…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.
Carrie Newcomer writes in her song, “Leaves Don’t Drop They Just Let Go,”
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.