“Paying attention is a form of reciprocity with the living world, receiving the gifts with open eyes and open heart.” –Robin Wall Kimmerer
Sometimes, it takes a long time to see something. Maybe you’ve looked at something before and recognized it, but really seeing it can be a different thing altogether. Painting on silk, as Ann Pervinkler does, the artist has to pay attention to shape, angle, blending of color and use of space, but more than that, an artist wants what she’s painting to come alive–to have spirit and life. When I saw Ann’s turtle pillow, I felt the turtle was swimming right to me, and immediately thought of my experience some years back while snorkeling beside a turtle in Sri Lanka.
When I first saw the turtle, I was elated since I’d never before swam so closely alongside such a large turtle. It seemed the size of a small, round picnic table! It moved through the water with grace and ease. Close enough to easily touch the turtle, I began to see it in a new way. You can watch this video version of the poem as I read it to the accompaniment of Kanako Fukumoto on the violin and Satsuki Fujishima on piano, (“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” by A. Senju/ Kimi wo Shinjite.) The turtle in the video was filmed by Marina Goodyear in Malapascua, Philippines.
The Curious Turtle
She wasn’t like other turtles plowing along the ocean bottom tearing up coral with her beak.
She didn’t hide under a rock when I swam by for fear of what I might do. No.
She held intently her full mouth of food as the surge swept her. Trailing a string of bright bubbles she paddled straight to me, placed her face with its glistening eye next to mine and peered into me.
I stared into her eyes’ gleaming depth, her gaze a recognition. Somehow, she knew me.
The universe spinning through its layers of mystery, I’d entered another world, felt how Eve must have felt in the garden before the fall, naked, vulnerable and scintillatingly alive.
When we give ourselves to something with our full attention, looking with the eyes of our heart, we see the world anew. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote in The Little Prince, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Not a mere backdrop we are moving through, when we look at at something or someone with the eyes of the heart, we become more aware of our interbeing with everything around us, the enormous wonder of reality.
In her 1982 essay, “Living Like Weasels,” Annie Dillard wrote about encountering a weasel and being “stunned into stillness…Our eyes locked, and someone threw away the key…the world dismantled and tumbled into that black hole of eyes.” Dillard’s description is very similar to my experience when the turtle’s eye met mine. I saw a depth there, felt what even might be called a wisdom. No longer merely an animal simply to identify and swim beside. I’d met another being with a history, a presence. When we looked in each other’s eyes, something in me woke up: the turtle’s life had depth and a way of knowing beyond my knowing–and one to learn from. I understood the turtle saw his life equally important to mine with his own interests and pursuits. Reality had expanded.
The encounter with the turtle was a gift, changing the way I see not only turtles, but animals and the natural world as a whole and my relationship to it. We can see the world as objects or we can look into the eyes of the world and see it as a marvel alive with presence.
Artists use their skill to help us see the world with the eyes of the heart to help us recognize the wonder that surrounds us that we might otherwise miss without their assistance in bringing it to our attention. Looking into the eyes of a live turtle paddling by, or into silky turquoise water the turtle Ann Pervinkler’s pillow swims through, or the tree branches rolling with wind along the road as you ride home from work–wherever you find yourself, the world is alive and is speaking. Open the eyes of your heart. Listen.
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. ”
…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.