization of farming industries have marginalized the majority of the world’s farmers, and we are all bearing the cost.
Growing our own food is a creative act, connecting us in a relationship to the earth and its cycles. We understand this in a new way with the effort it takes to garden and grow your own food, and it is a way to come back into a healthy, life-giving relationship with the natural world. When I garden, I often remember what I learned years ago when beginning my own garden for the first time, as I describe in this poem.
What You Planted –for Michael
Years ago, you knelt
in the garden’s dark soil,
tucking them into the earth
one by one,
“You’ve got to treat them
gently, as if they are
your babies,” then you
pulled a blanket of loam
the next seed
and tamped it down.
reached into the earth’s
Just as artists give themselves creative challenges, time in confined space can push us in new directions, allow new creative exploration. Gardens have requirements. If you want certain things to grow, you have to take care of them by renewing the soil, giving them with adequate water, continuous weeding out of what you don’t want so the plants producing food, fruit and beauty can flourish.
During this time indoors, I hope you’re able to find a way to plant a seed and grow something on your window ledge, on your balcony, or if you’re able to, in your back yard. While you’re waiting to go outside again, you will be nurturing something that grows and gives you sustenance. If you can’t order seeds to grow something or have no space, perhaps you will find some other way to allow the stillness to quietly nurture your imagination so that when doors are able to open again to the outside, you will be like the rose in Thomas R. Smith’s poem above, a grail filled with summer’s abundance.