The sun will set soon. Birds come to the feeder. Each bird is magnificent. Each bird is weird. How did the birds get so weird? A bright red head, spiky tufts, yellow eyes, pink feet, hidden fluorescence, the ability to fly. How did the word "weird" get so weird?
And my hands, they are also weird. I'm watching the weird world, the weird birds when a thought arrives from nowhere. What if I've been dead for a long time? What if I've been dead my whole life?
If I am dead, the strangeness of existence is momentarily comprehensible. I catch a glimpse or scent of our dispersed worlds, this place without border, boundary, pain, or punctuation. This place where we are all intimately mixed up with one another. My branch, your book. His leg, her light. All the elements my body and your body have known: a mountain boulder, sediment in the sea, an underground pebble, sand. Everything is ancient, small, and eternal. More birds arrive. More birds leave. My children are playing in the yard. They jump, shriek, and pretend to be something other than their current forms. I hear them speak and, as if waking, my specifics come to collect my body back into being a mother, sister, daughter, wife, friend, a woman who is alive, reading a book outside before dusk. In the yard, I shake off enough deadness to go make dinner. My arms feel stronger with the memory of the rocks that make me.
—from The Unwritten Book by Samantha Hunt
I do a thing almost every day that clears my mind of mealy screentime thoughts, nagging self-doubts or generic malaise.
It's a practice that helps immensely when my little life feels separate and cut-off from the rest. For when the to-do list feels all-mighty and the wrong things are important.
It's simple, really.
I lie with my legs up the side of the bed at a 45-degree angle, my lower limbs an edgy shape from a game of Tetris. My arms lie off to either side like a paper doll. I settle. It's highly likely my big old lab, Elvis, will lie directly onto my hand with an ummph. The cat will come and sniff my forehead, and a small cluster of hives will follow where her nose touched the skin. I set the timer for 10 minutes, close my eyes and choose something massive to ponder.
Could be the deep sea ocean and its wild creatures with those bioluminescent appendages. Could be the cosmos with its hundreds of millions of stars and a planet made of diamonds.
These days, however, are full of springtime magic and I’ve been thinking a ton about landscaping and gardening. And dirt. So, this morning as I lie there, I allow dirty thoughts to circulate and cluster in the bowl of my mind.
Like a thing I recently read about how are with size, form, and history. Just like a water body has water, fish, plants, and other parts, a soil body is an integrated system containing soil, rocks, roots, animals, and other parts.
A soil BODY? With size, form and history? Oh the poetry!
This makes me think of a cemetery we used to drive by all the time when Opal was young. Once, at six-years-old, she asked me, “So is that whole place full of dead bodies?” She was matter-of-fact, same as if she were asking for a cornbread recipe.
I told her something to the effect of, well, yes, dead bodies are meant to decompose and go back into the earth to feed new life.
"They just put the bodies right in the dirt?" No, not exactly. They are in a big thick box called a casket.
"Well that’s dumb," she said. "Do you have to use the box?"
I’d forgotten all about that insightful conversation until now.
I learned once-upon-a-time (then corroborated online from the Soil Science Society of America, who, I'm guessing, would be a blast to have a beer with): more organisms live in the soil than above ground. Even just a handful of soil contains millions of living things. (!!) There are thousands of species of worms, decomposers, bugs and even mammals that call the soil home. The ground beneath our feet is teeming with life and death.
We recently had a hardscaping crew come and create some semblance of order in our backyard, which had been ripped apart last year during renovations. They laid gravel and built a patio and set up a retaining wall. At one point, they asked me if we wanted to keep the two rose bushes by the back fence. The roses were trimmed way down and I appreciated that they even noticed them. I planted them in 2007, our first summer in this house. The roots were well-established, at least I assume, and the roses were work-horses, prevailing even though I often forget to water.
This deconstructed rose garden is also the place where we have buried two fish, a chicken, a guinea pig, and a strange little hairless mole-rat that Elvis found one hot summer afternoon. Those once-sentient bodies are all presumably long-decomposed into the ground, back to the earth and the soil system. There is a high likelihood that segments from any one of those animals have reconfigured and fed into the roots of the roses that we trim and put in jelly jars on our table. A bit of Lightening, Opal's first sweet guinea pig, may be woven into the petals.
Another one of my favorite dirt-topics to deliberate over is the Wood Wide Web. Most certainly nature's perfect earthy antidote to the actual internet-web that takes us, as a species, further and further from the roots and dirt-under-the-nails of our ancestors. The Wood Wide Web is a sophisticated communication system that ever-unfolds below the soles of our shoes. Mother trees send nutrients to their saplings through underground root networks, and dying trees offer their resources back to the group. There is also a dark side to the underground tree culture, including sabotage and hacking the network for nutrients. I love to think about the trees holding hands under the dirt like teenage lovers playing footsie under the dinner table.
Just yesterday after school, Ruth kicked off her shoes to dig her toes into the playground sand and then did a series of cartwheels, shoe-less, across the soccer field. I joined her for the bare-feet portion, as this was one of the first warm spring days. Sun-softened blades of grass, dirt with a bit of give here, some squish there, a rocky bit there. If you'd have asked me what I was so concerned about on my way to picking up Ruth from school, I would legitimately not have been able to tell you.
Fact is, there is a natural antidepressant in soil. Certain microbes in soil genuinely result in the production of higher levels of serotonin. Oh happy day! We have always said Ruth is happiest when she is digging in the dirt and covered in mud. Clearly, she is dialed in to the concept of grounding.
So I lie there for my ten sacred minutes as it snows outside (Colorado and her strange springtime ways!) and settle my mind on this wildly alive and complex planet that gravity seals me to. With each passing minute, as Elvis humidifies my right ear with his panting, my own life and my own issues grow wonderfully tiny through the lens. The timer goes off and I return to laundry and dishes and pick-ups, thinking of bare feet and shade gardens and pruning and dirt beneath my nails like medicine. I have been re-knitted into something more vast than before.
As Samantha Hunt said, My arms feel stronger with the memory of the rocks that make me.