Claire Anderson: Connection of Soils and Souls

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The Summer Day by Mary Oliver—

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?

The grasshopper I mean-

The one who has flung herself out of the grass

The one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

Who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down

Who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

At first my eyes are drawn to the big trees and bright wildflowers, the turquoise and purple rocks, the birds and bugs. Lastly, they settle on the soil I am sitting on.

We were told to observe our surroundings, so I sat staring at the soil for a while. Just looking at the dirt; searching for any sign of movement or life that I could have missed at first glance. I know there are tons of tiny bacteria and organisms moving around, influencing other essential parts of this ecosystem I’m sitting in, but I just don’t see it. I have difficulty taking time to myself to quiet my mind and pay attention to what’s around me, but the beginning of this course has sparked a conscious effort to reverse this. I want to attempt to acknowledge the processes I understand and more importantly, what I don’t understand, and the significance of relationships happening beneath my feet and all around that are unapparent to me. The soil offers so much more to me than what first meets the eye; a place to sit and reflect on what’s around me.

Our first reading on this course was about natural history and one of the eight steps to becoming a natural historian according to Thomas Lowe Fleischner is attentiveness. Fleischner explained this idea by quoting the poet John Haines, “passionate attention to the world—an attention to which the least detail has its instructive significance—is perhaps the most telling and important trait in our inheritance. Without it there is no art, no love, no possibility of domestic or political harmony. On it alone may rest our prospects for the future” (23).

I really like the phrase “passionate attention” that Haines uses. This suggests a more intense observation of detail that I don’t normally give to things. I’d say I’m good at giving passionate attention to people I care about, but not something like the soil. Yet, it is the soil that helps to sustain the people that I give passionate attention to. The things I pay passionate attention to tell a lot about me as a person, and the things I don’t pay passionate attention to may say even more about my understanding of the “instructive significance” of what I don’t see as important. By starting out with what I care about passionately, say it’s my family, and then paying attention to what sustains them, it is easy to see how connected to me and how precious these tiny bacteria and fungi and lichens in soil are. They strengthen the health of the soil that holds and nourishes the foods that are planted and harvested by farmers and sold to grocery stores or farmer’s markets where a cashier sells the food to my mom or dad, brother or grandma.

This is a very simplified example of how things are connected, but think about what would happen if we did this with everything we are passionate about. I’m a big fan of writing letters, I love having something tangible to give to others that contains words that reassure and affirm just how much they are loved and cherished. What are the resources and who are the people involved in helping me write these letters that are so important to me? I have to think about the paper I have, the person I purchased it from, who supplied it to the store, all the way back to the workers at the paper mill, loggers who cut down the trees, who right off the bat I would say I have no see-able connection to, down to the soil that sustained the tree that grew to give me paper to write my letters and sustain these connections with my people. These materials, people, and processes are absolutely linked to me and the people I know and it’s such a shame to forget that.

Harmony and progress comes through deep connections with each other and that can also be applied to the land. We don’t understand each other because we don’t take the time to sit and listen and quiet our own minds. In order to gain understanding we can have no preconceived notions or biased views of what we’re observing. It is just as important to pay attention and listen to the land as it is other people.

Paying attention to that last detail is hard. I walk over so much soil in my daily life, so much soil! And regardless of taking numerous environmental ethics classes that get me thinking about my connection with the land, I haven’t thought about this soil and all that it holds more than twice, if even that many times.

I think a lot about the poem The Summer Day by Mary Oliver, particularly the ending.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

Into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

How to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the field,

Which is what I have been doing all day,

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?

Realizing how little I actually know is overwhelming, but I know how to fall down in the grass, and stroll through a field. Coming upon new environments during our backpacking through the Scapegoat Wilderness, we’ve been asked to sit and use all of our senses to understand the new environment we’re in. These reflections have helped me to be idle.

Just by sitting still and letting my hands slide across smooth rocks and listening to individual water droplets gliding up the shore, I realize that just being open to the fact that I don’t understand how everything works, is half the battle.

So, I do not understand many of the connections that are essential to producing healthy soil and healthy crops, or how much detail and work goes into producing the materials I use every day. I am, however, figuring out how to be still and listen to the earth and realize that it has a lot to say and I just need to listen.

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